NBA Power Rankings: Sizing Up the Association Ahead of Season's Final Week
Can you believe it? The end of the 2013-14 NBA season is less than a week away. It seems like only yesterday that we were talking about Derrick Rose's return, Russell Westbrook's second knee surgery and how the Los Angeles Lakers might hold the fort without Kobe Bryant.
The last five-and-a-half months have yielded answers to those and many more big-picture questions. Yet these here power rankings haven't calcified in the least.
Quite the contrary, actually. The pushes for playoff positioning at the top and lottery ping-pong balls at the bottom have intensified in most corners. That much is clear when considering LeBron James' 40-plus-minute nights (when he'd usually be resting up for the playoffs) and the Milwaukee Bucks' inability to beat one of the league's worst benches.
It should come as no surprise, then, that the Association's hierarchy has shifted considerably since last week. How, exactly, is for me to know and you to find out.
By swiping/clicking ahead, that is.
And remember, folks: these power rankings, while reflective of how teams have fared over the course of the current campaign, take into account (rather heavily, in fact) the particulars of a squad's relative on-court performance in recent days and weeks.
30. Milwaukee Bucks
Just in case you needed more proof that the Milwaukee Bucks are beyond terrible, here are a few more "neat" nuggets:
- The Bucks lost at the buzzer Wednesday to the Indiana Pacers, who sat their entire starting lineup. That means Milwaukee's "best" lost to a bench that, according to Hoops Stats, is one of the three least productive in the NBA.
- With one more defeat, the Bucks will secure at least a share of the worst record in the NBA—which is impressive because the Philadelphia 76ers lost 26 games in a row earlier this season, and they're still three games up on Milwaukee in the standings right now.
- Barring some sort of late-season miracle, the Bucks will go through the entire 2013-14 campaign without stringing together consecutive victories. Even the 1972-73 Sixers, who put together the worst full regular season in NBA history (9-73), managed to win two games in a row. Twice, in fact.
29. Boston Celtics
Call it what you want, but the Boston Celtics are well into "tank" mode at the moment.
They blew a nine-point fourth-quarter lead to the awful Atlanta Hawks on Wednesday to notch their ninth loss in a row and 14th in 15 games. As a result, the C's now find themselves in a dead heat with the Orlando Magic for the third-worst record in the league.
That's where this organization expected (and probably hoped) the team would be right about now.
After all, the C's didn't part ways with Doc Rivers, Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce and Jason Terry this past summer—and Jordan Crawford and Courtney Lee during the season—just so they could be run-of-the-mill bad. This year has been all about being really bad so that Boston can get back to being really good much sooner.
Assuming, of course, that the team's lottery luck (finally) turns after bad breaks in 1997 and 2007.
28. Philadelphia 76ers
It's been a while since the Philadelphia 76ers escaped the bottom two spots of these here power rankings. They can thank the Celtics' ongoing slide—which the Sixers helped to extend with a 111-102 win last Friday—for that.
But the good news doesn't end there. Nerlens Noel may make his NBA debut before the 2013-14 season is over. "Obviously I do want to play," Noel recently told the media in Philly. "I'm a 19-year-old who's been sitting down on the sideline really wanting to get out there and show my abilities and to be able to play ball."
Noel claims that his knee is "100 percent" healed from the ACL surgery he underwent while he was at Kentucky last year and that he's even added three inches to his vertical leap with the help of the Sixers' training staff.
Noel's health, though, is no guarantee that he'll play before the season ends next Wednesday. It'll be up to general manager Sam Hinkie and head coach Brett Brown to decide whether it's best for Noel to test his knee sooner rather than later.
"I definitely understand where the GM is coming from, the risk and the reward," Noel added. "I've been very eager because of my competitiveness, but I do understand."
27. Los Angeles Lakers
The Los Angeles Lakers' future may be as uncertain as ever, but at least Mitch Kupchak will be a part of it.
According to ESPN.com's Ramona Shelburne, Kupchak agreed to a multi-year extension to stay in the Lakers front office. Interestingly enough, the news broke during L.A.'s 145-130 loss to the Dwight Howard-less Houston Rockets this past Tuesday.
The stench of this lost Lakers season would seem to make this decision regarding Kupchak's job a peculiar one. After all, that aforementioned defeat was L.A.'s 53rd of 2013-14, tying the franchise mark for the most losses in a single season. General managers aren't typically rewarded for such abject failure.
But the Buss family knows full well that Kupchak deserves the new deal. He's overseen four NBA title-winning teams since taking over for the legendary Jerry West in 2000.
That track record, in itself, should be enough to justify Kupchak's employment. So, too, should the Lakers' historic run of injuries dating back to the 2012-13 season.
Prior to the collapse to which it was witness, that season seemed certain to end with Kupchak as Executive of the Year after he brought Steve Nash and Dwight Howard to L.A. during the same summer.
26. New Orleans Pelicans
It's official: Anthony Davis and Eric Gordon are done for the year. The New Orleans Pelicans announced Thursday, via the team's website, that Davis would sit with back spasms, while Gordon would undergo arthroscopic surgery on his troublesome left knee.
That bit of news should drive the last nail into the Pelicans' League Pass coffin—unless anyone's interested in watching the likes of Jeff Withey, Darius Miller and Austin Rivers sop up minutes, like sad biscuits in a pool of gravy tears.
25. Utah Jazz
Remember when Andris Biedrins was a useful NBA player?
Neither do the Utah Jazz. According to Yahoo Sports' Adrian Wojnarowski, the Jazz waived the lanky Latvian to clear room on the roster for rookie forward Erik Murphy.
That may well spell the end of Biedrins' NBA career, just days after his 28th birthday. Injuries and a loss of confidence (particularly at the free-throw line) took their toll on Biedrins, to the point where he found himself sacrificed as cap fodder to bring Andre Iguodala to the Bay Area.
If this is truly it for Biedrins, it'd be a strange ending, to say the least, for a guy who averaged 11.9 points and 11.2 rebounds while starting 58 games for the Golden State Warriors five years ago.
24. Sacramento Kings
Hey, Sacramento Kings fans! How would you feel about another year of Rudy Gay? How about three more? Four more? Five more?
Not thrilled? That's understandable. The Kings have gone just 21-32 in the 53 games Gay has spent in Sacramento this season.
At least he's optimistic about the future. "Obviously, we have talent and we have the coach to put it all together," Gay told Basketball Insiders' Bill Ingram. Gay also told Ingram that he feels "comfortable" in California's capital, which hardly comes as good news to Rudy's detractors.
There's still some hope for those Kings supporters who'd rather not see Gay back in purple and black next season. "Everything is a possibility," Gay said of his plans for the summer. He could opt out of the final year of his contract and become a free agent, though doing so would mean forfeiting the $19.3 million he's due to earn in 2014-15.
That take may well be enough to keep Gay in Sacramento for at least another year, much to the chagrin of those who'd rather see him leave ASAP.
23. Detroit Pistons
This week in totally predictable news: Joe Dumars' reign as president of the Detroit Pistons is (probably) nearing its conclusion.
According to The Detroit News' Vincent Goodwill, Dumars has made it known to some folks around the NBA that he plans to resign at season's end. His ill-fated attempt to save former head coach Maurice Cheeks from team owner Tom Gores' wrath, just 50 games into Cheeks' tenure in Motown, reportedly spelled the beginning of the end for Dumars.
Dumars' 29-year run as a player and executive in Detroit has been nothing if not a mixed bag. On the one hand, he's been party to all three of the franchise's championships and built the team that went to six straight Eastern Conference Finals from 2003 to 2008. On the other hand, he was responsible for drafting Darko Milicic with the No. 2 pick in 2003, signing Ben Gordon and Charlie Villanueva in 2009 and generally laying the foundation for the Pistons' five-year playoff drought.
You could say, then, that Dumars' time with the Pistons in an impactful capacity has run its course—and then some.
22. Orlando Magic
So much for the Orlando Magic being for sale.
Dan DeVos, the team's president and son of Magic owner Rich DeVos, refuted rumors to that effect that were cited in an article by Comcast SportsNet New England's A. Sherrod Blakely regarding former NBA player Leon Powe's pursuit of franchise ownership.
"As a family, the topic of selling the team has not come up," DeVos wrote to the Orlando Sentinel's Josh Robbins. "In fact, we are enjoying the team more than ever. Especially my father. We are very excited about our focus on winning a NBA championship. The family is fully engaged and active with the team. All four generations.
"The Magic are not for sale."
For now, anyway. Maybe the DeVoses will change their minds if the Magic's post-Dwight Howard run of mediocrity continues unabated.
21. New York Knicks
Just when it looked like the New York Knicks might sneak their way into the Eastern Conference playoffs, they did the entirely predictable by dropping back-to-back games against the Washington Wizards and Miami Heat. As a result, the Knicks now find themselves on the brink of elimination from postseason consideration. Any combination of New York losses and Atlanta wins from here on out will send the former to the lottery and the latter to the playoffs.
The see-sawing partnership between Carmelo Anthony and J.R. Smith might have something to do with that. The former has scored a combined 23 points on 9-of-31 shooting from the field over his last two games, while the latter has tallied 32 points apiece in those outings.
Smith's scoring binge has come on account of some historic three-point chuckery. He's jacked up 10 or more threes in each of his last four games (with nary a free throw attempted therein), including an NBA-record 22 attempts in Miami on Sunday.
20. Cleveland Cavaliers
What once appeared to be a particularly tough week in the life and career of Kyrie Irving has since taken a decidedly upward turn.
The span began with Irving refuting concurrent reports that he wants to ditch the Cleveland Cavaliers, via Cavs the Blog's Robert Attenweiler, and that, according to Cleveland Browns receiver Josh Gordon, via The Plain Dealer's Tom Reed, he and teammate Dion Waiters (still) don't get along.
Matters weren't much better on the court either. The Cavs were officially eliminated from postseason contention this week, despite blowing out the Pistons at home Wednesday.
Irving has since apologized to Gordon, per The Plain Dealer's Mary Schmitt Boyer, and spoken up in support of another Gordon: former high school teammate and current UMass sophomore Derrick Gordon, who became the first openly gay player in the history of Division I men's college basketball.
"I’m proud of him," Irving told the Akron Beacon Journal's Jason Lloyd. "It’s a big step, not only in his life but in his career to get the weight of the world off his shoulders."
To top it all off, The Morning Journal and The News-Herald's Bob Finnan reported Wednesday that the Cavs are prepared to reward Irving with a five-year, $80 million extension on July 1.
19. Atlanta Hawks
Someone has to be the No. 8 seed in the East. That distinction might as well fall to the Atlanta Hawks.
And it probably will. Their magic number for clinching their seventh straight playoff appearance is down to two with just four games to go.
This, despite winning just two games in February and losing six in a row in late March.
18. Denver Nuggets
Kudos to the Denver Nuggets. They've been out of the playoff picture for most of this season, but rather than transition into "tank" mode, they've opted to keep competing.
Even though they've been rocked by injuries. Even though Brian Shaw's head coaching career got off to a rocky start in the Rocky Mountains. Even though their schedule's been tough of late.
Their resilience was on full display Thursday night in Oakland. After fending off the Houston Rockets at home Wednesday, the Nuggets went into Oracle Arena and gave the Golden State Warriors a lesson in toughness.
Denver out-rebounded Golden State by a margin of 63-38, including an astounding 25-6 advantage on the offensive end. Timofey Mozgov collected 29 caroms—the most of any player in the NBA this season—while Kenneth Faried finished off his 18-point, 17-rebound performance by scoring the winning bucket with less than a second left in the game.
With the way the Nuggets have been fighting tooth and nail down the stretch here, it's not difficult to imagine that, with better health and some smart additions over the summer, this team will be back in the postseason picture come 2015.
17. Minnesota Timberwolves
The Minnesota Timberwolves would've had a great week if not for some noteworthy setbacks.
Kevin Love's absence on account of a back injury cost the T-Wolves an otherwise winnable game in Orlando. He hyperextended his elbow just a few days later during a 15-point loss to the Chicago Bulls, during which he shot just 7-of-20 from the floor.
Love's troubles, though, paled in comparison to those of Dante Cunningham. According to The Associated Press, via ESPN.com, the T-Wolves forward was arrested for the second time in three days on charges of making terrorist threats toward his girlfriend during a domestic dispute.
It's easy to forget, then, that this past week also saw the T-Wolves take down the Miami Heat and the San Antonio Spurs.
16. Washington Wizards
The Washington Wizards picked a bad time to start sliding. Their overtime loss to the Bobcats on Wednesday was the Wizards' second in a row and allowed Charlotte to sneak into sixth place in the Eastern Conference.
If the playoffs started today, Washington would head down to Miami to take on the two-time defending champs, rather than fly north to Toronto for a winnable series against the Raptors.
Luckily for the Wizards, the No. 6 seed is still very much in play. They'll get to fatten up on Orlando and Milwaukee this weekend before finishing up against the Heat and the C's next week. Better yet, they'll have Nene in the mix to propel them into their first playoff appearance since 2008 with some semblance of momentum.
15. Brooklyn Nets
Who'd have thought that Paul Pierce would be the key to the Brooklyn Nets' success?
As Grantland's Brett Koremenos detailed, Pierce's move from small forward to nominal power forward earlier this season opened up a world of possibilities on both ends of the floor for the Nets. His shooting ability and all-around skill set have allowed Brooklyn to spread the floor on offense, and his willingness to body up against bigger, stronger opponents has unlocked the team's quick-switching, suffocating defense.
Pierce's importance to the Nets came into sharper focus this past week. On Tuesday, Brooklyn beat the Miami Heat for the fourth time in four tries this season, despite the absence of Kevin Garnett, with Pierce chipping in 14 points, four rebounds, an assist, two steals and two blocks. The next night, the Nets lost in Orlando as Garnett played and Pierce sat on account of a hip injury.
The Nets had better hope, then, that Pierce is healthy enough to play once the postseason starts next weekend. Otherwise, their dreams of being the NBA's answer to Kentucky and/or UConn could be crushed at the outset.
14. Dallas Mavericks
The Dallas Mavericks must be kicking themselves after losing to the San Antonio Spurs on Thursday. The Spurs seemed vulnerable without Tony Parker but were buoyed by Patty Mills' 26 points and six assists at the expense of the Mavs' defenseless backcourt.
Dallas can't lick its wounds for long. This latest loss dropped the Mavs into eighth place out West, in a virtual tie with the Phoenix Suns and just a game ahead of the ninth-place Memphis Grizzlies.
And wouldn't you know it? The Mavs will finish up their season by hosting Phoenix on Saturday before flying to Memphis on Wednesday.
Like I said, that doesn't leave much time for wound-licking.
13. Phoenix Suns
The Phoenix Suns have put the pedal to the proverbial metal once again but can't afford to ease up before the end of the regular season. Their run of three straight wins—including triumphs in Portland and home against OKC—and 11 in their last 14 outings has earned the Suns no more than a one-game advantage in the three-team game of musical chairs among themselves, the Mavs and the Memphis Grizzlies.
Phoenix's final four games won't afford the team any opportunity to relax. The Suns will Texas two-step between San Antonio and Dallas this weekend before finishing up at home against the Grizz on Monday and in Sacramento on Wednesday.
As such, if the Suns are going to finish their Cinderella season in the playoffs, they'll have to earn that right on the court.
12. Memphis Grizzlies
The Memphis Grizzlies responded to their beatdown in San Antonio about as well as anyone could expect. They ground down the Dwyane Wade-less Miami Heat, surviving a 37-point performance by LeBron James therein.
The Grizz will get something of a break this weekend against the Sixers and the Lakers before winding up the regular season against the Suns and the Mavs—their chief competition for one of the West's last two playoff spots.
Memphis can ill afford to take any of those games lightly. The Grizz are currently a game out of the postseason picture and may well have to win out if they're to extend their playoff streak to a franchise-best four years.
11. Golden State Warriors
Is anyone else tired of hearing about how Mark Jackson's job with the Golden State Warriors is in jeopardy? Whatever the political problems within the organization may be, there's no disputing how monumental it'd be for the Dubs to win 50 games for the first time in 20 years.
They'll do that with two more wins this season, thanks in large part to Jackson. Management might not be enamored with him anymore, but his players certainly are.
Frankly, Jackson has much more important matters to attend to if he's to get Golden State back into the second round of the playoffs—and perhaps beyond—and secure his future in the process.
Item No. 1 is getting David Lee healthy. He's been out since late March with a tricky nerve issue in his back and hamstring. The Warriors certainly missed his size and rebounding prowess Thursday, when the Nuggets clobbered them on the boards in a one-point win for Denver.
Golden State shouldn't have much trouble clinching a playoff berth against the Lakers on Friday. But the sooner Lee returns, the better off the Warriors will be for the postseason.
And the safer Jackson's job will be in the eyes of team owner Joe Lacob.
10. Charlotte Bobcats
I know, it's shocking to see the Charlotte Bobcats in the top 10 of these or any power rankings.
The distinction, though, is certainly deserved. The 'Cats have won five in a row to move over the .500 mark for the first time since mid-November and, more importantly, slip into the sixth spot in the Eastern Conference playoffs.
If that holds, the 'Cats could not only secure their first playoff win in franchise history but also claim enough victories to advance to the second round.
That is, if the matchups play out in their favor. Charlotte's beaten Toronto three times this season but has yet to top Chicago, with one meeting with the Bulls still in store for the season finale.
9. Indiana Pacers
Hooray for the Indiana Pacers...reserves! They fended off the Bucks for a two-point win Wednesday while the team's overworked starting five watched from the bench.
One can't help but wonder, then, why head coach Frank Vogel hadn't opted to give his subs more run earlier. The Pacers' struggles aren't new; they've won just eight of their last 20 games dating back to March 4. Most of that damage was done with Indy's usual starting five—the most heavily used five-man lineup in the league this season, per NBA.com—fully intact.
Granted, Indy's putrid second unit had plenty to do with that. But how much of its futility stems from misuse and not from a supposed lack of talent? Would the Pacers bench have performed better over the course of this campaign had it been afforded more opportunities to play? Would Indy have avoided its recent slump with its stars enjoying a rest schedule akin to that which Gregg Popovich employs with the Spurs?
We'll never know. For now, the Pacers can only hope that one game (and another practice) off for the starters will be enough to prepare them for what they anticipate will be another long and grueling run through the Eastern Conference playoffs.
8. Portland Trail Blazers
As someone who grew up watching the Los Angeles Lakers during the Kobe-Shaq years, I must admit that I wasn't pleased to hear the Portland Trail Blazers referring to Dorell Wright as "Little Robert Horry" after he hit a game-winning three-pointer against the Kings on Wednesday.
Beating a terrible Sacramento squad with a last-second shot in early April isn't quite comparable to topping a talented archrival in a crucial playoff game by way of a last-second bomb, as Horry did in 2002.
That being said, I don't begrudge Wright owning the nickname. For one, he too is an L.A. native who likely watched Big Shot Rob's unforgettable buzzer-beater against the Kings during his formative years.
And given how disappointing Wright's season has been to date—he's shooting a career-worst 37.4 percent from the field—he should probably take the accolades wherever and whenever he can find them.
7. Toronto Raptors
At 46-32, the Toronto Raptors are just two wins away from setting a new franchise record for victories in a single season.
That 47-win mark should fall, perhaps even easily so, before the season is through. The Raptors' remaining schedule features two dates with the Knicks and one apiece opposite the Pistons and Bucks.
They'll have every incentive to get up for those games too. The Raps are currently tied with the Chicago Bulls for the third-best record in the East. Any slippage between now and the end of the regular season could mean the difference between opening their first postseason since 2008 against the Bobcats and facing the veteran Nets in the preliminary round.
6. Miami Heat
I've rarely been one to jam on the proverbial panic button with these Miami Heat—even less so during the regular season. But they've looked particularly vulnerable of late, in ways and for reasons that could imperil their three-peat prospects.
Dwyane Wade has missed eight straight games on account of a hamstring strain. Meanwhile, the Heat have lost three of their last four in his absence, with LeBron James averaging an unsettling 42.3 minutes per game.
It's bad enough that Miami has to manage without its second-most important player and that there's no telling when he'll be back. Having James shoulder such a massive minutes load at this point in the campaign, when he'd normally be resting, can only compound the Heat's problems.
Then again, if the Heat come out swinging against the Pacers on Friday, those concerns will likely melt away amid the team's return to the top spot in the Eastern Conference.
5. Houston Rockets
There's no point in penalizing the Houston Rockets for their loss to the lottery-bound Nuggets on Wednesday. The Rockets were playing the second night of a back-to-back in Denver's thin air, with Dwight Howard and Patrick Beverley both sidelined by injury. If anything, Houston's fourth-quarter comeback attempt speaks to this squad's depth and burgeoning resilience.
That doesn't mean, though, that all is hunky-dory in Space City. Howard's bad ankle and Beverley's bum knee both pose serious threats to the Rockets' hopes for a deep playoff push.
Luckily for the Rockets, both should be back in time for the postseason. Houston will certainly need its two best defenders back healthy if it's to slow down the Blazers in the first round and, perhaps, gum up the San Antonio Spurs' machine-like offense thereafter.
4. Chicago Bulls
I know, I know. The Chicago Bulls aren't actually the fourth-best team in the NBA. Heck, they'd be lucky to be one of the last four squads standing in this year's playoffs without the benefit of any reliable playmakers on the perimeter.
And their current six-game winning streak? It began with back-to-back W's against the Celtics and has continued at the expense of the Hawks, Bucks, Wizards and T-Wolves.
Not exactly a Murderer's Row of opponents, if you know what I mean (and I'm sure you do).
But...well, that still beats what we've seen of late from, say, the Heat and Pacers, both of whom are backing their way into the top two seeds in the Eastern Conference.
Meanwhile, Joakim Noah is going full bore. His 15-point, 13-rebound, 10-assist performance against Minny made him just the fourth center in NBA history to record four or more triple-doubles in a season based solely on the three biggest box-score stats.
The other three members of the club? David Robinson, Wilt Chamberlain and Bill Russell.
3. Los Angeles Clippers
So much for the second seed. The Los Angeles Clippers had a shot at usurping the Oklahoma City Thunder's spot in the Western Conference standings but couldn't quite contain Russell Westbrook in a loss to OKC on Wednesday.
Truth be told, the Clippers have bigger fish to fry than trying to dictate whom they'll face in the first round of the playoffs or even topping last season's franchise record for wins. They're waiting on Jamal Crawford and Danny Granger, two key components of their bench, to heal up from their respective injuries.
Crawford's absence would be particularly problematic. His scoring and ball-handling off the bench are crucial components of the Clippers' operation. L.A. has the requisite talent to hold the fort without Crawford but would be hard-pressed to hang around the playoffs for long if he can't contribute.
2. Oklahoma City Thunder
The Oklahoma City Thunder did well to bounce back from consecutive losses to the Rockets and Suns by polishing off their four-game road trip with wins over the Kings and the Clippers. The last of those results all but sealed OKC's spot at No. 2 in the Western Conference standings.
More importantly, the Thunder's preferred starting five is once again intact now that Kendrick Perkins and Thabo Sefolosha have returned to action. Those two should have ample opportunity to re-acclimate themselves to OKC's rotation, with Sunday's trip to Indy serving as the lone true "challenge" left on the Thunder's schedule.
All of which points to Kevin Durant and company entering the postseason as the favorites to once again represent the West in the NBA Finals.
1. San Antonio Spurs
The San Antonio Spurs are just one win or OKC loss away from clinching home-court advantage throughout the playoffs. With two more wins, the Spurs will tie a franchise record for single-season success with 63.
That mark dates back to the 2005-06 season, which ended with San Antonio losing to Dallas in the second round. Those two Texas teams would meet again in the first round if the regular season ended today.
The Spurs, though, needn't fret about falling victim to Dirk Nowitzki and friends in similar fashion this time around. San Antonio's 109-100 win in Dallas on Thursday secured the Spurs' second consecutive season sweep of the Mavs.
Tony Parker's back sprain could change things considerably between these longtime rivals. Then again, the Spurs had little trouble dispatching the Mavs without Parker in their latest meeting, thanks in no small part to Patty Mills' 26-point, six-assist showing.
Tweet me your thoughts on my power rankings!