NBA Power Rankings Entering Final Weeks of 2015-16 Season
The 2015-16 NBA regular season ends April 13, which means everyone—from playoff hopefuls to lottery locks to genuine championship contenders—is running out of time.
Tankers need to tank harder, half of the Eastern Conference still thinks it's in play for the postseason, and the juggernaut San Antonio Spurs and Golden State Warriors will get three more chances to see whose momentum is greater. Here in the land of power rankings, we're still trafficking in upheaval, as the Utah Jazz and Boston Celtics (just two examples; don't worry, there are more) made big moves this time around.
Stability persists at the top, of course, though we have a new entry into the third spot that just feels right.
Rankings are based on overall performance with an emphasis on recent play. Win-loss records matter, but we'll take strength of opponent into account whenever citing that stat. With some help from advanced metrics and some gut feelings, we'll organize these 30 teams on the basis of who's playing the best right now.
30. Philadelphia 76ers
Last Week: 30
A lot of people think Aaron Nola is the safest bet for a breakout in the Philadelphia Phillies starting rotation, but don't sleep on Vincent Velasquez. He has the most strikeout potential on the roster and could easily morph into a dominant starter if he curbs his worrisome walk rate.
Oh, wait, sorry. Were you hoping for more information on the Philadelphia 76ers?
Yeah, we're not doing that anymore. It's always the same—even if they did manage to beat the Brooklyn Nets this past week.
Banged up (Jahlil Okafor is done for the year because of a torn meniscus, per Derek Bodner of Philadelphia Magazine) and generally getting blown out, the Sixers are quite obviously the league's worst team. So from now on: Phillies news!
The alternative is more of this: "We’ve gone through three years of immense pain," head coach Brett Brown said on The Lowe Post podcast with ESPN's Zach Lowe. Is that what you really want?
29. Los Angeles Lakers
Last Week: 27
As Kobe Bryant's DNPs have increased and the Los Angeles Lakers have turned more of the offense over to D'Angelo Russell and Jordan Clarkson, something strange has happened, per Bleacher Report's Michael Pina: "After a wobbly loss to the Sacramento Kings on Tuesday night, Los Angeles dropped to 11th in offensive rating since the All-Star break. In that span, they're still more efficient than the Boston Celtics and Los Angeles Clippers."
In that same span, the Lakers rank 29th in defensive rating. They're still giving back more than they get, but this is something worth following. Even with poor execution and unwieldy schemes in the half court, L.A. has the talent to do damage in transition. And once Russell has the keys for a full year, expect his intuitive pick-and-roll play to be a pretty good staple.
It's still ugly overall in L.A., and the Lakers went 0-2 last week. But maybe it won't be that way forever...at least on offense.
28. Sacramento Kings
Last Week: 28
The Kings took care of the Lakers at Staples on Tuesday, giving them a second win in March and making it impossible to rank them behind L.A. But that's about it.
They got smoked by the New Orleans Pelicans the very next night for their seventh straight home loss. And, as usual, there's not a lot of good locker-room news to mitigate the on-court ugliness. USA Today's Sam Amick reported this week the Kings may just run this whole thing back with another coach next year:
Yet with [head coach George Karl] still expected to be replaced after the season, there is a belief within the organization and around the league that [DeMarcus Cousins] won’t be truly available unless the situation doesn’t significantly improve leading up to the Feb. 2017 trade deadline.
Sure, why not? Changing the coach has worked wonders for the Kings before.
27. Phoenix Suns
Last Week: 29
The Phoenix Suns are in on Earl Watson, and it's been showing in some substantially less terrible play lately. In March, they've already won as many games (three) as they did in January and February combined.
"I’m excited with the direction we’re going," Tyson Chandler told Paul Coro of the Arizona Republic. "Of late, it’s showing in the win column, but I just like what we’re doing. I like the mentality. I like the culture. I think things are really changing around here. It puts a little pep in your step."
Moving them outside the bottom three is a big deal, as the Suns have felt like a hopeless case for most of the season. But you have to acknowledge signs of life when they present themselves, and we've seen a few.
Here's one: Devin Booker, already established as a scary scorer at age 19, handed out 17 combined assists against the Golden State Warriors March 12 and the Minnesota Timberwolves (a win!) March 14.
26. Brooklyn Nets
Last Week: 26
It was a dark week with one blinding bright spot for the Nets, who went 1-3 against an uncommonly easy slate but also got a career-high 44 points from Bojan Bogdanovic in a 131-114 win over the Sixers on Tuesday.
The Nets are in the strangest position of any bottom-tier team, as they don't have a lottery pick this year and don't really have much young talent to develop in the season's final meaningless games. Bogdanovic, for example, turns 27 in April. If he were 23, maybe these late-stage outbursts would be cause for more celebration.
Remarkably, Brooklyn still mostly plays hard. That's a testament to head coach Tony Brown and the professionalism of leaders like Brook Lopez and Thaddeus Young. Nobody has less to play for than the Nets, but you probably wouldn't know it by watching them.
25. New York Knicks
Last Week: 25
A lot of bad teams beat up on one another this week, and the New York Knicks topping the Lakers 90-87 Sunday was another example. Carmelo Anthony had 26 points and 12 rebounds in that one.
Things were bleaker in a blowout loss to the Warriors Wednesday, and Ian Begley of ESPN.com laid out the struggles ahead:
New York has no first-round draft pick this summer and will be coming off of its third straight season without a playoff appearance—not exactly the ideal situation to recruit free agents.
Given this predicament, it appears the club will need at least two offseasons to turn itself into a competitor. And that's being optimistic.
So, things might turn around by the time Anthony is 33—assuming he's still with the Knicks at that point.
24. New Orleans Pelicans
Last Week: 21
New Orleans put a four-game losing streak to bed with Wednesday's 123-108 win over the Kings. But with a 5-9 mark since the All-Star break and a minus-6.1 net rating last week that was actually worse than their full-season figure of minus-3.6, the Pelicans are only sinking deeper as a lost year grinds toward the finish.
The culprit lately: defense. The Pels have held just one opponent under 100 points since Feb. 11, and that was against the San Antonio Spurs (a 96-84 loss March 3) in a game whose tempo the slog-it-out Spurs totally dictated.
The Pelicans should probably prop the floodgates open the rest of the way. A few more losses, and they'll slip behind the Timberwolves in the fight for lottery position—which is all that should matter to the Pels at this point.
23. Minnesota Timberwolves
Last Week: 24
You have to love a Ricky Rubio game-winner—especially when it knocks off the Oklahoma City Thunder in Oklahoma in a 99-96 Timberwolves win last Friday. Maybe that result isn't as unlikely as it seems at first glance; the Thunder have coughed up more fourth-quarter leads than anyone this season.
Still, good for Minnesota.
Zach LaVine has been hot lately, scoring 28 points in back-to-back games against the Suns March 14 and the Grizzlies March 16. Though the Timberwolves split that pair, losing to the Suns by a final of 107-104, it's encouraging to see LaVine scoring consistently. Minnesota seems to be figuring out he's better as a gunner than a facilitator.
The Wolves have their win total up to 22 through March 17, which isn't so bad when you remember they only won 16 a year ago.
22. Orlando Magic
Last Week: 22
A 121-84 hammering from the Portland Trail Blazers last Saturday plunged the Orlando Magic's net rating down to minus-8.6 for the week, which obscures a respectable 2-2 record.
Wins over the Denver Nuggets and Kings aren't cause for excitement necessarily, but they indicate the Magic are settling into position after a bit of a tailspin to start the month. Evan Fournier hung 30 on the Nuggets, and Aaron Gordon keeps tantalizing with his developing all-around game and, of course, sweet dunks.
Elfrid Payton's sprained right elbow is a bit of a bummer, costing him minutes that could be valuable for his progress as the team's point guard of the future. Brandon Jennings has been starting in his stead, and while it's possible the Magic might want a longer look at the free-agent-to-be, they'd probably prefer to see Payton get those reps.
If we see half-decent play against an upcoming schedule featuring Cleveland, Toronto and Boston (the East's top three seeds, in order), maybe the Magic can build some momentum as the year winds down.
21. Milwaukee Bucks
Last Week: 23
Hey, here's something you might not have expected! According to Matt Velazquez of the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel (and a quick consultation of the schedule), the Milwaukee Bucks have beaten every team in the East this year but one: the Toronto Raptors.
The Raps spanked the Bucks in Milwaukee Tuesday by a final of 107-89, and it was a particularly tough loss as neither DeMar DeRozan nor Jonas Valanciunas suited up. But that was Milwaukee's only slip since the last rankings, giving it a 3-1 mark that warrants a bump up the ladder.
You know all about Giannis Antetokounmpo's assault on the stat sheet by now. He had another triple-double (his fourth in an 11-game span) in a 109-100 win over the Nets Sunday, and his averages since the All-Star break are up to 19.6 points, 9.6 rebounds and 8.1 assists.
This guy is a jump shot away from legitimate superstardom.
20. Denver Nuggets
Last Week: 20
Expect this spot to be a pinnacle for the Denver Nuggets, who are in the midst of a tough five-game road trip and have already lost the first three engagements.
Interior defense has been a major issue lately, as evidenced by the Heat's 124 points Monday and the Magic's 116 a day later. Miami scored 58 points in the paint. Orlando: 38. Per Chris Dempsey of the Denver Post: "Those teams were a combined 46-of-64 in the paint, an eye-popping 71.9 percent, and they did so in a variety of ways—fast-break layups and dunks, post-ups and offensive putbacks. But the Nuggets' main problems came in two areas: blow-by drives and drive-and-drop passes."
As great as Nikola Jokic's offensive game looks on most nights, he has a long way to go as an anchor on the other end.
Denver has to finish this trip, but after returning home to host the Sixers March 23, it'll head back out for four of its next five on the road. Barring a miracle, the Nuggets will soon occupy a position somewhere in the mid-20s.
19. Chicago Bulls
Last Week: 18
If only the Chicago Bulls could play the Raptors every night.
They completed a four-game season sweep against the Raps with a 109-107 win on the road Monday. Sandwiched around that hard-to-explain result were ugly, defense-free losses to the Miami Heat and Washington Wizards.
"With Joakim out for the season. With Pau out for, we don't know exactly how long, but for the next few games for sure," head coach Fred Hoiberg told reporters. "With Taj out, it makes it tough."
Chicago is still part of the race for the eighth seed in the East, but Washington and the Detroit Pistons have been better lately and won head-to-head matchups against Chicago, so postseason prospects are murky right now.
What's more, the Bulls' loss to the Wizards Wednesday was their 33rd of the year. That means Hoiberg's first season as head coach won't match the win total (50) of Tom Thibodeau's last. This was not the step forward the Bulls envisioned when they made a coaching change.
18. Washington Wizards
Last Week: 19
There's still plenty of time for things to go sideways, but the Wizards legitimately saved their season this past week. Consecutive wins over the Pistons and Bulls (two teams immediately ahead of them in the East standings), kept the Wizards alive.
Beating the Sixers Thursday was just the cherry on top.
Though still stuck at 10th in the conference, losing those two games to Detroit and Chicago would have inflated the games-back total to a disheartening degree. And it looked like the Wizards would drop both contests based on their play leading up to them. This was a team on a five-game skid.
We've pronounced the Wizards dead before, and we've also prematurely pegged them as resurrected. Given their wildly inconsistent play this season, it's hard to know what to make of this latest surge. Maybe Washington is only prolonging the inevitable. Or maybe it found the urgency it needed when it saw its season hanging by a thread.
17. Memphis Grizzlies
Last Week: 13
The Grizzlies must be in a strange headspace these days. All but assured a playoff spot because they performed well enough before Marc Gasol got hurt, they're getting regularly pounded as if they were one of the league's worst teams.
A roster decimated by injuries is the problem, and Memphis has made a habit of fielding just eight or nine active bodies lately—many of which are NBA Development League call-ups on 10-day contracts. Briante Weber, Alex Stepheson and Ray McCallum are all playing real minutes for this team.
It'd be easy to despair—to lament the tragedy of heading for a playoff spot the current roster doesn't come close to warranting.
Tony Allen is going for optimism, though, per Ronald Tillery of the Memphis Commercial Appeal. "I've seen highs and lows. I wouldn't compare this to a low," Allen said. "We're still sitting in fifth place right now (in the Western Conference). Some guys will be back. … We're fighting hard. When those guys come back that's down, I think we're still going to be a force."
Leave it to the Grindfather to keep grinding.
16. Houston Rockets
Last Week: 16
James Harden keeps getting his numbers, but everything else about the Rockets is inconsistent. They beat the Boston Celtics and crushed the Memphis Grizzlies by 49 points, but they also lost to the Hornets and Clippers by big margins.
That Wednesday defeat against L.A. precipitated another players-only meeting, which was somewhere between the fifth and eighth of the year, according to an exasperated Donatas Motiejunas. Whether any true stability is in Houston's future depends on a commitment to defensive effort and someone besides Harden contributing regularly in the scoring column.
Against L.A., for example, Harden's 33 points were more than the combined total of Houston's next two leading scorers.
Ironically, a 2-2 record and a 49-point win are enough to stabilize the volatile Rockets' ranking this week.
15. Detroit Pistons
Last Week: 12
Much to the dismay of head coach Stan Van Gundy, the Pistons fielded the second-worst defense in the league during the last rankings period. From March 11-17, they allowed 114.7 points per 100 possessions, per NBA.com.
A 1-3 record in that span is no surprise.
Per Mike Brudenell of the Detroit Free Press, Van Gundy is having a rough go:
"I've never had a team have a performance like that," Van Gundy said of Detroit's 124-81 loss to the Wizards on Monday night. "So certainly, I didn't expect it. ... I was awake all night and I had a lot of time to think about (the loss). ... We talked about it, but I'm not going to get into what we talked about. It had nothing to do with X's and O's, I'll tell you that much."
A soft section of schedule awaits. But if Detroit can't beat at least three of its next four opponents (Sacramento, Brooklyn, Milwaukee and Orlando—all at home), it may be time to put this year's postseason hopes to bed.
14. Dallas Mavericks
Last Week: 15
The Dallas Mavericks are lucky we have a soft spot for sneaky matchup zone defenses and semi-desperate lineup tweaks. They used both to upset the streaking Charlotte Hornets Monday, limiting Charlotte's good outside looks and slotting Dirk Nowitzki into the starting center spot for an offensive boost.
Those tactics nearly produced a comeback win against the Cleveland Cavaliers Wednesday as well, but a late push fell short.
Normally, a 1-2 record wouldn't result in a one-spot climb. But, again, we like the scheming going on in Dallas. And with Memphis and Detroit sliding in bigger ways, the Mavs look stabler by comparison. Their results have been bad, but those two teams have been worse.
Don't worry, the Mavericks face the Warriors twice in their next four games. If you're clamoring for Dallas to lose ground, just check back here next week.
13. Utah Jazz
Last Week: 17
Here we go, Utah Jazz!
That's more like it.
Last week, we gave up on Utah after a 1-7 stretch made it feel like this year's widely projected leap forward was never coming. But four straight wins later, the Jazz are right back in the playoff picture, looking a lot more reliable than either Dallas or Houston ahead of them.
A dominant starting unit has a lot to do with that.
According to NBA.com only the Warriors' starting five has produced a higher net rating since the break than the Jazz quintet of Shelvin Mack, Rodney Hood, Gordon Hayward, Derrick Favors and Rudy Gobert (hat tip to Ben Dowsett on that one).
Utah hits the road all next week, so it'll be tested. At least we know it's got a lineup it can lean on.
12. Indiana Pacers
Last Week: 14
Things are about to get easier for the Indiana Pacers, which is good news for a team that handled the recent rough chunk of schedule pretty well. Indy has only played three home games in March so far, but it'll spend nine of its final 14 contests on its own turf.
With a 20-12 record at home, it's not crazy to expect Indiana might push toward 45 wins on the season—if it sustains that level of play over this final stretch. It's possible that total would be enough for the third seed in the East if teams like Miami, Boston (whom the Pacers beat in Indianapolis Tuesday) and the Atlanta Hawks stumble.
"It’s a big opportunity but you can’t take anything for granted," coach Frank Vogel told Scott Agness of Vigilant Sports Tuesday. "Teams that are out of it will come in and play carefree; teams that are in it are going to play with their lives on the line."
This closing stretch will define the Pacers' season.
11. Portland Trail Blazers
Last Week: 11
The schedule is mangling the Portland Trail Blazers, but the account of Meyers Leonard's latest shoulder dislocation is even more cringeworthy.
Per Casey Holdahl of NBA.com: "Leonard said it took a couple tries before the team trainer was able to get his shoulder back into its socket and that he’s still experiencing quite a bit of discomfort from the injury."
This is the second time this has happened to Leonard this season, and he'll miss at least the Blazers' next three games. This is a big blow, as Leonard had reached double figures in four of his last five outings behind 46.2 percent shooting from long range in March.
Coming off losses to the big guns—Boston, Toronto, Golden State, Oklahoma City and San Antonio—Portland has to stay on the road for three of its next four. With Utah rising and the Rockets somehow hanging around, the Blazers need Dallas to continue its decline. Otherwise, things could get painful for Portland.
10. Boston Celtics
Last Week: 7
Jae Crowder's ankle sprain came at a bad time, and the Celtics have suffered without their most versatile (and maybe most valuable) player.
The Celtics fell against Houston Friday, as Crowder's injury exit left nobody to bother James Harden. Then, Paul George and Kevin Durant showed up on the schedule in Crowder's first two missed games. Boston lost both.
The timing stinks, but none of what's happened is a surprise. Boston is 5.6 points per 100 possessions better with Crowder on the floor, and nobody on the roster matches his defensive value against elite wings. Marcus Smart competes, but he's no match for scorers with superior size—not yet anyway. Head coach Brad Stevens told reporters Sunday that the timetable for Crowder's return would be a minimum of two weeks.
With the Celtics losing three straight and relinquishing their hold on the No. 3 seed in the East, don't be surprised if Crowder rushes back sooner.
9. Miami Heat
Last Week: 10
What the Heat have lost in bad injury luck, they've made up for in smart player development and good acquisitions.
Rookie Josh Richardson has been more accurate from three-point range (64.1 percent) than anyone since the All-Star break (among players who average at least two attempts per game), and signee Joe Johnson is close behind, hitting 53.7 percent in 13 games with the Heat.
They've both been integral in propping up a shaky Miami offense without Chris Bosh.
The Heat are in a three-team fight with Boston and Atlanta for the No. 3 seed in the East, and if they wind up snagging that spot, it'll be because some unlikely contributors made it possible.
8. Atlanta Hawks
Last Week: 9
Winners of four straight and seven of their last eight, the Hawks are a season-best 11 games over .500 as they hit a stretch in the schedule where it's hard to find a scary matchup until a March 30 visit to Toronto. While Boston is plucky and the Heat have remained dangerous, it's Atlanta that looks best positioned to snag that No. 3 seed that everyone is chasing.
While the defense (second in the league on the season) has been the Hawks' best asset, there have also been signs of offensive progress. Though nobody should expect a return to last year's whirling frenzy of quick passes and dead-eye spot-up marksmanship, it's worth noting Al Horford hit nine of his 18 three-point attempts from March 8-16.
If he's hitting consistently from the outside, the Hawks get more of the spacing they like.
7. Charlotte Hornets
Last Week: 8
Though Charlotte's defensive consistency (it ranks ninth in defensive rating) has been as important as anything in its recent surge, ball movement and three-point shooting get the attention. That's understandable, as the scoring component to the Hornets' makeup feels least familiar. They've had 42 games this year in which they've made at least 10 triples, giving them more games with double-digit treys than they had in the last six years combined, per Hornets PR.
After hitting 13 treys in a Thursday win over the Heat, that number is now 43.
All that high-volume shooting doesn't happen if the Hornets don't pass the ball effectively. Good thing they're tied for the lowest turnover ratio in the NBA.
Charlotte has won nine of its last 10, and its two-way play makes it a truly dangerous team.
Oh, also: Here's a shoutout to Marvin Williams for posting the highest true shooting percentage and player efficiency rating of his career at age 29. He put up point totals of 22, 25, 19 and 26 this past week.
Nice little contract-year push?
Nice little contract-year push.
6. Los Angeles Clippers
Last Week: 6
We've obviously crossed a threshold in the rankings here.
The Clips got spanked by the Cavaliers and Spurs this week (by a combined total of 45 points, no less), but they don't slip below the sixth spot they occupied last week. Now, this may seem unfair to the Hornets, but you'd have a hard time finding anyone who believed Charlotte was an objectively better team than the Clippers.
You'd have an even harder time using losses to a pair of powerhouses as part of your case against Los Angeles. And for whatever it's worth, the Clippers beat the Hornets both times they met this year.
Though L.A. isn't falling, it's also unlikely to rise—even if it has a strong week. Those losses to the league's elite mark the Clips as a second-tier contender, which is what we've thought about them for most of the season.
If Blake Griffin comes back and pushes things to another level, we'll reconsider. For now, the Clippers are kind of stuck.
5. Oklahoma City Thunder
Last Week: 4
The Thunder's crunch-time woes are ridiculously real.
Just try to absorb their net ratings by quarter, listed from the first period to the fourth, per NBA.com:
That's a horrifying trend and, remarkably, continues into overtime, where OKC gets outscored by an obscene 39 points per 100 possessions. It's safe to say the Thunder have some late-game execution issues to address.
Oklahoma City whipped the Clippers in their last meeting, so it's hard to drop the Thunder below them. But with a pair of losses to Minnesota and San Antonio this week, the Thunder also can't stay at No. 4.
4. Toronto Raptors
Last Week: 3
We know Kyle Lowry is a star, and we understand DeMar DeRozan is a handful to defend as well. But sometimes it's hard to understand how the Raptors have been so steady (loss at home to the Bulls on Monday notwithstanding).
Ball security, it turns out, is a big factor.
Per B/R Insights, the Raptors are only allowing 6.5 steals per game, the fewest in the NBA. As a result of so few live-ball giveaways, opponents are only averaging 10.8 fast-break points per contest, which is the sixth-fewest in the league.
From March 1-16, the Raptors only gave up 13.1 points per game off turnovers, which ranked second-best in the NBA.
Having said all those nice things, the Raps lose a spot—partially because of that Chicago loss, and partially because we've denied the Cavs' re-entry into the top three for too long.
3. Cleveland Cavaliers
Last Week: 5
Welcome back to the top three, Cavs. It's been a while.
You're here because you've successfully experimented with smaller lineups featuring Kevin Love and LeBron James as the center-power forward combo, and we like that. We also like the way you won a game (99-98 against Dallas Wednesday) in which James didn't play.
That was only the fourth win in the last 16 contests James has missed, so nice job there.
No, we didn't like that loss to the Jazz Monday, but it was only your second in the month of March. So no biggie.
Finally, if you guys could quit complaining every time Kyrie Irving has a big scoring game but forgets to pass the ball, that would be great. We all accepted the truth that he's not a pure point guard years ago. Just join us in appreciating what a gifted scorer he is, and stop expecting him to morph into something he's not.
2. San Antonio Spurs
Last Week: 2
Can we just fast-forward to Saturday when the Spurs face the Warriors for the second time this season?
Golden State is the only measuring stick left for the Spurs, who remain the best defense in the league and have yet to relent in their quest for the highest average margin of victory in NBA history.
Here's hoping head coach Gregg Popovich doesn't succumb to his trickster instincts and rest key players against the Warriors. Even if he opts to take the game seriously, you have to believe he's quietly enjoying the way Golden State's historic season keeps piling on the pressure. Meanwhile, his own history-making squad hums along in relative obscurity.
The Spurs went undefeated this week, haven't lost at home all season and have every rotation player healthy.
Never before has a genuine powerhouse been so unappreciated. A good showing against Golden State Saturday (or in either of their additional two meetings before season's end) will change that.
1. Golden State Warriors
Last Week: 1
If you're looking for possible signs of mortality in the Warriors, keep an eye on this upcoming stretch of schedule. Andre Iguodala's sprained ankle will keep him out at least through the end of the Golden State's three-game road trip against Dallas, San Antonio and Minnesota. And considering his age (32) and importance, don't be surprised if the time off extends well beyond that.
Iguodala steadies the second unit, defends the best perimeter threat in the clutch and is integral to the Warriors' vaunted small-ball lineups. The guy won Finals MVP last year; we shouldn't have to list his credentials.
With Harrison Barnes a consistent disappointment this year and Brandon Rush better suited for spot duty, the Warriors are suddenly vulnerable on the wing.
It may not matter, of course, as Stephen Curry's habitual greatness has so consistently masked weaknesses this year. But with the all-time wins record on the line and three games against the Spurs down the stretch, there's a good chance we see Golden State sweat a little over the next few weeks.
That would be different.
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