2016 NBA Power Rankings: Who's Hot and Who's Not at All-Star Break?

Grant Hughes@@gt_hughesNational NBA Featured ColumnistFebruary 12, 2016

2016 NBA Power Rankings: Who's Hot and Who's Not at All-Star Break?

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    Alex Brandon/Associated Press

    Chemistry takes on greater importance in the All-Star break edition of NBA power rankings as the grind of the regular season begins to expose the rough edges on teams across the league.

    That's no surprise.

    At this point, we know who's got the most talent. But as that talent gets depleted by injuries or compromised by infighting, we're learning more and more about which squads are tied tightly together. We see signs in how teams fight through adversity and accept changing responsibilities.

    The teams pulling through tough times are surviving—even moving up in some cases. Those that aren't operating collectively for whatever reason (personal agendas, dissatisfaction with coaching, lapses in effort) are heading the other way.

    Team harmony is the great elevator. If you don't have it at this point in the season, you're only going down.

    As always, we'll use stats and schedules along with gut instinct to organize all 30 teams in order of how well they're playing at present. Last week's rankings are here for comparison.

30. Phoenix Suns

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    Last Week: 30

    You can't always peg an on-court fight between teammates as a sure sign of dysfunction. But when it happens with a team like the Phoenix Suns, losers of nine straight and 15 of their last 16, it's safe to assume things are fractured beyond repair.

    Markieff Morris got into it with Archie Goodwin in the Suns' 112-104 loss to the Golden State Warriors on Wednesday, and the results weren't pretty.

    Firing Jeff Hornacek and his staff hasn't effected the kind of change management hoped it would, and one of the next-best options for team repair—moving Morris—just got harder. After demanding a trade over the summer and mailing it in under Hornacek, Morris is in no position to offer advice or direction to Goodwin—even if whatever he says happens to be right.

    Phoenix is far from the least talented team in the league, but it may wind up with the fewest wins if something doesn't change.

29. Los Angeles Lakers

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    Joe Robbins/Getty Images

    Last Week: 28

    Byron Scott has plenty of failings as a head coach, but one of his greatest attributes is an uncanny ability to accidentally summarize the Los Angeles Lakers' plight through simple postgame observations.

    "Sometimes you live and die with it," Scott told reporters after Kobe Bryant shot 6 of 25 in an 89-87 loss to the Indiana Pacers on Feb. 8. "And I'm willing to do it with him. He hit three big ones in a row for us, so I wasn't going to go away from him then."

    That's the Lakers, who lost all three of their games last week. That's it. There they are.

    Beholden to Bryant because of what he did in the past, Scott and the Lakers keep letting him control the present—even as it damages the future by marginalizing young talent and creating an untenable double-standard system.

    In both a micro and macro sense, the Lakers can't go away from Bryant. When he goes away from them at the end of the season, maybe there'll be a chance for some sanity.

28. Brooklyn Nets

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    Kathy Willens/Associated Press

    Last Week: 29

    Wins over the Sacramento Kings and Denver Nuggets (with the latter coming on a vintage Joe Johnson buzzer-beater) move the Brooklyn Nets up. Unfortunately, losses to the Philadelphia 76ers and Marc Gasol-less Memphis Grizzlies halt the climb at a modest one spot.

    Still...progress, I guess?

    The Nets still don't have a general manager, which is going to make Organizational Priority No. 1some kind of future asset before the Feb. 18 trade deadlinea little tricky. Brook Lopez has been playing well, averaging 20.0 points and 6.4 rebounds per game on 52.2 percent shooting in his last five contests. Still just 27 years old, you'd think Lopez would be a tantalizing trade candidate.

    Without first-round picks in the war chest, Brooklyn has to get something back for its few appealing vets—whether it be Lopez, Johnson or Thaddeus Young. Otherwise, there won't be anything to take away from this prolonged stay in the bottom five.

27. Philadelphia 76ers

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    Bill Streicher-USA TODAY Sports

    Last Week: 25

    There's a lot to be said for controlling the narrative, and the Sixers have done it masterfully over the past couple of months. Adding Jerry Colangelo to the management staff and putting Mike D'Antoni on the bench to coach up the offense sent the message that unabashed tanking was no longer the plan.

    "We're sick of this, and we're changing for the better," it seemed to say.

    But the Sixers still stink, and they're still in position to capitalize on the odor by securing the top overall pick. They're better, but still perfectly bad. And that's good.

    Example: Philly's offense under D'Antoni is still last in the league at 97.3 points per 100 possessions since Dec. 18. That's better than the 94.5 figure the Sixers have posted overall, but it's still awful. And though they've generally appeared more competitive, the 76ers remain an eight-win team.

    This is some genius-level appeasement of the masses. If you're a Sixers fan, you're seeing more close games and the occasional win, but your team isn't compromising its long-term aims.

26. Sacramento Kings

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    Brandon Dill/Associated Press

    Last Week: 21

    Is it possible to be dumbfounded yet totally unsurprised at the same time?

    Here we are finishing a week in which the Sacramento Kings seemed certain to fire head coach George Karl (for, what, the third time?) and then decided not to because Karl and top executive Vlade Divac got on the same page about improving the team's defense.

    The Kings then promptly surrendered 110 points to the Sixers, who rank 30th in scoring.

    That is the most Kings thing to ever King. But hey, Sacramento won that Wednesday contest, so it won't go into the break on a losing streak.

    All the same, the Kings' defensive indifference practically screams that a change is in order. Whether that's canning Karl, who rarely seems engaged on the bench, or shaking up the roster is hard to say. Whatever happens, DeMarcus Cousins and Rajon Rondo must find a way to at least pretend as though they care about giving effort on D.

    Until that happens, the Kings, who went 1-3 this past week, aren't going anywhere but down.

25. Milwaukee Bucks

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    Gary Dineen/Getty Images

    Last Week: 26

    Having lost five straight games from Jan. 28 to Feb. 5, the Milwaukee Bucks had no reason to shy away from tinkering.

    Head coach Jason Kidd's decision to bring both Greg Monroe and Michael Carter-Williams off the bench in a 112-111 win over the Boston Celtics on Tuesday worked out, as Monroe registered a season-high 29 points and the Bucks' reserve corps got a big boost.

    "It made our bench a lot better, something we haven't had all season," Kidd told Charles F. Gardner of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. "And I thought Miles [Plumlee] and O.J. [Mayo] were fine starting."

    This makes sense. Monroe and Carter-Williams are both useful but flawed players. Against opposing starters, it's far easier to expose their weaknesses. Toss them in against reserves, though, and they're good enough to win most matchups.

    The group Kidd eventually settles on to finish games will matter far more than the one he starts, but it's encouraging that the Bucks are still doing what they can to salvage this season.

    Even if the playoffs are an unlikely outcome, this team is still young enough to benefit from some post-break progress. And if all Milwaukee learns is that Monroe and MCW can't be counted on as cornerstones (something it should already know), all the better.

24. New York Knicks

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    Al Bello/Getty Images

    Last Week: 19

    "I've already let [the players] know that we've got to find a way to get in the playoffs," New York Knicks interim head coach Kurt Rambis told Howard Megdal of USA Today. "It's so valuable, for both the growth of the team and the growth of the individual players, to be in that kind of intense environment."

    Rambis is 0-1 since taking over for the fired Derek Fisher, but you've got to love that optimism.

    Unfortunately, New York has won just once in its last 11 games, and Rambis' track record does nothing to suggest he's the guy to get the Knicks into the postseason. In two full campaigns leading the Minnesota Timberwolves (2009-11), Rambis won just 32 games. His career winning percentage as a coach is 27.7 percent.

    It's possible Fisher's exit will provide a jolt, but something more sustained will be necessary to avoid slipping to the bottom five in these rankings—let alone making good on Rambis' playoff goals.

23. Orlando Magic

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    The layup in question.
    The layup in question.Fernando Medina/Getty Images

    Last Week: 27

    You do realize that the Orlando Magic are a missed Elfrid Payton layup away from possibly heading into the break with a three-game winning streak, don't you?

    Actually, you almost certainly don't. Because why would you be paying attention to a Magic team that, until last week, had won twice in 2016?

    Check it out, though: Orlando took both ends of a back-to-back against the Atlanta Hawks, getting a game-winner from Nikola Vucevic on Sunday and a stirring overtime triumph on Monday. Then, after Kawhi Leonard hit the go-ahead jumper with 0.9 seconds remaining Wednesday, Payton failed to flip in an uncontested layup that would have sent the game to overtime.

    All three of those contests illustrated the game-of-inches trope that so often describes the NBA, and it's true that we could be talking about the Magic's disappointing 0-4 week if not for a couple of lucky bounces.

    Despite a brutal January, the Magic are easily within striking distance of a playoff spot. If the All-Star break brings a needle-moving trade or the time off simply gives the team a chance to regroup, there's still a chance this club gets back into the action during the season's unofficial second half.

22. Minnesota Timberwolves

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    Jesse Johnson-USA TODAY Sports

    Last Week: 24

    Karl-Anthony Towns hasn't embraced the concept of a rookie wall, as evidenced by the career-high 35 points he hung on the Toronto Raptors in a surprising Minnesota Timberwolves win Wednesday. His five-game averages of 22.2 points, 12.4 rebounds and 58.9 percent shooting in February are the best of any month this season, and his recent surge has been the main reason Minnesota has logged three wins in its last four tries.

    Now, if you're in the market for an NBA head coaching gig, you should desperately want in on the ground floor with a player so obviously ticketed for superstardom. Which is why Tom Thibodeau should be feeling good about himself right now.

    ESPN.com's Brian Windhorst reported on the Mike and Mike show (via Derek James of ESPN 1500 in Minneapolis) that the Wolves have had cursory contact with Thibs. There are plenty of reasons to worry about how the hard-charging Thibodeau might push Towns and Andrew Wiggins too much, but there's simply not a more consistently successful coach on the market.

    And along with Towns' ability to generate numbers, his defensive potential is off the charts. Thibodeau seems like the best option to maximize it. Towns has the Wolves on the way up, and the right coach, whenever he eventually comes along, could accelerate the climb.

21. Washington Wizards

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    Anthony Gruppuso-USA TODAY Sports

    Last Week: 23

    With injuries and inconsistency plaguing the Washington Wizards, John Wall's margin for error has been nonexistent all season. One mistake—an ill-timed gamble for a steal in the waning seconds against the Knicks on Tuesday—nearly ended in disaster, as Langston Galloway's potentially game-tying triple fell short.

    Washington won that game, but it coughed up a 16-point lead in the process—despite Wall's 17 assists in yet another do-it-all performance.

    The Wizards head into the break outside the playoff picture, which is an unqualified disappointment.

    At least this past week wasn't so bad, as Washington used wins over the Knicks and Sixers to finish with a 2-2 mark. With a remaining February schedule that is about as soft as they come, the Wizards must stabilize, cut the mistakes and strike quickly.

    If they can't, Wall won't have to worry about margin for error because Washington's games will stop mattering altogether.

20. Denver Nuggets

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    Allen Einstein/Getty Images

    Last Week: 22

    Mike Malone has it figured out.

    His Denver Nuggets won three of their four games to close out the pre-break portion of the schedule, and even if those wins came against a struggling trio from the East, it's clear Malone has his players focused and engaged. Even their frustrations are being channeled in the right direction.

    Jusuf Nurkic, for example, has been annoyed all season by his lack of playing time—due partially to injury but mostly to rookie Nikola Jokic quietly dominating. But Nurkic hasn't pouted. Instead, he went out and put up 16 points and 11 rebounds in his best game of the season, helping secure a 103-92 win over the Detroit Pistons on Wednesday.

    Go down the line: Danilo Gallinari, Jokic, Will Barton, Gary Harris, Kenneth Faried and now Nurkic. Denver's key players are all working hard for Malone.

    Another week like this and we might see Denver crack the teens for the first time this year.

19. New Orleans Pelicans

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    David Richard-USA TODAY Sports

    Last Week: 20

    An impressive 100-96 win against the streaking Jazz helped remove the stink of a Feb. 4 home loss to the Lakers, though the New Orleans Pelicans still only managed to break even for the week.

    That's still enough to move them up a spot.

    Jrue Holiday's strong play lately (he scored 27 points to help beat Minnesota on Monday and has done well as a lead facilitator now that Tyreke Evans' season is officially over following knee surgery) is a big reason why. It's always been about health for Holiday, and it seems he's holding up well enough to take on a consistently larger role the rest of the way.

    New Orleans continues to struggle with a thin bench, and the defense remains inconsistent. But for a team that flatly refused to tank after its awful start, maybe being just six-and-a-half games out of a playoff spot at the break counts as some kind of victory.

18. Chicago Bulls

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    Jeffrey Becker-USA TODAY Sports

    Last Week: 15

    Are we done here?

    Are we ready to write the Chicago Bulls—losers of four straight and owners of a minus-8.2 net rating since Jan. 25—off as any sort of serious postseason threat? Because we should be.

    Jimmy Butler's knee strain was a devastating blow to a roster already missing Joakim Noah and Nikola Mirotic. Already struggling to defend (the Bulls gave up at least 108 points in each of the losses that make up their current four-game slide), it's difficult to imagine where they'll turn for scoring without Butler around.

    Worse still, Taj Gibson's comments to reporters after a 113-90 loss to the Hawks on Wednesday suggest an emotional shutdown could soon follow the Bulls' physical collapse: "It's very frustrating because we have more than enough to win. We used to win games with less than this. I think it's our mental [approach]. It's extremely frustrating and it hurts my heart."

    Gibson is typically a rock. This doesn't bode well.

17. Houston Rockets

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    Rick Scuteri/Associated Press

    Last Week: 13

    Item 1: "We're broken," Houston Rockets head coach J.B. Bickerstaff told reporters, per KPRC-TV's Adam Wexler, after Houston's 116-103 loss to the Portland Trail Blazers. "It's that simple."

    Item 2: "Jason Terry walks through the media room on way to locker room," Eric Ringering of 750 The Game in Portland tweeted. "'No chemistry with that group. [F-----g] horrible.'"

    Item 3: "The Houston Rockets have started contacting teams about trading eight-time All-Star Dwight Howard," according to Adrian Wojnarowski of The Vertical.

    Summation: Everything's great!

    Addendum: Everything is not great. Houston has lost three games in a row by an average of 12 points and is now ninth in the West.

    Recommended course of action: Build a bunker and watch the nuclear explosion through that little surface-level cutout window bunkers have.

16. Detroit Pistons

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    David Butler II-USA TODAY Sports

    Last Week: 17

    Are the Detroit Pistons objectively worse right now than any of the teams we've listed so far? Maybe you could make a case that they belong behind the Bulls, but Chicago's losing streak is longer, and Detroit still posts a positive differential on the season—something that can't be said of its Central Division rival.

    Maybe the Pistons, who head into the break at 27-27, fooled us with their early-season run. Maybe that 21-16 start was just fool's gold.

    But it's also possible that Detroit will eventually meet Stan Van Gundy's defensive demands. And perhaps a few days rest will give a team so dependent on the first unit the recuperative time it needs.

    This is a bet on Van Gundy, who has just one sub-.500 season on his coaching resume (last year). A slow start to the second half could lead to some serious hedging, though. Not to mention slippage in the rankings.

15. Indiana Pacers

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    Darron Cummings/Associated Press

    Last Week: 14

    The Pacers lose ground this week because their only wins (at home against Detroit and the Lakers) don't move the needle, while losses to the Hawks and Hornets, with the latter coming in blowout fashion, are more persuasive.

    Paul George, George Hill and head coach Frank Vogel agreeing to appear on next week's episode of The Bachelor was also a factor in knocking the Pacers down a peg.

    Come on, guys, you can botch late-game execution and give away the occasional game to inferior opponents all you want. But did you have to participate in the ongoing devolution of humanity by being part of America's favorite weekly idiot parade?

    It's not too late to correct this, Pacers. We can edit these things after the fact.

    You have until Monday to make the right decision.

14. Charlotte Hornets

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    Andy Lyons/Getty Images

    Last Week: 18

    This is why, apparently, the Hornets can't have nice things.

    Michael Kidd-Gilchrist tore the labrum in his right shoulder (again) Wednesday, according to the Charlotte Observer's Rick Bonnell, putting his status for the remainder of the regular season in serious doubt and buzz-killing Charlotte's first time back over .500 since Jan. 2.

    Thanks largely to MKG's defense and infectious hustle, the Hornets were in the process of righting the ship after a disastrous January. Now, they'll return from the break leaning more than ever on Kemba Walker and hoping they get something from Al Jefferson when he returns from knee surgery.

    At full strength, the Hornets are a playoff team. But they won't be whole for the foreseeable future. And while continued declines from Chicago and Detroit mean staying in the playoff picture won't be as hard as it seemed earlier this season, Charlotte will still have to fight like crazy the rest of the way.

13. Dallas Mavericks

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    Tony Gutierrez/Associated Press

    Last Week: 12

    The Dallas Mavericks slip after a 1-2 week that saw them cough up a 15-point lead in an OT loss to the Jazz. It was a brutal defeat marred by poor decisions (not fouling Utah when up three with seven seconds remaining, which allowed Rodney Hood to tie the game with a triple) and shoddy execution.

    "We need this break; we need to get away," head coach Rick Carlisle told Tim MacMahon of ESPN.com after the Utah loss.

    With Houston coming apart at the seams and Memphis losing its best player, Dallas' postseason chances are still strong. But two younger clubs, both of which sit below the Mavs in the standings but have outplayed them over the past month, are on the upswing. That means there's a good shot Dallas heads into the postseason in the No. 8 position, which means a first-round date with a superpower.

    That's a long way off, but given their recent performance, it's difficult to envision the Mavericks doing anything but sliding down the standings.

12. Portland Trail Blazers

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    Craig Mitchelldyer-USA TODAY Sports

    Last Week: 16

    If there were a feel-good award for the pre-break portion of the season, the Blazers would get it.

    Sitting in the West's No. 7 spot after winning all three of its games last week (two against Houston and one against Memphis), Portland is playing with the freedom and confidence of a team that knows it's transacting house money.

    Damian Lillard probably deserved an All-Star nod, and he's the Blazers' unquestioned alpha. But his mostly unheralded supporting cast has contributed along the way. In just his third start of the season, Moe Harkless put up 19 points and 13 rebounds against Houston on Wednesday.

    With nine days to savor their hot streak (the Blazers have won eight of their last nine), here's hoping the freedom from expectations that helped get them here doesn't give way to the pressure of staying put. Golden State looms on the other side of the All-Star break, so Portland had better be ready.

11. Miami Heat

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    Rocky W. Widner/Getty Images

    Last Week: 10

    The win-now Miami Heat enter the break at a crossroads. Does Hassan Whiteside give them enough of an on-court boost to justify keeping him around—even if his immaturity makes him unstable, and even if he's almost certain to leave as a free agent this summer?

    Or can the Heat get something of value for him via trade?

    Whiteside, who was ejected from Tuesday's 119-101 loss to the San Antonio Spurs after elbowing Boban Marjanovic, may not be someone the Heat can count on. Ira Winderman of the South Florida Sun Sentinel wrote: "But trust? That is something built over months, not just weeks. And now there again is uncertainty at a particularly curious time, with the Heat not to resume play until a day after the Feb. 18 NBA trading deadline."

    Miami sinks one spot after a 1-2 week, though there's still a lingering feeling that a fully healthy roster—perhaps one in which Whiteside is replaced by a more reliable big man—could push the East's elite over the final two months.

10. Atlanta Hawks

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    Brett Davis-USA TODAY Sports

    Last Week: 9

    If dropping the Hawks because they somehow gave away a back-to-back against a lowly East lottery team feels at all familiar, it's because we've seen this exact thing happen once before. Atlanta bumbled away two straight games to the Knicks back on Jan. 3 and 5, and now, after dropping a pair to the Magic on Sunday and Monday, we're penalizing the Hawks again.

    I mean, that's just weird.

    If the Hawks took care of business in those four contests like they should have, we'd be talking about a 35-20 team sitting comfortably in the East's No. 3 spot. Instead, Atlanta goes into the break at 31-24, just three games up on the eighth-seeded Hornets.

    The Hawks still have the eighth-best net rating in the league, and though they've gone just 8-9 over the last month, their losses have mostly been close ones. Both Orlando defeats, in fact, could easily have gone the other way.

    Let's settle on cautious optimism as the appropriate setting here—unless, of course, Al Horford and/or Jeff Teague wind up getting traded. If that happens, as has been rumored, all bets are off.

9. Memphis Grizzlies

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    Brandon Dill/Associated Press

    Last Week: 6

    Pour out some barbecue sauce for Memphis' Grit and Grind era. Marc Gasol's broken foot, which will keep him out indefinitely, means the Grizzlies have almost no choice but to undertake an identity overhaul.

    This is disheartening stuff, particularly for Gasol. Big men over 30 aren't typically quick recuperators, especially when it comes to foot injuries. And with Mike Conley facing free agency and both Tony Allen and Zach Randolph approaching the end of their respective careers, Memphis will almost certainly look different next year.

    It wouldn't be unreasonable for the Grizz to pursue proactive trades now in hopes of getting younger and having a remade roster ready for whenever Gasol is healthy enough to return. Assuming the star center's season is over, there's no point in pursuing wins the rest of the way. No iteration of the Grizzlies sans Gasol is a threat to win a playoff series in the West.

    You could make the case a bigger dive in the rankings was in order. Gasol's absence cuts Memphis' legs out from under it. But the Grizz whipped the Nets on Wednesday, and a larger tumble seems cruel at this point.

    There'll be plenty of time to send the Grizzlies spiraling down the rankings as the season wears on.

8. Utah Jazz

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    Kevin Jairaj-USA TODAY Sports

    Last Week: 11

    Do you hear that?

    It's the sound of legions of preseason Jazz believers exhaling in relief.

    Utah, battling injuries since November, won't be whole until Dante Exum returns from his torn ACL next season. But Alec Burks has been out of his walking boot since Feb. 1, and he should be back sometime after the break.

    And in the meantime, Rudy Gobert, Derrick Favors, Rodney Hood and Gordon Hayward have helped get the Jazz back into playoff position. Despite snapping a seven-game winning streak with a 100-96 loss to the Pelicans on Wednesday, Utah hits the break at 26-26 with nowhere to go but up.

    The defense is rounding into form, and with just three road games on the schedule between now and March 1, the Jazz are in prime position to push as high as No. 5 in the West before the real stretch run starts. It took a while, but the Jazz are finally where so many thought they'd be.

7. Los Angeles Clippers

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    Chris Szagola/Associated Press

    Last Week: 7

    The Clippers had it easy in terms of opponents this past week, but taking three of four on the road is still a laudable accomplishment. And if L.A. could have closed the deal against the Celtics in that 139-134 overtime loss, a move up to No. 6 would have been in order.

    Holding steady in seventh place feels strange for a team that spent most of the last few weeks in turmoil. Blake Griffin getting hurt, then suspended; Josh Smith being sent away for nothing; Austin Rivers breaking his hand—destabilizers all.

    The particulars are different, but the concept of perpetual unrest isn't.

    "For years now, they've dealt with unforeseen circumstances, even ones as seemingly incapacitating as losing an MVP candidate for a month-and-a-half, and likely longer," Rowan Kavner of Clippers.com wrote. "They just adjust."

    So, oddly yet predictably, the Clips go into the break with relative calm.

    Let's hope they enjoy it because when they emerge from All-Star Weekend, they'll tangle with the Spurs and Warriors in their first two games. If L.A. wants to prove it's more than a steady squad that can survive distraction, that'll be a good place to start.

6. Boston Celtics

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    Brian Babineau/Getty Images

    Last Week: 8

    Whether the Celtics have the kind of takeover star many believe is necessary for playoff success is a separate question. We'll find out if collective effort, depth and defense are enough to survive in the postseason eventually.

    For now, what we know is Boston is having a heck of a regular season.

    Winners of 10 of their last 12 games, the Celts have climbed all the way to No. 6 this week, a season best. And Marcus Smart, who has hit a remarkable 24 of his last 56 three-point attempts (42.9 percent), has found his outside shot after starting the season in a prolonged slump.

    That's a big deal, as Chris Forsberg of ESPN.com noted:

    Smart's offensive development is a boon for Boston. The 21-year-old bulldog had already made himself a key rotation player with his hustle and defensive tenacity. Now, the No. 6 pick in the 2014 draft is not only developing his point guard skills and being more aggressive going at the basket, but also knocking down three-point shots.

    It's hard to see a way for the Celtics to climb any higher than this. Everyone ahead of them has at least reasonably serious championship thoughts. But few imagined a summit this high, so who's to say where the ceiling is for this Boston team?

5. Toronto Raptors

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    Jesse Johnson-USA TODAY Sports

    Last Week: 5

    The All-Star hosts might have started thinking about their duties a bit too early, as the Raptors kicked away a 117-112 loss to the Wolves in their last game before the break. Nonetheless, Toronto holds steady at its familiar No. 5 spot having gone 15-4 since Jan. 1.

    DeMar DeRozan and Kyle Lowry continue to shine in tandem, and the Raptors' collective effort has both their offense (sixth) and defense (ninth) in the league's top 10.

    The elephant in the room (or mammoth, I guess, since this is Canada we're talking about) is what happened after last year's terrific start. Everyone remembers the Raps falling apart in the second half, and though this team feels much better built, the hovering specter of that 2015 implosion will linger until Toronto proves no repeat is forthcoming.

    Don't expect head coach Dwane Casey to let his Raptors get comfortable. After that loss to Minnesota, he had this to say of a team that has won 14 of its last 16 games, per Doug Smith of the Toronto Star: "We're not as good as we think we are."

    Complacency is unwelcome north of the border.

4. Cleveland Cavaliers

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    Tony Dejak/Associated Press

    Last Week: 4

    The Cleveland Cavaliers rank fourth in offense and fourth in net rating. They've also been in the No. 4 spot of these rankings more often than not through the first 60 percent of the season.

    So this just feels right.

    Hiccups against the Hornets and Celtics last week were cause for minor concern, but the Cavs rebounded with three straight laughers against the Pelicans, Kings and Lakers to close out the latest ranking window.

    Kyrie Irving has led the team in scoring during four of the past five games, and Kevin Love (who is fine after suffering a stinger on the shoulder he separated last postseason) remains a more frequently used piece of the offense under head coach Tyronn Lue.

    The Cavs could stand to run more, and they'll need to defend with more energy eventually, but they've been playing with the knowledge that the top seed in the East is essentially theirs to lose for most of the year. Urgency, in other words, has been hard to come by.

    Maybe the Cavaliers have a higher ceiling than the No. 4 spot they've occupied for so long, but chances are they won't feel motivated to show us until the regular season is over.

3. Oklahoma City Thunder

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    Sue Ogrocki/Associated Press

    Last Week: 3

    The Oklahoma City Thunder gave the Warriors a run Feb. 6, tying the game at 104-104 with under four minutes to play. That's as good as a win in these circumstances, as nobody else has made Golden State sweat in the past few weeks.

    After reconfiguring the roster at last year's trade deadline, it doesn't seem as if this Thunder group will be so quick to tinker. There are still flaws—Enes Kanter's defense, Cameron Payne's rookie struggles, Andre Roberson's three-point shot—but nobody besides the Spurs and Warriors are good enough to exploit them.

    With Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook playing as well as they ever have (and, frankly, better than ever in Westbrook's case), OKC is essentially in a wait-it-out position for the season's final 30 games or so. Maybe it'll catch the Spurs slipping, which could result in securing the West's No. 2 seed.

    More likely, though, the Thunder will win around 60 games and take their chances in a playoff bracket that'll require them to beat three of the other top four teams to win a title.

2. San Antonio Spurs

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    Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

    Last Week: 2

    If it feels like age, that relentless foe the Spurs have kept at arm's length for years, may finally be within striking distance, it's probably because each of San Antonio's venerable Big Three have broken down at points this season. (Though, to be fair, Manu Ginobili couldn't have avoided Ryan Anderson's perfectly placed knee.) 

    Tim Duncan returned after an eight-game absence nursing a knee, Ginobili is out for a month with a testicular injury and Tony Parker's sore ankle cost him San Antonio's last game before the break—one Kawhi Leonard saved with a game-winning jumper.

    So maybe we should worry. After all, the Spurs will need Parker and Ginobili to penetrate the defense if they hope to get the ball moving in the playoffs. And Duncan remains integral to the league's best defensive unit. But with LaMarcus Aldridge taking home Player of the Week honors and Leonard winning games by himself, it's hard to get too concerned.

    San Antonio is still on pace to post the highest average margin of victory in league history, hasn't lost at home all year and has only tasted defeat against the Warriors and Cavs in 2016.

    Keep those concerns about the old dudes in the back of your mind, but know that San Antonio won't even need them until April.

1. Golden State Warriors

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    Christian Petersen/Getty Images

    Last Week: 1

    The Warriors' 48-4 start is the best in league history.

    The Warriors have three All-Stars.

    The Warriors are 72-10 in their last 82 regular-season games.

    The Warriors have the surefire MVP (again) in Stephen Curry—a player actively redefining the limits of individual offensive impact.

    The Warriors have not trailed in a fourth quarter since Jan. 18.

    The Warriors dance more than any other NBA team.

    The Warriors have not lost at home in over a calendar year.

    The Warriors believe they can get better.

    The Warriors are the No. 1 team here, and it's getting harder every day to make a case against them being the No. 1 team we've ever seen.


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    Stats courtesy of NBA.com and Basketball-Reference.com and are accurate through games played Thursday.