2016 NBA Power Rankings: Who's Rising and Who's Falling Fast as Playoffs Near

Grant Hughes@@gt_hughesNational NBA Featured ColumnistMarch 25, 2016

2016 NBA Power Rankings: Who's Rising and Who's Falling Fast as Playoffs Near

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    Mark D. Smith-USA TODAY Sports

    The fight for playoff position is spilling into NBA power rankings, and the combatants are running short on time to claim territory.

    Four teams fighting for three positions are shaking up the bottom of the West race, while no fewer than eight are scrambling for space between the third and eighth seeds in the East. It's a free-for-all out there, people.

    However, if you're not among the top five (or maybe six, eh, Charlotte Hornets?) here, you can safely put your title-contending dreams to bed.

    As always, we rank based on overall and recent performance using stats, some head-to-head consideration and gut instinct to organize all 30 teams into an order reflecting their current quality. Big risers this week include the Hornets (already spoiled that one) and Utah Jazz, while the New Orleans Pelicans and Orlando Magic tumbled deeper into the abyss of irrelevance.

    Here's how they, and everyone else, stack up with just three weeks left in the regular season.

30. Philadelphia 76ers

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    Emmanuel Mudiay didn't need to do that to the Philadelphia 76ers.

    Still stuck on nine wins, Philadelphia is in no danger of losing its top lottery odds. Coming into Wednesday's game with Denver, it had already cemented itself as the league's worst team. 

    Philly was already safely at the bottom. It didn't need a gut punch while it was down there. But that's how things tend to go for the 76ers these days. And it may be taking a toll.

    "Sometimes it's tougher than other times," Nerlens Noel told Keith Pompey of the Philadelphia Inquirer before Mudiay rubbed salt into the wound. "When you feel that it starts affecting you personally, you do your best to try to make it turn [in the right direction]. But it's been a long year, especially this one, and dealing with a lot more [losses.]"

    It's almost over, Nerlens. Just hold on.

29. Los Angeles Lakers

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    Kelvin Kuo-USA TODAY Sports

    Last Week: 29

    It's been a while since we've gone after Los Angeles Lakers coach Byron Scott, and it hasn't been for lack of material. It's been about exercising restraint.

    This latest tidbit can't go unacknowledged, though.

    Per a tweet from Serena Winters of TWC SportsNet, Scott had this to say after Wednesday's loss against the Phoenix Suns: "There's nothing that I can install to make them (team) trust each other. They have to figure it out."

    Actually, installing sensible rules on both ends that put players in a position to succeed can inspire trust. When players run around in sets that loosely resemble recess basketball, and when they're yanked back and forth from the doghouse with stern reprimands, they tend to develop distrust in, well, everything. The system, the organization, each other—it's all connected.

    The Lakers lack structure, top to bottom. Good thing it's not a coach's job to cultivate order. If it were, Scott's latest comments might ring a little hollow.

28. Sacramento Kings

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    Steven Ryan-USA TODAY Sports

    Last Week: 28

    All things considered, it's possible the current version of Sacramento is worse than the 28th spot it occupies again this week. Nobody in the West has been worse over the last 10 games than the Sacramento Kings (2-8), and DeMarcus Cousins is battling a bruised knee that kept him out of a 113-104 loss to the Minnesota Timberwolves on Wednesday. 

    It would be hard for the latest post-loss chatter to be more disheartening.

    "It just falls back to the basics, and we never really got over the hump of trying to understand spacing and execution," Darren Collison said, per Jason Jones of the Sacramento Bee.

    The Kings went 1-3 this week, posting an offensive rating of just 101.8 against a handful of defenses—Minnesota, New York, Chicago and Detroit—that haven't been stopping anyone lately. As sad as it sounds, Collison's assessment of basic, systemic offensive failure is right on the money.

27. Brooklyn Nets

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    Last Week: 26

    The Brooklyn Nets aren't exactly long on young talent, so it's a big deal when a player who might be a part of their future returns to the fold.

    Rondae Hollis-Jefferson returned Tuesday after missing 50 games with an ankle injury, and the rookie wing took flight right away. His big dunk against the Charlotte Hornets in Brooklyn's 105-100 loss was one of the only bright spots in a 1-3 week.

    Oh wait, no it wasn't!

    Brooklyn also knocked off the Cleveland Cavaliers with a 104-95 win Thursday.

    Maybe the late-stage lineup change paid dividends. The Nets are playing out the meaningless string, but they've found ways to keep it positive. If Hollis-Jefferson provides the occasional highlight and defends a little, maybe it'll make the stretch-run slog a little easier. A few more upset wins over contenders won't hurt either.

26. New Orleans Pelicans

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    Last Week: 24

    If it's true Anthony Davis played most of the last three years with a torn labrum in his shoulder, the New Orleans Pelicans are even more grotesquely mismanaged than we thought. At least Justin Verrier of ESPN.com reported the shoulder won't need surgery.

    Davis' season is done, though, and he underwent an operation on his knee in hopes of being ready for training camp this fall. The fact that New Orleans waited this long to call it quits on the year (after a 1-11 start and a rash of injuries screamed for tanking as early as November) illustrates how shortsighted and desperate the franchise truly is.

    Failing to form a long-term plan around Davis is one thing, but risking the health of a potentially transcendent superstar in a lost season is another.

    A.D. needs more young talent around him, but everything the Pelicans have done in recent seasons (and especially lately) indicates they're more interested in immediate gains and short-term thinking.

    The best thing for the franchise losing every game it plays the rest of the year to improve lottery odds. Unfortunately, that's been the case for four months, and the Pels have a frighteningly poor track record of pursuing the sensible course.

25. Phoenix Suns

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    Last Week: 27

    "Quietly not awful" wouldn't qualify as praise in most cases, but the Suns have spent more than their share of weeks at the very bottom of these rankings. So for them, that modest designation is a compliment.

    Since dropping its first two games in March, Phoenix has played .500 ball. And though the Memphis Grizzlies are the only playoff-bound competition the Suns beat in that span, any win is a big deal for a team that looked so profoundly lost for much of the season.

    Devin Booker has continued to score in that somebody-has-to-get-numbers-on-a-bad-team way, but there's reason to believe the rookie's production has some substance behind it. He went right at Kobe Bryant when the Suns and Lakers met Wednesday, earning some respect from L.A.'s icon.

    "He went straight to my move the first time he caught it," Bryant told reporters of Booker's initial touch against him. "You don't have to beat me on my move, man! But it was great to see, it was absolutely great to see because I remember I did the same thing with MJ."

    Booker hit the Lakers for 28 points in that win, his third straight game with at least 18.

24. New York Knicks

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    Mike DiNovo-USA TODAY Sports

    Last Week: 25

    Robin Lopez is not Carmelo Anthony, or Carmelo Anthony's current satisfaction with the New York Knicks roster, or Carmelo Anthony's prospective role in offseason recruiting, or Carmelo Anthony's cat, so he doesn't get discussed much in the New York news cycle.

    That seems unfair.

    Lopez scored 23 points and grabbed 20 rebounds in Sunday's loss to the Kings, and then he provided 11 points, 13 rebounds, three steals and four blocks in Wednesday's win over the Chicago Bulls. Broadly, he's been good this year. And as the Knicks form their free-agency plans, they should feel pretty confident they don't need to prioritize the center position.

    Especially with Kristaps Porzingis (who scored a career-high-tying 29 points against the Bulls) destined to occupy that spot when he's ready.

    And hey, the Knicks could double their win total from last year with a hot streak to close out the season. That's pretty neat, right?

    This has been your non-Carmelo Knicks news update.

23. Orlando Magic

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    Greg M. Cooper-USA TODAY Sports

    Last Week: 22

    A week full of games against playoff-bound opponents ended predictably for the Orlando Magic. Losers of five straight, Orlando is now a season-worst 13 games under .500. And whatever postseason aspirations might have once existed are gone.

    So it's a good thing Victor Oladipo scored 45 points Friday and Elfrid Payton logged a triple-double Wednesday. You need those little bright spots to illuminate an otherwise dark and disappointing second half. Remember, this was a Magic team with a 19-13 record on Dec. 30—one that was supposed to leverage all its young talent and take a real step forward.

    To take that step next year, the roster may have to change, according to Brian Schmitz of the Orlando Sentinel

    Close doesn't cut it anymore. Usually, your record speaks for itself. Like last season, the Magic gave away some games – and worse, didn't show up for games. Blaming it on youth and believing these trends will reverse themselves is fool's gold.

    Here's the reality: They need to significantly upgrade the roster and infuse it with new blood.

    It's a good thing the Magic have all that cap space. They'll need it.

22. Milwaukee Bucks

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    Last Week: 21

    The Milwaukee Bucks went winless this week, though boxing out Andre Drummond on Monday would have upped the record to 1-2.

    Paint control hasn't been a strong point for the Bucks, and last summer's prize free-agent acquisition, center Greg Monroe, wasn't even on the court to battle with Drummond on that game-winning tip. It's gotten bad for the Bucks and Monroe, with NBA analyst Nate Duncan fairly criticizing Monroe for "offering absolutely no resistance at the rim down the stretch."

    Head coach Jason Kidd will give John Henson and Miles Plumlee more looks together, per Charles F. Gardner of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, in hopes of defending the basket a bit better. It can't hurt, as Monroe and nominal power forward Jabari Parker haven't had much luck.

    On the year, Bucks opponents average 32 field-goal attempts per game inside five feet, the fourth-highest total in the league.

21. Minnesota Timberwolves

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    Last Week: 23

    Minnesota Timberwolves' Karl-Anthony Towns has won West Rookie of the Month four times this year, all but assuring his status as Rookie of the Year. And the Zach LaVine-Andrew Wiggins combo churns out highlights nightly.

    But without Ricky Rubio, all that potential might not amount to much.

    Per NBA.com, Rubio's presence on the floor has more to do with team success than any other single factor. Kevin Garnett's on-court net rating is higher (plus-6.6), but he's only played in 38 games this season. Rubio's minutes total is almost four times that, and his on-court net rating of plus-1.6 points per 100 possessions is the only other one on the roster in the black.

    It's easy to get caught up in the shooting woes and, more generally, what Rubio can't do. But the list of things he can do is long, and the most important is his ability to set up all that young talent for success.

    He shot 13-of-25 and handed out 29 assists in the Wolves' 1-2 week.

20. Chicago Bulls

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    The Chicago Bulls were fine in the win-loss department this past week, but this is one of those situations where gut feelings prevail over records and statistics. It just feels like Chicago is jinxed this season, though that may remove too much responsibility from the roster and coach.

    Whatever the source of the Bulls' ongoing injury issues and effort lapses, it's hard to believe they'll disappear when Jimmy Butler says things like this, per K.C. Johnson of the Chicago Tribune

    Even though this is a team game, if one of your so-called best players isn't doing what he's supposed to do, that's what's going to happen. You see the way I've been playing lately. It's saddening. It's terrible. My teammates won't say it. My coaches won't say it. But I'm a realist. If I continue to play like this, I'm hurting this team.

    That came after Butler's seven-point effort in Wednesday's 115-107 loss to the Knicks, a game in which he made just three field goals and looked physically limited—no surprise after missing a month with a knee injury.

    It's hard to get enthused about a playoff race when the Bulls' best player clearly isn't healthy.

19. Denver Nuggets

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    Last Week: 20

    Beating the Charlotte Hornets, one of the league's hottest teams, is a big deal. Normally, the Nuggets would move up more than a single spot for pulling that off, 101-93, this past Saturday.

    Lest we forget, however, Denver needed a half-court heave from Mudiay to avoid a loss against the Sixers. So let's call the one-spot climb a fair compromise.

    The rookie point guard also had 27 points and 11 rebounds in that game, continuing a March run that has helped erase the memory of a profoundly ugly start to the season. This month, Mudiay is hitting 42 percent of his triples, and his volume (4.2 attempts per game) is at a season high as well.

    Trailing the Sixers late reveals how far the Nugs have to go, but with Mudiay's improvement and Nikola Jokic's continued production, the future's bright.

18. Houston Rockets

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    Last Week: 16

    The Houston Rockets blew an 18-point lead and gave up a game-winning dunk to the Utah Jazz's Derrick Favors in a game they absolutely had to have Wednesday. As a result, Houston slipped to ninth in the West.

    The Rockets at least seem upset, which is a positive in a year marked by malaise and spotty effort.

    ESPN.com's Calvin Watkins described the scene after the crushing loss: "In the stillness of the locker room, Patrick Beverley, the pulse of this team, stood up in front of his locker, slammed one of the two cabinets above and yelled an expletive. He then walked out, keeping his thoughts to himself about his frustrations with this wildly inconsistent season."

    Through March 23, Houston has a negative per-game differential, while the Jazz sit comfortably at plus-1.3 points per game. Judging by that simple metric, the Rockets should trail Utah in the standings. At 0-3 through the first half of a six-game stretch against playoff teams, Houston is in danger of falling even further behind.

17. Dallas Mavericks

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    Last Week: 14

    Chandler Parsons is done for the season, and the Dallas Mavericks are just 16-23 since Jan. 1.

    So although Wesley Matthews hit 11 of his 17 three-point attempts in a back-to-back set against the Portland Trail Blazers, and though Dirk Nowitzki remains a viable offensive hub on most nights, it's difficult to see a path to the postseason from here.

    After essentially burying Houston, there's a temptation to do the same with the Mavs.

    Dallas occupies a playoff spot narrowly ahead of the disjointed Rockets for now, but don't be surprised if that shifts in the near future—even if Houston is a mess itself.

16. Washington Wizards

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    Tommy Gilligan-USA TODAY Sports

    Last Week: 18

    Getting run out of the gym against Atlanta in the second half Wednesday reaffirmed suspicion of the Washington Wizards' inability to get out of their own way. If the Wizards could have completed their sixth straight win, they would have moved over the .500 mark for the first time since Nov. 24.

    They didn't get the job done against Atlanta, but they'll get plenty of additional cracks at it in the season's final few weeks.

    A forgiving schedule awaits with the Wolves, Lakers, Kings and Suns on the docket between now and April 1. If Washington can't get above the break-even mark by then, it'll be safe to officially write the season off as a failure.

    It'll be a disappointment either way, of course, and the Wizards will have to do more than pin their hopes on a Kevin Durant homecoming if they're going to turn this thing around. Remember, this team won a playoff series last season. Barely scrapping for a postseason spot wasn't part of the plan.

15. Memphis Grizzlies

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    Nelson Chenault-USA TODAY Sports

    Last Week: 17

    Almost nothing about the Memphis Grizzlies' post-Marc Gasol survival makes sense, but the most inexplicable aspect, by far, is the team's offensive improvement. 

    On the year, the Grizzlies average 102.7 points per 100 possessions. But since losing Gasol Feb. 10, they've bumped that rate up to 104.7.

    There are two possible explanations for this...

    First: Gasol was overrated and holding the team back.

    Second: Head coach Dave Joerger knows what he's doing, has adapted to new personnel brilliantly and deserves serious consideration as Coach of the Year.

    The first option is basically blasphemy, and we can dismiss it out of hand. Gasol, even in his somewhat diminished state this year, is a terrific player. That leaves the alternative, and when you look at all the 10-day contracts and castoffs populating the Grizzlies roster these days, it feels reasonable to say Joerger deserves credit for keeping this thing afloat.

    Anyone who presides over Tony Allen's going 12-of-12 from the field warrants some kind of award.

14. Detroit Pistons

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    Raj Mehta-USA TODAY Sports

    Last Week: 15

    If the Detroit Pistons hold on to this spot and, more importantly, the No. 8 position in the East, they'll have earned it.

    A daunting slate awaits over the season's final lap, as seven of their final 10 opponents are in playoff position. Two of the others, the Bulls and Wizards, are close enough to make the difference negligible.

    Detroit controls its fate, but it'll have to be better than it has been (even during a four-game winning streak) to get where it wants to go. Though the Pistons went undefeated last week, they allowed 109.1 points per 100 possessions—a figure roughly equal to the Lakers' 30th-ranked full-season rate of 109.3.

    That's bad, and head coach Stan Van Gundy has harped on his team's defense after virtually every game for a solid three months. He can't have much new to say at this point.

13. Indiana Pacers

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    Brian Spurlock-USA TODAY Sports

    Last Week: 12

    The Indiana Pacers may not need much clutch scoring from Paul George to navigate an uncommonly easy closing stretch of schedule.

    Good thing, because George has been terrible in crunch time all year.

    Per Conrad Brunner of 1070 The Fan in Indianapolis, "In the final 24 seconds of fourth quarter or overtime and the margin within three points, George is 1-of-11 overall and 0-of-6 from the three-point line, according to STATS. In the final two minutes of games with the margin within four, he's 12-of-46 (.261), including 2-of-17 (.118) from the three-point line."

    It turns out contested threes off the dribble don't go in too often.

    Indiana holds tiebreakers over Washington and Detroit, which could come in handy for a race this tight.

12. Utah Jazz

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    Troy Taormina-USA TODAY Sports

    Last Week: 13

    There may not be another deadline acquisition making as big a difference as Shelvin Mack for the Utah Jazz. Tasked with starting duties after occupying a third-string spot with the Hawks, Mack has been integral to the team's playoff push.

    His 16 points were integral in the comeback win over Houston on Wednesday, and his game-tying triple in the final minute showed confidence you'd rarely find in a midseason addition. With three double-digit-assist games since March 14, Mack has done more than produce timely scoring; he has also kept the offense flowing.

    That's a relative term, of course, as the Jazz still endure stretches of clunky execution and go-nowhere possessions.

    Still, Mack has been vital to Utah's rise.

11. Portland Trail Blazers

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    Last Week: 11

    It's important to keep perspective when it comes to ranking the Portland Trail Blazers. Because while it's true they no longer resemble the lustrous, surging win factory they were in February, they're also still in the thick of the playoff race.

    And that wasn't supposed to happen.

    "Coming into the season, if you would have told me we are going to be in the sixth spot with 11 games to go, with eight of them at home, I would have said, 'I'll take it. Let's do it,'" Damian Lillard explained to reporters Tuesday.

    Portland completes a 2-2 week looking far more vulnerable than it did a month ago, but that's a relative comparison. And even after playing some up-and-down ball, the Blazers remain the West's sixth seed.

10. Miami Heat

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    Last Week: 9

    The Miami Heat led the league in true shooting percentage from March 1-23, which is nothing short of a shocker, considering the scoring struggles the team faced earlier in the year. Even now, after finding reliable perimeter shooting in Joe Johnson and the rapidly improving Josh Richardson, the Heat still rank in the middle of the pack in overall offensive efficiency.

    That's more an indictment of how punchless the offense was earlier than anything else, though. As the Heat draw nearer to the playoffs, they profile more and more as a team capable of winning games on either end.

    They're capable but hardly dominant.

    Miami learned the difference in Wednesday's blowout loss against the San Antonio Spurs, per Ethan J. Skolnick of the Miami Herald: "Playing the Spurs, especially at AT&T Arena, tends to feel like a drill. And not just in the sense of a dentist's instrument, though that certainly, painfully applies. It feels like a drill in terms of testing your readiness for contention in a variety of ways, seeing if you're really who you think you are."

9. Boston Celtics

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    Bob DeChiara-USA TODAY Sports

    Last Week: 10

    The Boston Celtics strung together three wins in a row after starting the week off with a loss to the Toronto Raptors. Even if a little scrutiny reveals those victories weren't all that impressive (at Philly, at home against Orlando and at home against the Raps without Kyle Lowry), it's still good to see the Celtics winning without Jae Crowder.

    Boston's versatile wing is out with an ankle injury, and Isaiah Thomas has kept the team cruising with creative (often delightfully reckless) offense and enough shot-making to offset the diminished defense. He hit a skyhook and a rafter-scraping finger roll in Wednesday's win over Toronto, for example.

    Through his first 11 games in March, Thomas is shooting 47.7 percent from the field and 42 percent from deep. He's also cracked the 20-point mark in each of those 11 contests.

    Crowder needs to get back and get right for the Celtics to have a shot at the No. 3 seed. But Thomas is doing a fine job holding things down in the meantime.

8. Los Angeles Clippers

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    Last Week: 6

    The Los Angeles Clippers closed out this week's road trip with a massive thud, surrendering at least 109 points in three straight losses to the Grizzlies, Pelicans and Golden State Warriors.

    That last defeat was forgivable, but the first two are hardly becoming for a team that styles itself a fringe contender. Then again, maybe it's time to dispense with the idea the Clips have a shot at making playoff noise against the league's best.

    A 1-10 record against the top two teams from both conferences suggests that's prudent.

    Blake Griffin's return (whenever that happens) might make a difference. But the gulf between L.A. and the league's serious title threats is widening by the day.

7. Atlanta Hawks

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    Last Week: 8

    We've lauded the Atlanta Hawks defense plenty of times in this space, and it says something when a week in which the team posted a 103.4 defensive rating stands out as poorer than usual. That kind of stopping power would rank in the top half of the league for the season, but it's a far cry from the Hawks' overall rating of 98.9, second-best in the NBA.

    Instead of defense, the story this week is the offense. You know, that thing the Hawks were awesome at when they won 60 games a year ago?

    Atlanta has been putting up some points lately, averaging 110.8 per 100 possessions. And the ball has been hopping—just like it did a year ago. Nobody topped the Hawks' assist ratio of 21.5 per 100 possessions last week.

    If the defense sticks around and Atlanta keeps moving the ball like it has recently, it might get tough to keep this team out of the top five.

6. Charlotte Hornets

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    Jeremy Brevard-USA TODAY Sports

    Last Week: 7

    As Kemba Walker goes, so go the Charlotte Hornets...or maybe not.

    During the Hornets' early March surge, Walker strung together four games in a row with at least 30 points. Charlotte won all four of those from March 2-9, upping its record in games Walker hits for at least 30 to 10-2 on the season, per B/R Insights.

    But a funny thing has happened lately.

    Walker has cooled off, posting averages of just 14.4 points per game on 32.5 percent shooting in his last five. The Hornets won four of those contests, thanks mostly to contributions from role players.

    Jeremy Lin scored 29 in Monday's shocking comeback against the San Antonio Spurs. Nicolas Batum has done a little bit of everything. Marvin Williams keeps playing like he's in a contract year (he is). Together, the Hornets just keep finding ways to win.

    If you're looking for a real dark-horse threat in the East, this is it—mainly because it doesn't matter if Walker gets going or not anymore.

5. Toronto Raptors

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    Last Week: 4

    If you ruled out games against the Bulls (which the Raps are prevented from winning by some kind of hex) and games played without Kyle Lowry, the Toronto Raptors would be on a nine-game winning streak.

    It doesn't work that way, of course, but we're running out of ways to say the Raptors are solid, consistent and easily on pace to secure the first 50-win season in franchise history. The Cavaliers still hold the upper hand in terms of East seeding, but there's a case to be made that Cleveland's peak-and-valley play makes it vulnerable.

    Toronto has been locked in for months. Though its ceiling is lower than the Cavs', its floor might be higher.

    Unless a sleeping giant such as Charlotte slips to No. 7 or those unbeatable Bulls climb into position, there's no chance of a first-round exit this year.

4. Oklahoma City Thunder

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    Last Week: 5

    Russell Westbrook produced three consecutive triple-doubles this past week, and his relentless attacks on opponents (and the stat sheet) have the Oklahoma City Thunder climbing a spot. The six consecutive wins help too.

    The wins and stats seem to be related, per the Elias Sports Bureau (via ESPN.com): "Westbrook has won 15 straight games when he records a triple-double, the fourth-longest streak in NBA history behind Magic Johnson (24), Wilt Chamberlain (21) and Jason Kidd (16)."

    There's no case to be made for OKC's moving ahead of either West superpower, but maybe there's a beneficial sense of calm in knowing it's comfortably locked in to that No. 3 spot. The Thunder can rest or push over the final three weeks as they see fit. And if they want to tinker with some weird lineups or install new schemes, they've got a big cushion over the No. 4 Clips and no hope of catching the No. 2 Spurs.

    Go nuts, Thunder; you can do whatever you want from here on in. Just make sure Russ doesn't lose his edge.

3. Cleveland Cavaliers

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    David Richard-USA TODAY Sports

    Last Week: 3

    The extent to which LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers make life harder on themselves is genuinely remarkable.

    James' social media moves caused a stir this past week, and when his comments about building a superteam with veteran pals Chris Paul, Dwyane Wade and Carmelo Anthony surfaced in an article by Bleacher Report's Howard Beck (James made the comments way back in February, FWIW), it created another distraction.

    James' annual media blackouts are supposed to help him focus on the playoffs, and to his credit, he's been performing with renewed sharpness. But it would be difficult for him to explain how unfollows and comments like the ones he made to Beck do anything but peel focus away from the court.

    James is either woefully disconnected from the way his actions ripple across his organization and the league (unlikely), or he's sending petty, ill-timed signals of his dissatisfaction.

    The Cavs remain relatively secure in their No. 1 seed, James has been a monster lately and it's possible they'll dial in even more precisely during the final weeks before the postseason begins. But their continued self-sabotage remains confusing, and you can't get blown out by the Heat and lose to the Nets in the same week without dropping.

2. San Antonio Spurs

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    Last Week: 2

    We got all excited about Saturday's clash between the Spurs and Warriors, but it's not clear we learned anything of value from a slow-it-down, grind-it-out 87-79 win over the Dubs.

    Sure, we saw a team limit Stephen Curry to a degree that seemed impossible. But Curry also missed plenty of open looks early (before the fatigue set in), and Golden State went into battle without three of its top seven players: Andre Iguodala, Andrew Bogut and Festus Ezeli.

    The Spurs can only be mildly encouraged by a relatively close result, at home, against a version of the Warriors they won't see when it matters.

    Still, if San Antonio hadn't gone on to drop its very next game against the Hornets (no excuses, the Spurs were rested), we would have had a new No. 1 this week.

    So close, Spurs. So close.

1. Golden State Warriors

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    Last Week: 1

    The Spurs loss stung a little, and a lackluster effort against the Timberwolves raised concerns the Warriors were wearing down.

    But Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson combined to score 65 points in a blowout win over the Clippers on Wednesday, restoring weaponized fun to Golden State's arsenal. As they pursue the 73-win record, the Warriors will need to stay loose. They had no problem doing that in the up-and-down affair that secured a season sweep against rival L.A.

    Thompson has been incendiary of late, averaging 25.8 points and 5.8 made triples per game last week, with the latter number leading the league. It wasn't just volume for Thompson either; he converted his treys at a 62.2 percent clip.

    When Splash Brother No. 2 is hot, the Warriors go from a tough cover to an impossible one. There's just no way to allocate enough resources to wrangle Curry without turning away (even if it's only for a second) from Thompson. A second is all Thompson and his perfect stroke need.

    The Warriors endured a hiccup last week, but all's well. Or, all's unwell—if you're the rest of the league.


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    Stats courtesy of NBA.com. Accurate through games played March 24.