NBA Power Rankings: Who's Rising and Who's Falling Fast as Playoffs Approach
Now that my UCLA Bruins are out of March Madness—my hatred for gators grew three sizes that day—it's time for at least one sad scribe to turn his full attention back to the NBA.
(Also, so long, Kyle Anderson. Thanks for the memories.)
There's still plenty of NCAA tournament action to distract us from the Association, but really, why would we turn away? The San Antonio Spurs are rolling, the Philadelphia 76ers are doing what they've done all year, and teams on either end of the spectrum are battling for playoff seeding and lottery ping pong balls, respectively.
Let's not forget, either, that these power rankings are far from set. Last week's edition doesn't quite compare to the newest one; teams' overall records and current quality of play are always changing, and these here power rankings intend to reflect that fluidity.
Read on to see where all 30 teams fell in relation to one another as March draws to a close.
30. Philadelphia 76ers
Cleveland Cavaliers, you've got company. With a 120-98 loss to the Houston Rockets, the 2013-14 Philadelphia 76ers have officially tied the 2010-11 Cavs' record for consecutive losses with their 26th in a row.
If the Sixers want to avoid owning that record outright, they'll have to take down the Detroit Pistons on Saturday. Luckily for Philly, Detroit's not anywhere near the championship contender that Houston is quickly becoming.
29. Orlando Magic
Here's how you know the Orlando Magic are further along in their rebuild than the Sixers are in theirs: The team's competitive spirit has yet to be extinguished, even as the losses have piled up.
The Magic had seen their losing streak extend to nine games by way of an 0-4 swing through the Western Conference. That trip ended in particularly tough fashion, with a one-point loss in Utah and a nine-point shortfall to the Lakers in L.A.
But rather than give into the usual inertia that comes with returning home against a quality opponent—not to mention the side effects of "tanking"—Orlando turned its first game at Amway Arena in over a week, against the Portland Trail Blazers, into an opportunity to shine.
Tobias Harris and Nikola Vucevic combined for 47 points and 21 rebounds while taking advantage of Portland's depleted front line in a 95-85 win.
That is just what you'd expect from a team coached by Jacque Vaughn, who recently told Bleacher Report's Kevin Ding, "It's all geared toward getting the most out of your team, whether that's the first game of the year, whether that's playoff basketball. It just doesn't happen overnight."
28. Los Angeles Lakers
Ah, to be the Los Angeles Lakers. Just when you thought they might have what it takes to string together their second three-game winning streak of the season, they went into Milwaukee and handed the Bucks their 14th victory.
This was just two nights after annihilating the New York Knicks and four nights after outlasting Orlando. Of course, both of those games came at home, whereas the team's latest loss was logged outside of L.A.
It's a place where Mike D'Antoni may well be soon enough, if there's any truth to the latest rumors from CBS Sports' Jeff Borzello.
27. Milwaukee Bucks
Brandon Knight must love playing the Lakers.
On New Year's Eve, he scored a career-high 37 points to go along with eight rebounds, two assists and four steals to lead his Milwaukee Bucks to a win in L.A. On Thursday, Knight tallied 30 points and another "W" at the Lakers' expense.
Most seasons, Lakers fans would be sick of seeing Knight have huge games versus the Purple and Gold. This year, though, L.A.'s pursuit of the sort of pick for which Milwaukee is destined would be helped tremendously by more occasions for the young Buck to explode.
26. Utah Jazz
A word of advice to Trey Burke: Whatever you do, don't rip on your own fans!
Listen, Trey, I understand your frustration. Your game-winner for the Utah Jazz against the Magic on Saturday didn't exactly draw raucous applause from the home crowd. They'd rather you guys lose games to better the organization's draft position than win games that won't contribute to playoff qualification.
I can't say I disagree with your postgame comments. "I think that’s just selfish for a fan," the rookie point guard told The Salt Lake Tribune's Aaron Falk. "We play hard, practice hard every single day. Why would we go out there and try to lose? I just think wherever we do land in the lottery, that will be great for us. But to try to tank games and lose games is just absurd."
That's all well and good. Next time, though, do yourself a favor and avoid ripping on the fans directly if you can. Those folks in Salt Lake City are notorious for the rabidity of their fandom and don't take well to any scolding. If you're going to play in Utah for a while, you'd do well to stay on their good side.
25. Detroit Pistons
I don't blame Detroit Pistons fans for dreaming about Tom Izzo leaving East Lansing to save their sorry squad. And I don't blame Izzo for being indignant about the swirling of rumors, what with his Michigan State Spartans looking like potential NCAA champions and all.
I don’t even have an agent and my wife has not been contacted. I think it’s some guy sitting behind a computer that is one of my favorite human beings on the planet, which are those social media geeks which are sitting at a computer and just making up stories, and everybody says, "Well, you know their owner and he’s a Michigan State guy. ..."
I’ve never met Tom Gores, I’ve never talked to Tom Gores. I think somebody, maybe it’s Michigan fans are putting that out.
First of all, whoa there, Tommy. Just because folks like yours truly render our thoughts from the comfort of our own couches doesn't mean we're all so flippant as to fabricate reports. Leave that to all of those unnamed "sources" out there whose personal and professional agendas lead them to dispense misdirected nonsense.
Secondly, if Izzo doesn't want people talking about him jumping to the pros, he probably shouldn't leave the door for a move as open as he did. "I have no interest in coaching the Detroit Pistons right now …," he added. "Does that mean I’d never look at an NBA job? I don’t think any of us should ever say never. I’ve seen my good buddy Nick Saban say never and then he gets killed."
Yeah, except Saban lied about that not once, but twice.
Keep dreaming, Motor City. Your team probably isn't getting Izzo, but you never know.
(Says the guy sitting behind a computer.)
24. Boston Celtics
We all know Rajon Rondo can play the point, but how will he fare on the wing?
Doing radio, that is. Rather than sit on the bench during the second night of the Boston Celtics' back-to-back against the Chicago Bulls, Rondo will spend Monday night in the booth as a color commentator for CSNNE.
Just don't expect Rondo to reveal any particularly juicy secrets while he's on the mic—not if head coach Brad Stevens has anything to say about it, anyway. Stevens told the MetroWest Daily News' Scott Souza that he'll set some parameters for what his All-Star point guard can and cannot reveal on air.
Not that the C's have much to hide at this point. Their 23-48 record already has them well on their way to a plum lottery pick in the 2014 NBA draft. Giving away secrets wouldn't exactly put Boston in any worse position.
Let's hope Rondo comes up with other interesting topics of conversation, like, say, his favorite Connect Four strategies.
23. Sacramento Kings
Maybe, just maybe, DeMarcus Cousins is finally turning the corner from frustrating hothead to budding superstar.
Impressive performances are nothing new for Boogie, especially not this season. The 23-year-old's averaging career highs in nearly every major statistical category, save for free-throw percentage. Against the New York Knicks, Cousins hit all 12 of his foul shots as part of a 32-point, 15-rebound, eight-assist, two-block, two-steal masterpiece, albeit in a loss.
The bigger sign of Cousins' growth came last Friday, when he apologized to San Antonio Spurs commentator Sean Elliott for a confrontation from November 2012 that cost Cousins two games, per Mike Monroe of the San Antonio Express-News.
Surely, though, there are plenty of viewers at home who didn't mind DeMarcus ripping into Elliott, given all of the aural agony he's put them through during game-day broadcasts.
22. Denver Nuggets
Welcome back to the lottery, Denver Nuggets. For the first time since 2002-03, the Nuggets won't be participating in the playoffs. The San Antonio Spurs made sure of as much by defeating Denver on Wednesday, 108-103.
The Nuggets' non-qualification was a long time coming, though. The firing of head coach George Karl and the departures of Masai Ujiri and Andre Iguodala this past summer set the stage for this squad's failure to follow up last year's 57-win revelation with anything worthwhile. Season-ending injuries to Danilo Gallinari, JaVale McGee, Nate Robinson and J.J. Hickson only added to the misery, as did the intermittent absences of Ty Lawson and Wilson Chandler.
Not to mention Brian Shaw's old tiff with Andre Miller, though The Professor sounds ready to let bygones be bygones. "We both made mistakes," Miller told The Washington Post's Michael Lee of his conflict with Shaw. "That's just a part of the business when you're coming in, first-time coach and a veteran and me not approaching him and establishing a communication either way. It’s whatever. I’m glad to be where I’m at now."
Better than in Denver, where the home team's 10-year postseason streak is no more.
21. New York Knicks
The New York Knicks gained one game on the Atlanta Hawks during their season-high eight-game winning streak and promptly followed that up with demoralizing losses to the Cleveland Cavaliers and Lakers. So the Knicks' playoff hopes must be kaput...right?
Or not, for better or worse. The Hawks' loss on Thursday, combined with the Knicks' win in Sacramento on Wednesday, moved New York to within 1.5 games of the eighth and final postseason seed in the Eastern Conference.
Making up that sliver of ground may not seem like a big deal, since it'd essentially entitle the Knicks to a first-round whooping at the hands of the Indiana Pacers. But for Carmelo Anthony, who's yet to miss a postseason since turning pro, qualifying therein would make the misery of the 2013-14 well worth it.
"Absolutely," Anthony told The Wall Street Journal's Chris Herring after beating the Kings. "Once you in the playoffs, no one really looks at your record."
20. Atlanta Hawks
I know a first-round playoff series against the Indiana Pacers is far from enticing, but does anyone want to claim the No. 8 seed in the East?
The Atlanta Hawks certainly don't. Their 100-85 loss to the Portland Trail Blazers on Thursday was the Hawks' fifth in a row, just after winning five straight games...and losing 14 of 15 before that.
Each of those stretches has coincided with a substantive shift in the status of Atlanta's roster. This latest slide coincides with Kyle Korver's absence on account of a bad back. The sooner Korver's sweet shooting stroke returns to the fold, the sooner the Hawks can secure their playoff spot.
Lest the inconsistent Knicks wrest it from their control.
19. Washington Wizards
Good news for the Washington Wizards: Nene should be back in action soon. According to Yahoo Sports' Marc J. Spears, the Brazilian big man could return from a sprained right MCL after the first week of April.
Bad news: The Wizards could use him much sooner than that. They've lost four of their last five games to fall to 8-7 since Nene last suited up. Those 15 games have seen Washington surrender a whopping 46.1 points in the paint on average—the sixth most in that span, per NBA.com.
But hey, at least one thing with a connection of some sort to Nene has been doing well of late.
18. Cleveland Cavaliers
I don't care that I spilled precious virtual ink over Dion Waiters' rise in Kyrie Irving's absence. The latter's still hurt, the former is still shooting hot fire like he's playing NBA Jam, and the Cleveland Cavaliers are winning basketball games.
In fact, the Cavs owe their current three-game winning streak to him, at least in part. Waiters poured in 22 points against the Knicks at Madison Square Garden on Sunday, torched the Toronto Raptors for 24 points and seven assists on Tuesday, and hit a jumper at the buzzer to beat the Pistons on Wednesday.
Since sliding into the starting lineup in Irving's stead, Waiters has averaged 22.8 points, six assists and 3.7 rebounds in 40.7 minutes per game. That strong play may force the Cavs to decide, sooner rather than later, whether Waiters and Irving can coexist, or if the former has to go at some point.
17. Minnesota Timberwolves
Kevin Love is tired.
Tired of losing games. Tired of putting in serious work for his Minnesota Timberwolves without reward. Tired of missing the playoffs, which his team is bound to do for the sixth time since Love came into the NBA in 2008.
Frankly, it's a wonder that Love wasn't more dejected while sitting at his locker following Minny's loss in Memphis on Monday. The thought of opting out of his current contract in 2015—or, perhaps, forcing the T-Wolves to trade him before then—might be all that stands between Love and a full-blown meltdown.
16. New Orleans Pelicans
This is what you want to see at the end of the season from a team like the New Orleans Pelicans. Where most young teams might pack it in, with the playoffs long since beyond their reach, the Pels have responded by winning four in a row—all against likely playoff teams, no less.
Hope certainly isn't a tough thing to muster when you have Anthony Davis working his magic on a nightly basis. The 21-year-old stud posted back-to-back 30-10 games against the Atlanta Hawks and the Miami Heat, turned in 24-14 with three blocks in an overtime win against the Brooklyn Nets, and stuffed the stat sheet with 16 points, 14 rebounds, four assists, two steals and six blocks to beat the Los Angeles Clippers.
If Davis and the Pels can pull out wins like this now, imagine what they might do next year, if/when their infirmary of a locker room returns to playing shape.
15. Portland Trail Blazers
LaMarcus Aldridge couldn't have picked a much better time to return from his back injury. His Portland Trail Blazers had dropped three in a row without him, thereby putting their once-surefire playoff position in some danger.
Atlanta seemed an apt place to come back to, as well. The Hawks had dropped four in a row and were missing Macedonian big man Pero Antic. That thinning up front made it much easier for Aldridge to pile up 25 points and 16 rebounds, despite having been out of action for more than two weeks.
The Blazers can't breathe comfortably for long, though. They'll stop into Chicago on Friday before turning home to host Memphis on Sunday.
14. Brooklyn Nets
If there's any team in the NBA that can't afford to play long, grueling games every night, it's the Brooklyn Nets.
With Deron Williams' ankles, Joe Johnson's age and Paul Pierce's emptying tank, the Nets need as much rest as they can get, lest any more of their key players join Kevin Garnett, Andrei Kirilenko and Brook Lopez on the shelf.
As you can imagine, then, a three-game overtime streak hasn't exactly been a boon to Brooklyn's hopes of improving its postseason seeding.
The Nets have lost their last two outings, in New Orleans and Charlotte, to fall 2.5 games back of the Toronto Raptors for the Atlantic Division title and the home-court advantage that comes with it.
13. Charlotte Bobcats
The debate over "Who's No. 3?" in this year's NBA MVP race has a new entrant: Al Jefferson.
The big man added another line to his resume this past week, when he torched the Nets for 35 points and 15 rebounds in a 116-111 overtime win for the Charlotte Bobcats. That performance drew high praise from none other than Paul Pierce, via Rod Boone and Andrew Keh on Twitter:
Paul Pierce: "Al Jefferson, no one on the planet can guard him. I mean, sh--. We tried to double him, triple, single." Said he's underrated
"Al Jefferson, no one on the planet can guard him," Pierce said. "It's so surprising he didn't make the All-Star team or MVP discussion."
He certainly has now. As Grantland's Zach Lowe recently noted, Big Al's been the fulcrum of Charlotte's offense while being something less than a raging tire fire on defense. As a result, the 'Cats are soon to scratch the playoffs for just the second time in franchise history.
Charlotte's record may pale in comparison to those of Blake Griffin's Los Angeles Clippers and Joakim Noah's Chicago Bulls, but that doesn't make Jefferson any less integral to a team that's already won 14 games more this season than it did in 2012-13, before Big Al came to town.
12. Dallas Mavericks
For the second time in a row, the Dallas Mavericks blew a double-digit fourth-quarter lead in a loss to the Los Angeles Clippers.
To be sure, giving up a 10-point cushion over the course of the frame isn't quite as depressing as letting a 17-point advantage slip away with less than five minutes to play.
Still, the Mavs can ill afford to give away games right now, especially those against quality opponents that looked eminently winnable. This latest home loss dropped Dallas a half-game behind the Phoenix Suns for the No. 8 seed in the Western Conference.
The Mavs will have another shot at revenge this week, when they meet the Clips in L.A. on Thursday. Whether they want that shot at this point in time, with so much at stake, is another story entirely.
11. Toronto Raptors
With one more win, the Toronto Raptors will officially be locked in for the 2014 playoffs.
Not bad for a team that traded away one of its most expensive players (Andrea Bargnani) prior to the season and dumped another (Rudy Gay) well before the annual trade deadline. At that point, the Raptors seemed to be on the brink of a full-scale tank job, with everyone on the roster, save for Jonas Valanciunas, available via trade.
Instead, DeMar DeRozan turned into an All-Star, and Kyle Lowry played like one while putting Toronto atop the Atlantic Division. With eight wins in their last 11 games, these Raptors will make something else official: the finest record in franchise history.
10. Golden State Warriors
The Golden State Warriors' hopes of replicating (if not improving upon) last year's playoff success, after an offseason replete with spending and asset sacrifice, were always going to be difficult enough without the "help" of any off-court distractions.
So, naturally, this business about Mark Jackson both demoting Brian Scalabrine to the D-League and lacking support from ownership, per Yahoo Sports' Adrian Wojnarowski, probably isn't going to help the Dubs any.
Unless, of course, Jackson uses this mini-crisis to galvanize his players to push Golden State through the tough Western Conference playoffs.
But, by the sound of things, Stephen Curry might be the only one who has Jackson's back at this point. "Obviously he's a guy that had an opportunity and a platform to show his loyalty, his support for me," Jackson said during his radio show on KNBR (via Inside Bay Area's Diamond Leung). "I don't take it for granted, and it's not a surprise because he knows how I feel about him."
Jackson could use at least a few more endorsements. His Dubs' playoff cushion has been reduced to 1.5 games, with games against the Grizzlies, Mavs and Spurs coming up this week.
9. Chicago Bulls
The latest news regarding Derrick Rose's recovery has to be bittersweet for the Chicago Bulls and their fans. On the one hand, everyone has to be encouraged to see Rose back at practice after tearing his right meniscus in November.
The Bulls could certainly use their former MVP. Their offense has been the third-least efficient in the league this season, producing just 99 points per 100 possessions, per NBA.com.
They can win a first-round series on the strength of their suffocating defense but would be hard-pressed to win four out of seven against one of the beasts of the East without a bona fide shot-maker on their side.
8. Phoenix Suns
The irony of this Suns team hailing from Phoenix is inescapable. Every time you think its playoff hopes have gone up in flames, Eric Bledsoe, Goran Dragic and co. find a way to rise up from the ashes again.
Phoenix's schedule has contributed to that apparent perseverance. The Suns have won five in a row and seven of eight, though seven of those games have come against Eastern Conference opponents not from Indy or Miami and four featured foes with sub-.500 records.
A weekend spent against the Knicks and the Lakers should allow the Suns to extend their current run for at least another few days. Come April, though, Phoenix will have to be on top of its act, with games against the Clippers, Blazers and Thunder on tap.
And the battle for the No. 8 seed in the West is as heated as ever.
7. Memphis Grizzlies
At least, that would make for an appropriate theme song for the Memphis Grizzlies, if their retro style of play is any inspiration. Unlike previous editions, though, these Grizzlies are now somewhat respectable from deep. They've hit 35.5 percent of their threes as a team, thanks to the additions of shooters like Mike Miller and Courtney Lee.
The Grizzlies are as great defensively as they've ever been, but now they can actually get decent shots when they need to.
And don't think this team can't take down one of the West's best. Memphis has won playoff series against the San Antonio Spurs, Oklahoma City Thunder and Los Angeles Clippers within the last three years. It's not scared of those squads, and it might just be better than it has ever been.
We'll get a good look at this team's capabilities this week, with visits to Oakland, Portland, Denver and Minneapolis on the docket.
6. Miami Heat
If there's anyone out there who's ready to jam on the panic button after watching the Miami Heat fall short in Indianapolis on Wednesday, do us all a favor and pump...the...brakes!
The Indiana Pacers had to play at peak efficiency just to outlast the two-time defending champs by a single point. The Pacers had no answers for LeBron James, who scored 38 points on just 19 shots, and gave up a pretty good look at a game-winner by Chris Bosh, as Grantland's Kirk Goldsberry diagrammed.
Keep in mind, too, that Ray Allen didn't play on account of the flu and that Dwyane Wade had missed the two previous games with an Achilles injury.
The concern for Miami comes from Wade's exit in the fourth quarter on account of an apparent hamstring injury. Should Wade be hindered by this latest setback for long, the Heat could find their hopes for a three-peat in serious peril.
5. Indiana Pacers
Just like the Heat can't be too down on themselves for losing in Indy, so too must the Pacers be careful not to get too cocky about beating Miami in their own building. The Heat still had every chance to win that game, despite poor nights from Chris Bosh and Dwyane Wade and the absence of Ray Allen.
The three losses in four games that preceded the Pacers' latest result point to greater cause for concern in the Circle City.
Then again, if a meeting with Miami turns out to be enough to wake Indy from its three-week-long slumber, perhaps the Pacers will be fine come playoff time, so long as they find that same motivation against, say, the Hawks, the Nets and/or the Bulls.
4. Los Angeles Clippers
As a born-and-raised Angeleno, I've come to accumulate quite a few Los Angeles Clippers fans among my friends in my life. As a Lakers fan, I've occasionally enjoyed their previously perennial putridity but mostly just pitied their miscues, injuries, blown draft picks and shortsighted trades, holding out hope that some day, my city would get the basketball rivalry it deserves.
The Lakers' stink bomb of a season has afforded me a window into their world, but for much of this season I wondered why my friends weren't as ecstatic about their team as I would've been about mine in years past.
On paper, the Clips seem to have it all: the best point guard (Chris Paul), the best power forward (Blake Griffin), a fast-improving big man (DeAndre Jordan), a championship-caliber head coach (Doc Rivers), a floor-spreading shooter (J.J. Redick), a heat-check scorer off the bench (Jamal Crawford), a bunch of other savvy veterans and an entertaining style of play that has this club ranked among the top 10 in both offensive and defensive efficiency.
Yet, the defeatism remains. After losing to the Pels and barely beating the Mavs, it's easy to see why. The Clippers can do everything right, but there's just something about this franchise that seems to cap its achievement as worthy of a "good job, good effort" pat on the back.
Because, historically speaking, to be a Clipper is to lose, even when you win.
3. Oklahoma City Thunder
Scott Brooks' coaching moves weren't quite in the headlines this week, per se, though they were the impetus for some disconcerting discussion.
Brooks was understandably touchy about managing Russell Westbrook's minutes against the Mavs. He'd been involved in a scary collision with Kyle Lowry just two games earlier, one that had the Oklahoma City Thunder worried that they'd lose their All-Star guard to yet another knee injury.
Westbrook turned out to be fine and played pretty well in Dallas, though some sloppiness on his part resulted in an unsightly eight turnovers. Brooks opted to sit Westbrook at the start of overtime, since Russ had already surpassed his 30-minute limit for the night.
Brooks eventually put Westbrook back into the game but not until the Thunder were down seven with about two minutes to go. The thought goes, if Russ was ready to play on, Brooks should've kept him in there in the first place so that he wouldn't have needed him to erase a deficit later on.
At which point, concern about OKC's coaching crept back into the equation when considering this Thunder squad for "Best in the West" status.
2. Houston Rockets
Now that the Houston Rockets have spent the last week and a half gorging themselves on inferior competition, it's time for them to hunker down for a stretch of tough games that will go a long way toward deciding this team's playoff seeding.
The Rockets' next four games will come against postseason-bound opponents, including a two-game swing through Brooklyn and Toronto. Before that, Houston spends Saturday hosting the Clippers, who currently hold a one-game lead in the race for the No. 3 seed in the West.
That lead might as well be two games, since L.A. already owns the head-to-head tiebreaker with the Rockets.
1. San Antonio Spurs
How fitting is it that this week's power rankings are bookended once again by impressive/depressing streaks? Better yet, how apropos is it that those two trends crossed paths this past week, with the San Antonio Spurs (obviously) blowing out the Sixers?
Unlike Philly's dubious run, San Antonio's doesn't seem destined to continue at a historic pace. The Spurs will travel to Denver on Friday and return home Saturday to host the surprisingly hot Pelicans. If the streak is still alive at that point, the Spurs will have to fight to keep it alive against a fearsome foursome of the Pacers (in Indy), Warriors (at home), Thunder (in OKC) and Grizzlies (at home).
For now, though, it doesn't hurt to marvel at how the Spurs are still piling up victories at such an awe-inspiring pace. In a just and proper world, this run alone would merely solidify Gregg Popovich's status as the favorite to take home Coach of the Year honors.
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