NBA Power Rankings with 1 Month Left in 2015-16 Season

Grant Hughes@@gt_hughesNational NBA Featured ColumnistMarch 11, 2016

NBA Power Rankings with 1 Month Left in 2015-16 Season

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    Noah Graham/Getty Images

    This past week the NBA saw order (partially) restored and opportunities (unfortunately) missed, and the top few spots in the latest power rankings shuffled around accordingly.

    Most of the usual suspects still occupy the first 10 positions, but nearly all of them have shifted after a week that saw Russell Westbrook and the Oklahoma City Thunder reaffirm some of their previous dominance and the Cleveland Cavaliers suffer a truly shocking defeat.

    Elsewhere, the Dallas Mavericks' skid continued, and the Charlotte Hornets just kept shooting—with much better results.

    As always, these rankings are designed as a snapshot of the league. The goal is to organize all 30 squads into an order that reflects their strength right this minute. Overall performance matters, but recent play is a major factor as well. We'll look ahead where relevant, but these rankings are about the present.

    We only have one month left for these things to stabilize. Very little of what we've seen so far suggests that'll ever happen—which...great!

    Let us rank.

30. Philadelphia 76ers

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    Reinhold Matay/Associated Press

    Last Week: 30

    The Philadelphia 76ers only won one game in February and are currently 0-for-March, so we have no reason to move them out of the basement.

    They may, however, be looking to dig themselves deeper—maybe down into the earth's core—over the season's final full month. Nerlens Noel has missed games here and there with knee issues lately, and Jahlil Okafor's recurring right knee soreness could sideline him for the duration, per Keith Pompey of the Philadelphia Inquirer.

    Okafor's overall impact on the Sixers is mixed; he's their best individual scorer but doesn't move the ball and doesn't defend or rebound well. So his absence can hardly be described as fatal. But taking a fairly reliable source of offense away from a team that averages a league-worst 95.9 points per 100 possessions can't help.

    Getting to 10 wins is going to be tough for the 8-56 Sixers.

29. Phoenix Suns

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    Brandon Dill/Associated Press

    Last Week: 29

    To put it mildly, back-to-back wins have been elusive for the Phoenix Suns this season. Until last week's out-of-nowhere road wins over the Orlando Magic and Memphis Grizzlies, they hadn't collected consecutive victories since Dec. 7 and 9 against the Chicago Bulls and Magic.

    (What's up with the Magic losing both games against the Suns this year, by the way? That will have to be accounted for somehow in Orlando's ranking.)

    Phoenix squashed any concerns about a sustainable rebound with an A-plus debacle against the New York Knicks on Wednesday, a 128-97 dismantling that would have felt like a new low if there hadn't already been so many this season.

    In fact, ESPN.com's Tom Haberstroh tweeted, "Many times I have naively and falsely believed the Suns had hit rock bottom. But there is nothing lower than 'Sasha Vujacic 23 points'."

    Yeah. The Machine started at the 2 and hung 23 on the Suns.

    Those two wins were nice, but we still know what Phoenix is about.

28. Sacramento Kings

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    Tony Gutierrez/Associated Press

    Last Week: 23

    That March 3 win over Dallas looks less impressive now that the Mavericks have shown themselves to be one of the quieter messes in the league of late. And a subsequent three-game skid didn't do much to suggest the Sacramento Kings belonged outside the league's bottom five.

    The Kings are just 3-7 in their last 10 games, as are the Los Angeles Lakers. But for two reasons, Sacramento slips behind L.A. this week.

    First, the Lakers are actually playing pretty hard lately. D'Angelo Russell and Jordan Clarkson have been mostly liberated from the Byron Scott yoke, and they're bringing real energy to a team that shouldn't, by rights, have any at this point. Energy and effort are not things the Kings embrace, particularly on defense.

    Second, L.A. beat the Golden State Warriors (and less impressively, the Magic) last week. Sacramento can't compete with that.

    It can, however, suspend DeMarcus Cousins for screaming at George Karl on the bench. Which it did, per Yahoo Sports' Marc J. Spears.

    Everything's fine!

27. Los Angeles Lakers

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    Ringo H.W. Chiu/Associated Press

    Last Week: 28

    We hit a lot of this in the Kings slide, but the Lakers' young guys actually seem to care about winning—or at least about putting forth the effort required to win. Maybe this is a symptom of having the uncompromising Kobe Bryant around, or maybe Byron Scott's constant challenges to their manhood created an environment in which proving oneself is a daily requirement.

    Russell, in particular, has thrived lately. He's been almost cartoonishly confident since his 39-point coronation against the Brooklyn Nets on March 1, and there's little doubt now about him having a long, productive career. With an attitude like his, stardom isn't out of the question either.

    "Now that I have the opportunity, I've been showing just a little bit of what I can do and what I can make happen for myself," Russell told Michael Lee of The Vertical.

    Russell also singled out the Lakers mystique as a motivating factor. Being part of a storied franchise with a winning history added pressure (and focus) to his rookie season, and he embraced it. This idea of Lakers exceptionalism has gotten the franchise into trouble in recent years, but it apparently has its upsides.

26. Brooklyn Nets

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    Last Week: 26

    Alongside the Lakers and Suns, the Brooklyn Nets are the third team in the bottom five to have won at least one game last week. The needle is still not moving much after a 121-120 overtime win against the Denver Nuggets last Friday, though, because the Nets went on to drop games to the Minnesota Timberwolves and Toronto Raptors to complete a 1-2 week.

    Having dispensed with the trivial stuff about record and rankings, we can now address the most important development of the Nets season: Brook Lopez joining his brother Robin's crusade against NBA mascots.

    BroLo manhandled the Raptor (somebody get Drake on this; we need something more creative) Tuesday, finishing what Robin started earlier in the week.

    If you guys are cool with it, we'll just keep tabs on the Lopez brothers' mascot dealings in this space for the rest of the season. Seems like it'll be more entertaining than chronicling the Nets' quest to crack 25 wins, doesn't it? 

25. New York Knicks

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    Doug Pensinger/Getty Images

    Last Week: 27

    Blowout wins over the Suns and Detroit Pistons (and a one-point loss to the Boston Celtics this past Friday) make last week one of the best the New York Knicks have had in months.

    And then Carmelo Anthony started talking about free-agent recruiting, and that precious spark of hope died right out.

    "I think Rondo—just me personally, I don't want to be tampering—but I've heard he said he wouldn't thrive in a system like this," Anthony told reporters. "I think he'd be perfect in a system like this."

    Anthony has played a lot of NBA basketball, some of it for good teams. So maybe he knows what he's talking about. But the idea of Rondo (this current, late-career version in particular) fitting into any system that doesn't start and end with him dominating the ball and hunting assists is awfully tough to swallow.

    If that's how the Knicks plan to spend their money, go ahead and count on the progress of this season being undone in 2016-17.

    Add this to the pile of evidence showing why players, especially good ones, shouldn't necessarily have a say on roster construction.

24. Minnesota Timberwolves

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    Kent Smith/Getty Images

    Last Week: 25

    This was a week that saw a T-shirt memorializing one of the Minnesota Timberwolves' worst decisions go viral, so we'll be nice.

    Minnesota shot a franchise-record 68.4 percent from the field in its 132-118 win over the Nets on March 5, hitting a totally out-of-character 10-of-18 from long range. On the season, the Wolves average the fewest made triples per game in the league: 5.1, per NBA.com. And they're third-worst in accuracy, hitting only 33 percent of their attempts.

    Thanks to that Nets win, though, Minnesota posted the highest effective field-goal percentage in the NBA last week. At 56.4 percent, the Wolves essentially score the ball with greater efficiency than the league-leading Golden State Warriors (effective field-goal percentage of 56 percent through games played March 9) do on the season.

    It didn't hurt that Karl-Anthony Towns' week included a combined 44-of-67 shooting effort from the field. 

    This would normally be the time to mention Minnesota's defense is third-worst in the league, but remember, we're being nice.

23. Milwaukee Bucks

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    Jeff Hanisch-USA TODAY Sports

    Last Week: 24

    Notching two wins last week—one of which stopped the scorching Miami Heat's winning streak—earns the Milwaukee Bucks a bump upward. And Giannis Antetokounmpo's ongoing development as a point guard has people getting justifiably lyrical.

    Here's Louis Keene of Vice Sports: "What's most miraculous about Giannis' torrent of success is that it has come on his own terms. He hasn't had to compromise his talent to fit a role, or truncate his loping strides to get in step with an evolving sport. He simply Does Giannis, and the world adjusts."

    Antetokounmpo averaged 22.3 points, 8.3 rebounds and 9.5 assists on 47.7 percent shooting from March 3-9, absolutely dominating the statistical landscape last week.

    Greg Monroe can't defend the rim, and Jabari Parker keeps coupling improved defensive instincts with unforgivable gaffes. But this Giannis-at-the-point thing has legs—long, "Eurostepping," evolutionary legs.

22. Orlando Magic

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    Fernando Medina/Getty Images

    Last Week: 19

    The Magic have already shown up on other teams' slides for the wrong reasons—the main one being their knack for losing to trash-heap teams. Orlando fell against the mighty Lakers and Suns last week, sandwiching those shameful defeats around a scrappy, hang-with-'em effort against the Warriors on Monday.

    Inconsistency, waning defensive focus and an offense that keeps seizing up have head coach Scott Skiles thinking about tweaks, per Josh Robbins of the Orlando Sentinel. "We may make some changes, see if we can try to come up with something to try to re-energize us a little bit," Skiles said after the Lakers loss on Tuesday.

    One option would be keeping Ersan Ilyasova affixed to the bench. He shot a tidy 5-of-25 in Orlando's three losses last week and has yet to find anything resembling a groove.

21. New Orleans Pelicans

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    Sam Sharpe-USA TODAY Sports

    Last Week: 20

    Hey, so here's something, per David Fisher of the Bird Writes: "When Jrue Holiday and Anthony Davis play at least 27 minutes together (four games) AD is averaging 39.8 PPG."

    The "four games" portion of that stat stands out most, which is saying something when the other number is 39.8 points per game. Holiday isn't just a Davis-enabler, either; he scored a career-high 38 in Wednesday's loss to the Charlotte Hornets, nicely complementing AD's 40 points.

    Holiday spent most of the year on a minutes limit designed to prevent recurring stress fractures in his right tibia, and he's only recently been starting because Eric Gordon broke his right ring finger (again). To be fair, I've been advocating for a New Orleans Pelicans tank since they started 1-11, so it's unfair to criticize head coach Alvin Gentry for keeping a player who is so clearly productive off the floor.

    But if the Pels are serious about trying to win—now and going forward—it's clear a Holiday-Davis tandem is a viable start.

    New Orleans slips a spot after a 1-2 week with the only win a 115-112 squeaker against the Kings on Monday.

20. Denver Nuggets

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    David Zalubowski/Associated Press

    Last Week: 22

    Magic Jokic.

    Drink it in:

    "We're trying to put him in different positions, let him be our playmaker, try to allow him to make plays for his teammates," Denver Nuggets head coach Michael Malone told Harrison Wind of BSN Denver when asked about Nikola Jokic's growing role as a facilitator. "Some of his passing, like especially even in transition—he rebounds, he pushes. If our guys would just run, he would even have that many more assists, because he's like Magic Jokic. He's king of the no-look."

    Nate Timmons of BSN Denver listed a handful of Jokic's other nicknames, with the Will Barton-created "Big Honey" standing out as a strong leader. But Magic Jokic works too. There just aren't many centers (let alone rookie centers) who've ever shown the passing acumen of the 21-year-old Serbian.

    Denver was an overtime loss to the Nets away from a perfect 4-0 week. Jokic, who went for at least 13 points, nine rebounds and three assists in all four games, was the biggest reason why.

19. Washington Wizards

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    Steve Dykes/Associated Press

    Last Week: 14

    Something to keep in mind after an ugly 0-3 week cost the Washington Wizards five spots in the power rankings: John Wall (25 years, six months) and Bradley Beal (22) are younger than the far more celebrated up-and-coming backcourt tandem of Damian Lillard (25 years, eight months) and C.J. McCollum (24).

    It doesn't seem that way, as the Portland Trail Blazers duo is so closely associated with the organization's youth-fueled rebuild, but it's worth remembering when gauging both pairs' progress. And at the very least, it helps any Wizards fans stave off the feeling that the sky is falling after Lillard doubled up Wall (41 points to 20) in Tuesday's 116-109 Blazers win.

    Washington has to sort through some things. Randy Wittman hasn't successfully taken this team beyond the "perennially flirting with .500" stage, and it's clear Wall could do a ton more if only he had enough shooting around him.

    Still, chin up, Wizards supporters. Wall and Beal have more time to grow than you might think.

18. Chicago Bulls

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    Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images

    Last Week: 21

    One of the scariest things you can hear about a player at this time of year is "he's going to visit Dr. James Andrews for a second opinion." But ominous reports like those usually pertain to the Tommy John surgery candidates at spring training.

    In this case, they were about Jimmy Butler, per Nick Friedell of ESPN.com: "Bulls All-Star swingman Jimmy Butler will travel to Alabama to meet with Dr. James Andrews on Thursday morning to get a second opinion on his injured left knee."

    Oh dear.

    Butler missed one month with a left knee sprain, returned to face the Houston Rockets on March 5 and then suffered some swelling. The Bulls won that game, and Pau Gasol put up a triple-double to beat the Bucks two days later. In all, the Bulls have recovered nicely after a devastating week last time around.

    Fortunately, everything looks fine with Butler and there are "no issues," per Ken Berger of CBSSports.com.

    Bad news for Butler could have been the final straw in an injury-plagued, mostly disappointing season. The playoffs, probably a 50-50 proposition now, would have been an impossibility without him.

17. Utah Jazz

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    Rick Bowmer/Associated Press

    Last Week: 13

    We continue to make amends for overestimating the Utah Jazz all season, dropping them a few more spots after a 1-2 week that saw them (continue to) struggle to score and lose even more ground in a West playoff race that seems perfectly happy to leave them behind.

    Nobody in the West has been worse than Utah (2-8) over the last 10 games.

    Injuries are still an issue, as Rodney Hood's sore back kept him out of Wednesday's blowout loss to the Warriors. Dante Exum and Alec Burks, two projected starters, also remain sidelined. The youth excuse still applies as well.

    But maybe stylistic tweaks are in order. Utah plays at the league's slowest pace, and its half-court possessions feature more wheel-spinning than you see from good offenses. It's tempting to pin those problems on the outdated two-big lineup including Rudy Gobert and Derrick Favors, but the Jazz score 105.2 points per 100 possessions with that pair on the court. Overall, Utah's offensive rating is only 102.6.

    So much for that.

    The Jazz look like the league's best "maybe next year" team for the second season in a row. Encouraging, but it's starting to get old.

16. Houston Rockets

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    Vaughn Ridley/Getty Images

    Last Week: 18

    James Harden has been on some kind of tear lately, averaging 34.7 points, 7.4 assists and 6.8 rebounds since the All-Star break. Thanks to him, the Houston Rockets notched their most impressive road win of the season last Sunday, a 113-107 victory at Toronto.

    The Beard got loose for 40 points, 14 assists and five rebounds on just 20 field-goal attempts in that one, and it's starting to feel like Houston's season is transitioning from catastrophically disappointing to "kind of a bummer." The Rockets will take that upgrade.

    As long as the Jazz keep mucking around and the Mavericks' slide continues (more on that shortly), Houston will have enough to secure a playoff spot. That's a modest goal for a squad that reached the Western Conference Finals last year, but it's also one that didn't look realistic just a couple of weeks ago.

    In the backward world of the 2015-16 Rockets, that's technically progress.

15. Dallas Mavericks

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    Doug Pensinger/Getty Images

    Last Week: 11

    Uh oh.

    This has gotten ugly in a hurry, hasn't it?

    Dallas has lost four straight and is four games under .500 since Feb. 1. And though plenty of forces have been conspiring to sink the Mavs—awful interior defense and shoddy bench play, to name two—the biggest success-inhibitor last week was long-range shooting.

    Per B/R Insights, Dallas shot 28.4 percent from deep last week, fifth-worst in the NBA and a marked departure from its season-long conversion rate of 34.3 percent. This is a team that put up at least 120 points in three straight games less than two weeks ago, so it's reasonable to take the shooting struggles with a small-sample-size grain of salt.

    But if the Mavericks can't keep scoring in bunches, we know their defense isn't good enough to keep them competitive.

14. Indiana Pacers

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    Ron Hoskins/Getty Images

    Last Week: 17

    You beat the San Antonio Spurs, you move up. It's pretty simple around here.

    The Indiana Pacers climb three spots after knocking off the league's most mechanical juggernaut in last Monday's 99-91 home win, a result that looked even better after Paul George's 38 points resulted in a win over the Wizards two days prior.

    Ty Lawson joined Indiana the day of the Spurs game and actually played a few minutes...before spraining his left foot and missing the next few days of practice. Though he's running out of chances, Lawson flashed the drive-and-kick game Indiana needs in his abbreviated debut. He hit Rodney Stuckey for a three after drawing the defense for his first Pacers assist.

    Indiana averaged only 15.2 assists per 100 possessions last week, fourth-worst in the league, per NBA.com, and late-game stagnation has cost it a half-dozen wins this season. If Lawson provides even a fleeting glimpse of his once-elite penetration, he'll help.

13. Memphis Grizzlies

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    Jason Miller/Getty Images

    Last Week: 16

    A 2-2 week isn't much, particularly with a loss to the Suns mixed in there. But the Memphis Grizzlies' inspiring, skeleton-crewed win at Cleveland on Monday might have been the most surprising result of the year. So the Grizz get a boost.

    "The guys played their hearts out," head coach David Joerger said after the win over Cleveland. "We had guys cramping, but they left it all out there. It's a happy locker room."

    Eight healthy bodies; no Marc Gasol, Mike Conley or Zach Randolph; 26 points from Tony Allen...Tony Allen! That 106-103 victory against the Cavs was remarkable, and Memphis' stable play with limited resources lately suggests Joerger can handle whatever post-Grit and Grind transitional phase lies ahead.

    Some evidence: The Grizzlies have now been without Gasol for a full month. And in that time, they've scored 108 points per 100 possessions, the 10th-best figure in the league.

    Memphis is going to make the playoffs. Given the circumstances, that's incredible.

    Also, Mario Chalmers ruptured his Achilles and got waived, per RealGM. Sad times.

12. Detroit Pistons

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    Allen Einstein/Getty Images

    Last Week: 15

    Reinforcements are on the way for the Detroit Pistons, who still managed to beat the Mavericks and Trail Blazers last week with Reggie Bullock and Darrun Hilliard playing bigger roles than anyone could have imagined earlier in the year.

    Stanley Johnson's shoulder has kept him on the bench since Feb. 24, but both Jodie Meeks and Anthony Tolliver are nearing returns, per Rod Beard of the Detroit News: "Meeks took part in the walk-through on Wednesday; he won’t play, but is nearing a return to the court—possibly by the end of the four-game road trip."

    Perimeter shooting is a must for a pick-and-roll team like the Pistons, and Meeks' return will only free up Andre Drummond for more unimpeded dives to the hole.

    Detroit will be on the road through March 14, but it might return home to a host of rehabilitated rotation pieces. The Pacers, who are ahead of the Pistons by a narrow margin in the East, should be worried about that.

11. Portland Trail Blazers

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    B. Sevald/Einstein/Getty Images

    Last Week: 8

    Despite Damian Lillard scoring like crazy (50 against the Raptors, 41 against the Wizards), Portland has hit a rough patch. Just 1-2 last week, the Blazers have leveled off after February's incredible tear.

    Getting that momentum back will require better play on the interior.

    According to B/R Insights, the opposing center has recorded a double-double in each of the Blazers' last three losses (Andre Drummond, Jonas Valanciunas and Jared Sullinger), while Mason Plumlee, Portland's starter in the middle, hasn't had double-digit points or rebounds since scoring 16 on Feb. 27.

    We know the Blazers define themselves with their backcourt play, but a little production up front could go a long way toward finishing off this unexpected playoff push.

10. Miami Heat

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    LM Otero/Associated Press

    Last Week: 9

    Things are about to get serious for the Miami Heat, who drop a spot despite recently running off a five-game winning streak, which the Bucks snapped Wednesday. See, the Heat fattened up on cream puffs during that run, beating the Knicks, Bulls, Suns and Sixers (twice).

    Maybe the Heat have figured things out, and maybe they haven't. Their opponents over the last two weeks mean we can't be sure. An upcoming March schedule featuring Toronto, Charlotte, Cleveland and San Antonio will provide clarity.

    Hopefully, Chris Bosh will be there to face the tough slate. He released an encouraging statement on his health, offering hope he's overcome his latest blood clot scare. Per Ira Winderman of the Sun Sentinel, Bosh said, "I remain positive that I will be able to return this season."

    That's good news for reasons far more important than "the Heat need him." But, you know, the Heat need him.

9. Atlanta Hawks

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    Andrew D. Bernstein/Getty Images

    Last Week: 10

    This thing with the Atlanta Hawks defense is getting out of hand. Already second in the league in overall defensive efficiency, the Hawks went 3-0 last week, stifling opponents to the tune of an 88.0 defensive rating—easily tops in the NBA since the last edition of power rankings.

    You'd think the loss of wing stopper DeMarre Carroll last summer would have hurt Atlanta's defense, but this year's team just keeps tightening the screws.

    Offense has been another story, as Al Horford told Chris Vivlamore of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution: "It's just been different for us because, I feel like, teams really know what we're trying to do. Last year, we caught a lot of teams off guard. For us this year, it's been trying to make adjustments offensively, trying to figure out how we can score the ball."

    The Hawks scored enough to go 3-0 last week. As long as the defense holds up, this top-10 spot isn't going anywhere.

8. Charlotte Hornets

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    Nell Redmond/Associated Press

    Last Week: 12

    Behind Kemba Walker, the Charlotte Hornets just keep scoring...and winning.

    Their offensive rating of 113.7 during last week's perfect 3-0 run ranked second in the league, and the Hornets' overall offensive rating is up to 11th in the NBA. Walker has scored at least 30 in his last four games, topping out with 35 in a 122-113 win over the Pelicans on Wednesday.

    Those top four spots in the East are hardly settled. And even if the Heat are currently ahead of Charlotte, nobody in the conference has been better than Kemba and Co. of late. Nobody made more threes per game than the Hornets last week (13.3), and few teams have chucked with more freedom.

    "If you start saying, 'Oh, don't shoot that one!' then there is hesitancy on their part and I don't want that. I want them shooting free and easy," head coach Steve Clifford told Rick Bonnell of the Charlotte Observer.

    Free and easy. Sounds good.

7. Boston Celtics

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    Charles Krupa/Associated Press

    Last Week: 7

    If the Celtics keep this up, they're guaranteed at least 47 wins. "This," of course, being the practice of never losing at home.

    Boston has won its last 14 in a row at home, the franchise's best streak since the 1990-91 season, and with eight games remaining at the TD Garden, well...getting from 39 wins to 47 doesn't seem so hard at this rate.

    An 8-0 finish at home is unlikely—partly because the Celtics haven't been defending particularly well of late (they allowed 108.2 points per 100 possessions last week), but mostly because the Thunder, Raptors, Hornets and Heat will all pay visits before season's end.

    Still, the Celtics are in great shape. Fifty wins isn't out of the question.

6. Los Angeles Clippers

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    Layne Murdoch/Getty Images

    Last Week: 4

    Hey, it's hard to stick around the top five, and it should be.

    The Los Angeles Clippers take a spill after losing by 10 to the Hawks and 12 to the Thunder. Though it's tough to take away a top-five spot the Clips had only recently occupied, those two results were good reminders that while L.A. is dangerous, it still has its holes.

    In going just 1-2 during the last rankings period, L.A. grabbed an incomprehensibly low 43.1 percent of available rebounds—the worst figure in the league during that span. 

    Chris Paul played 36.3 minutes per game in February, his highest in any month this year. And he's still at 35.5 minutes per game through the Clips' first four March outings. He's been excellent, but the sooner Blake Griffin gets back (he hasn't yet been cleared for contact), the likelier Doc Rivers is to ease the burden on CP3.

    And maybe Griffin will even snag a board or two.

5. Cleveland Cavaliers

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    Ed Szczepanski-USA TODAY Sports

    Last Week: 5

    That loss to the Grizzlies was a real destabilizer—not that the Cavs have looked like the rock-solid monolith you'd expect in a conference-leading title contender lately. Cleveland posted a season-high 25 turnovers in that stunner last Monday, the most cough-ups on record since Dec. 8, 2007, per B/R Insights.

    As has been the party line here of late, Cleveland is still really good (46-18 after beating the Lakers on Thursday) and in little danger of a slide.

    But this isn't the stage in the season where affirmations and big-picture perspectives should be necessary. That's stuff for November and December. Eventually, the Cavs will have to figure out if they're the championship threat they want to be...or if changes are in order.

    None of the top three teams from either conference shows up on the Cavs' remaining schedule, so we won't really know how ready this team is until the playoffs (and real competition) arrive next month.

4. Oklahoma City Thunder

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    Layne Murdoch Jr./Getty Images

    Last Week: 6

    The Thunder sorted some things out last week, beating the Bucks rather easily and avenging a collapse against the Clippers with a comfortable win. Those crunch-time woes are still there, though. Oklahoma City has lost 10 games in which it held a lead heading into the fourth quarter this season, a mark matched only by the Sixers.

    Fortunately for OKC, it has the talent to create leads too big to squander...which is exactly what Russell Westbrook helped it do in that statement win over the Clips on Wednesday. He finished with 25 points, 20 assists, 11 rebounds and zero doubts about his sheer athletic dominance.

    In order to reclaim the top-three spot they held for so many weeks this season, the Thunder might want to create a little more defensive chaos and capitalize on it. They averaged just 8.3 points per game off turnovers last week, last in the NBA, per B/R Insights.

3. Toronto Raptors

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    Aaron Gash/Associated Press

    Last Week: 3

    The Raps fell to the Rockets on Sunday, but their overall excellence on the year is enough to keep them ahead of the Cavaliers for another week.

    And there's good news on the horizon: Josh Lewenberg of TSN Sports reported DeMarre Carroll was in New York on Thursday to get clearance on his surgically repaired knee. If all goes well, he could resume practicing and, hopefully, get back on the floor with enough time to catch his wind for the playoffs.

    That'll be important for Toronto, which simply can't continue with the frontcourt charade on its first unit. Through games played March 9, Jonas Valanciunas and Luis Scola have allowed 107.7 points per 100 possessions and posted a minus-4.3 net rating when sharing the floor. No other highly used Toronto tandem is anywhere near as bad.

    Those numbers won't cut it when games matter and the Raptors can't afford to dig holes at the start of every first quarter.

    If Carroll comes back soon and handles business as a small-ball 4, Toronto would get downright scary.

2. San Antonio Spurs

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    Last Week: 2

    The Spurs had a real shot to make up ground on the Warriors after Golden State's inexplicable loss to the Lakers on Sunday. But Monta Ellis came out and caught an atypically shaky San Antonio squad unprepared the very next day. His 21 points after halftime led to a 99-91 Pacers win.

    And it let the Dubs preserve their pre-existing hold on the No. 1 seed.

    San Antonio will get three head-to-head cracks at the Warriors before the season ends, so playoff positioning at the top of the West is hardly set in stone. But it's unlikely the Warriors will provide another such opening by losing to a pushover. Teams on pace for 70-plus wins don't slip often.

    San Antonio will have to settle for the highest average margin of victory in league history and the No. 2 seed unless something dramatic happens in those upcoming meetings with the Dubs, the first of which comes March 19.

1. Golden State Warriors

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    Last Week: 1

    The Lakers loss was almost certainly a "just one of those games" things, but the Warriors should be increasingly concerned by their lack of comfortable wins lately.

    Excluding Wednesday's easy 115-94 victory over the Jazz, Golden State has found itself in a fight in every single game over the last month. Stephen Curry has reliably saved them, but it's worrisome that the Warriors' net rating of plus-3.8 last week felt more like the norm than an outlier.

    "Steph is bailing us out an awful lot," head coach Steve Kerr told Ethan Sherwood Strauss of ESPN.com after Curry's 41 points staved off a feisty Magic team by just six Monday. "But we can't count on that. We can't rely on that. We need to get back to being the best defensive team in the league, which we were a year ago, which we're not right now anywhere close to."

    Ah yes, defense. The thing Golden State was better at than anyone last year.

    The Warriors rank fifth in defensive efficiency this season, though they're an especially stingy week away from climbing to second. So while it's true the Dubs are the best team in the league by plenty of measures—record being chief among them—there's obvious room for improvement.

    And yes, it feels strange to make that point about a team sure to have 65 wins by the end of March.

     

    Follow Grant @gt_hughes on Twitter and Facebook.

    Stats courtesy of NBA.com unless otherwise indicated. Accurate through games played March 10.