NBA Power Rankings as Playoffs Begin

Grant HughesNational NBA Featured ColumnistApril 14, 2017

NBA Power Rankings as Playoffs Begin

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    This will be the last set of power rankings that includes all 30 NBA teams for a while.

    Shed a tear if you need to.

    For the most part, the 82-game schedule sorted things out. Just about every playoff team ranks among the top 16. But there are some exceptions, and if you're looking for quick first-round outs, you might want to start with the teams that made the dance but haven't looked playoff-worthy of late.

    As always, we organized all 30 teams to reflect their present strengths heading into the postseason—or the lottery, as the case may be.

    In almost every instance, the results of games played this past week were useless. Rampant rest and tanking contributed to the least competitive, most meaningless stretch of on-court play all year. So we pulled back to offer broader assessments of many teams' statuses rather than dissect the details from last week.

    Bring on the playoffs.

30. Orlando Magic

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    ↓ 1 Spot

    "We had expectations for our team for the playoffs," Evan Fournier told Josh Robbins of the Orlando Sentinel. "When it rains, it pours, man. When you expect to be good and you're not, it's harder than when you know you're going to struggle to win games and you're going to have to fight for everything. So it's definitely the most frustrating situation I've been in."

    In a related story, the Orlando Magic lost to the Chicago Bulls by a franchise-record 47 points Monday.

    Even though Orlando is dead last in our rankings, Fournier wasn't wrong to expect success.

    It made sense that Serge Ibaka and Bismack Biyombo would juice the defense put in place by new head coach Frank Vogel. It stood to reason that Elfrid Payton and Aaron Gordon (and maybe Mario Hezonja) would take major strides.

    That it's all gone so horribly wrong, and that the Magic have one of the emptier cupboards in the lottery, speaks to the danger of taking improvement for granted. Predictably, general manager Rob Hennigan is done, per Adrian Wojnarowski of The Vertical.

    Never hope, I guess, is the lesson.

29. Phoenix Suns

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    ↑ 1 Spot

    The Phoenix Suns avoided going into the offseason ranked last, which has to feel pretty good—assuming they keep track of power rankings.

    Around here, we like to think they do.

    After winning two straight on the heels of a 13-game losing streak, the Suns got their priorities in order and benched Devin Booker for the finale against the Sacramento Kings on Tuesday. That loss assured Phoenix of the second-worst record in the league and, as an added bonus, made it nine percentage points more likely the Los Angeles Lakers would lose their lottery pick, according to Jay Dieffenbach of the Arizona Republic.

    Good results aside, this deliberate losing has been tough for head coach Earl Watson.

    "I was like, 'I want to play this way. I want to win. I want to get in the playoffs,'" Watson told Doug Haller of the Republic. "I never thought about players sitting or the other side of the game. That was like a right hook I didn't see coming."

    The Suns are a long way from competing. At least Watson knows what to expect next year.

28. New York Knicks

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    ↓ 1 Spot

    Willy Hernangomez gave the New York Knicks a badly needed shot of intrigue down the stretch of a lost season, going to work on the block and hauling in rebounds as veterans sat and Kristaps Porzingis nursed a sore back.

    "He has gotten a great opportunity to play and made the most of it," head coach Jeff Hornacek told Mike Vorkunov of The New York Times. "He's got moves inside, and he can score."

    Hernangomez—who hit up the Toronto Raptors for 24 points, 11 rebounds, five assists and three steals Sunday—averaged 11.5 points and 9.2 rebounds after the All-Star break. He showed enough to warrant major rotation minutes in his upcoming sophomore season.

    Good thing, because Adrian Wojnarowski of The Vertical reported Joakim Noah is about to add shoulder surgery to the list of maladies compromising his future as a viable NBA player.

    New York went 1-2 in its final week.

27. Philadelphia 76ers

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    ↓ 1 Spot

    The Philadelphia 76ers returned to their roots, losing games left and right down the stretch after looking like a fringe postseason possibility during the 31 games Joel Embiid was healthy.

    Optimism rightfully abounds, though, as Dario Saric ably shouldered a big load, Timothe Luwawu-Cabarrot developed, Richaun Holmes zipped past Jahlil Okafor in the big-man pecking order and Robert Covington turned into one of the better defenders in the league.

    This was not a lost year by any stretch. Ben Simmons, who'll get a shot to play point guard, and another lottery pick will make next season even more exciting—health permitting.

    Though Philly finished with a bottom-five win total, it defended well enough to finish 17th in efficiency on that end. Add that to the pile of encouraging signs.

26. Los Angeles Lakers

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    ↑ 2 Spots

    It's hard to recall a stretch as bizarre as the Lakers' five-game winning streak, which mercifully ended with a loss to the Golden State Warriors in Wednesday's finale.

    L.A. had every incentive to lose down the stretch. Two lottery picks were at stake, and every victory made surrendering those selections (2017 and 2019 first-rounders) more likely.

    But the Lakers won anyway—even when head coach Luke Walton routinely sat productive young players, and even when virtually every useful veteran had long since been traded (Lou Williams) or benched (Timofey Mozgov and Luol Deng).

    Metta World Peace scored 18 points in Tuesday's win, his highest total in over three years, perfectly encapsulating the phenomenon. There was almost nothing Los Angeles could do to avoid success...which was actually failure.

    So now, it's up to fate. Owners of the third-worst record in the league, the Lakers will lose both their 2017 and 2019 firsts if just one team leaps over them into the lottery's top three. There's a 46.9 percent chance they retain those selections, according to Tankathon.com, but it would have been 55.8 percent if they'd lost just two more games.

25. Dallas Mavericks

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    ↓ 1 Spot

    You know the season's over when retired football players joining warmups counts as news.

    Also, shout-out to Mark Cuban for offering perspective when folks got uppity about Tony Romo's "Maverick for a day" experience.

    "Anybody who thinks a layup line is disrespectful hasn't watched an NBA game," Cuban told reporters. "We've got people shooting half-court shots at every break, we've got kids for ball boys. ... We're entertainment. And if they're so self-important they can't recognize that, it's on them. Not me."

    The Dallas Mavericks were 7-8 in March and looked to have a shot at joining the playoff conversation but then packed it in for April.

    A core of Dirk Nowitzki, Harrison Barnes, Nerlens Noel, Seth Curry and Wesley Matthews surrounded by a whole mess of undrafted free agents means the spectrum of possible outcomes for next year is awfully wide.

24. Minnesota Timberwolves

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    Karl-Anthony Towns had a solid second season—if you consider becoming the first sophomore since LeBron James to score at least 2,000 points "solid."

    He also became the third-youngest player to record a 40-20 game since at least 1983-84 and the youngest to ever average 25 points and 10 rebounds.

    In light of those achievements, it's difficult to view the Minnesota Timberwolves' season as a disappointment. But they didn't sniff the playoffs and never managed the defensive consistency necessary to shake out of slumps. Despite finishing the year with a top-10 offense, the Wolves endured six losing streaks of at least four games.

    It's clear where changes must be made, and even with Tom Thibodeau in charge, building a respectable defense won't be easy.

    Minnesota closed this season by losing six straight, but it heads into next with a budding megastar and a slick new logo.

23. Sacramento Kings

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    ↓ 1 Spot

    Playing out the string in a wasted year can be brutal for lottery teams that aren't quite bad enough to be gunning for the top few picks. But one such team, the Kings, eased the pain for its fanbase by showcasing several pieces of its future.

    Skal Labissiere scored 25 points on 10-of-12 shooting in Sunday's loss to the Houston Rockets, and then Buddy Hield hung a career-high 30 on the Suns two nights later.

    Meanwhile, Willie Cauley-Stein's dramatic improvement on the glass has coincided with consistently efficient double-figure scoring. And rookie Georgios Papagiannis has even gotten in on the act, going for 13 points and seven rebounds against the Suns.

    "We are a competitive team," Papagiannis told Blake Ellington of Sactown Royalty. "You saw it against the Rockets ... even with just two games left, there's really good energy on the team."

    Whether any of this will translate when the games matter remains to be seen, but at least the Kings closed things on an encouraging note.

22. Detroit Pistons

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    ↑ 3 Spots

    It's been a rough year for the Detroit Pistons, who finished the season with a 2-2 week.

    Especially with respect to Andre Drummond.

    Here's Piston Powered's Duncan Smith:

    Drummond is in the 17th percentile from the post, scoring just 0.736 points per possession. In comparison, assuming he gets two shots per trip to the free throw line (which he doesn't exactly, since he gets one shot when he draws and-ones), his 38.6 percent free throw percentage yields a ceiling of 0.772 points per free throw trip.

    Drummond is a less efficient scorer on the block than the foul line. Digest that.

    Detroit's net rating was markedly better when Drummond sat, and it even rebounded at a higher clip without him. In fairness, Smith also noted Drummond improved in several metrics this year.

    But when the most pressing question about a team's max-salaried cornerstone is "Are we sure he's good?", that's a problem.

21. New Orleans Pelicans

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    ↓ 4 Spots

    For the second straight year, the New Orleans playoff dreams were all but dead by the end of November. And thanks to a one-win April, they pushed their combined loss total for the last two years to 100.

    Bad, right?

    The season wasn't a total loss, though.

    According to Justin Verrier of ESPN.com, at least we learned something important about Anthony Davis:

    In Davis lore, his fifth season will be an important one, as it marks the point when he made the leap from a shot-blocking, alley-oop-finishing wunderkind to the midrange-shooting wing/center hybrid he has become under [head coach Alvin] Gentry. After years of dreaming up all sorts of future iterations of Davis, we now have a clear idea of the player who, health willing, figures to be a fixture in the NBA's upper echelon for the next decade.

    The picture of Davis' individual future is clarifying. What's in store for his team as it tries to surround him with talent and integrate DeMarcus Cousins remains as murky as ever.

20. Charlotte Hornets

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    Even as it was happening, it was hard to understand the Charlotte Hornets' demise.

    Could Cody Zeller really be that important?

    Could Charlotte miss the playoffs with Kemba Walker breaking out for the second straight year?

    Could the bench be so bad as to undermine a healthy starting five (Walker, Zeller, Nicolas Batum, Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, Marvin Williams) that posted the fifth-best net rating among lineups that logged at least 500 minutes?

    Head coach Steve Clifford did his best to summarize how last year's 48-win team lost five straight to end the season and finished with a 36-46 mark, via Pat James of the Charlotte Observer: "No teams win in this league year in and year out without defending. That's supposed to be what I'm good at, and that was our weakness this year."

    Charlotte ranked 14th on D, which matched its finish on offense. Thirty-six wins with those numbers and a positive net rating screams bad luck, so we should expect a rebound next season.

19. Brooklyn Nets

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    ↑ 2 Spots

    No team improved more after the All-Star break than the mighty Brooklyn Nets, who won nine of their 56 games before the mid-February hiatus and 11 of 26 after it.

    Despite having no draft pick to preserve, the Nets rested their starters down the stretch, which means they fell short of a positive net rating in the second half—but not by much.

    Brooklyn has plenty of cap space to offer a max deal this summer, a pace-and-space methodology that'll work well with better talent and a 26-game sample of promising mediocrity (if there is such a thing) to build on.

    Should we start the slow clap now?

18. Memphis Grizzlies

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    The Memphis Grizzlies have been, by far, the worst recent performers among teams headed to the playoffs.

    They've been outscored by more than four points per 100 possessions since March 1, and losses to the Lakers and Pistons in April illustrate just how vulnerable Memphis has been against even the softest competition.

    There's a bright spot here, though: The Grizzlies' starting lineup of Mike Conley, Tony Allen, Vince Carter, JaMychal Green and Marc Gasol owns a plus-19.6 net rating since March 1. Among units with at least 100 minutes together in that span, only the Rockets' starting five has been better.

    Since rotations tend to shrink in the postseason, perhaps a shoddy reserve corps won't have as many opportunities to undo the good work of the first unit. But relying on Carter and Allen (combined age: 75) for major minutes probably isn't a sustainable strategy—even in a short series.

    At least there's a way to talk yourself into Memphis being a bit better than its second-half decline indicates.

17. Denver Nuggets

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    ↓ 4 Spots

    Eliminated from playoff contention in dramatic fashion over the weekend, the Denver Nuggets headed into the offseason knowing a different fate next year depends on improvement in two areas: defense and late-game execution.

    No offense was better and no defense was worse after Nikola Jokic took over starting center duties Dec. 15, and Denver established its identity as the NBA's preeminent one-way team.

    Worse still, the Nuggets routinely fell apart in the clutch, registering a minus-9.2 net rating in clutch situations, which ranked in the league's bottom 10.

    Nick Kosmider of the Denver Post

    It started with the home opener against Portland on Oct. 29, when the Nuggets went the final three minutes without a field goal, surrendered an eight-point lead in the final minute and lost in overtime. The Nuggets went the final 2½ minutes without a field goal against the Hawks at home Dec. 23, losing a seven-point lead with 1:38 left. Then there was Sunday.

    If the Nuggets sustain their offense, get the defense out of the cellar and break even in clutch spots, they'll be a playoff team a year from now.

16. Indiana Pacers

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    ↓ 2 Spots

    The Indiana Pacers got in, securing the seventh seed in the Eastern Conference with a win in their final game.

    But they're just ninth in the conference in these rankings because glaring vulnerabilities offset just about every strength all year long.

    Example: Indy had two five-man units that ranked in the top six in net rating among those that played at least 300 minutes together. Jeff Teague, CJ Miles, Paul George, Thaddeus Young and Myles Turner put together a plus-7.7 net rating. Swap out Miles for Glen Robinson III, and the figure was plus-7.8.

    That's a roundabout way of proving two things.

    First, Indy's starting lineup was fantastic this year, regardless of who played shooting guard—as long as it wasn't Monta Ellis.

    Second, the bench was an unmitigated disaster.

    As rotations tighten in the playoffs, perhaps Indy won't be so frequently scuttled by its weak reserves.

    The Pacers won their last five games of the year to finish 42-40, but they gave up more points than they scored on the year, which has to count for something.                            

15. Chicago Bulls

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    ↑ 1 Spot

    Chicago's defense ranked third in the league after the All-Star break, and whatever spacing issues they suffered on offense, Jimmy Butler was good enough to overcome them.

    Unpredictability continues to be this team's defining trait, as evidenced by April losses to the Knicks and Nets. Those were games Chicago needed to win, but somewhat improbable victories against the Milwaukee Bucks, Cleveland Cavaliers and Atlanta Hawks from March 26 to April 1 took the sting out.

    It's so hard to trust the Bulls, but anyone ruling out the possibility they will upset the Boston Celtics in the first round should probably think a little harder on the issue—if only because Chicago has spent a season doing the opposite of what you'd expect.

14. Atlanta Hawks

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    ↑ 5 Spots

    Apparently, all the Hawks had to do was get Paul Millsap back in the starting lineup and, boom, pure magic.

    Millsap rejoined the first unit after nine games off and two more on bench duty when Atlanta faced Cleveland on Sunday. The result was a 26-point fourth-quarter comeback that produced the Hawks' second straight win over the defending champs.

    Mike Muscala has taken on an expanded role of late, and he averaged 12.5 points, 5.5 rebounds and 4.5 assists in those two games against the Cavs. If he produces anything close to those averages in postseason play, Atlanta could get frisky.

    Either way, I like the Hawks as one of the better upset options in the first round against the Washington Wizards. Their defense finished No. 4 overall, and there's a strange resiliency to this club that augurs well against a shaky Wizards team that hasn't guarded anyone since February.

13. Miami Heat

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    ↑ 2 Spots

    We'll remember whoever winds up winning the title. We'll remember Russell Westbrook and James Harden going positively wild in the stats department. We'll remember Embiid and Towns and Giannis Antetokounmpo and Embiid making leaps.

    But after the typical top-line items that always stick in our minds, we'll remember the Miami Heat's incredible run.

    From 11-30, the Heat fought back to .500 by winning on the final day of the regular season.

    It wasn't enough to make the playoffs.

    James Johnson developed into a versatile dynamo who'll probably get paid $20 million per season this summer, and Dion Waiters repopulated his island. Goran Dragic remembered he was a star, and Tyler Johnson led a scrappy crew that filled in for the losses of Chris Bosh and Justise Winslow.

    It was a hell of a regular season for the Heat, and it's a shame it didn't last a week or so longer. You get the feeling that if it had, Miami would have made the playoffs. One team posted a higher net rating than Miami after the All-Star break: Golden State.

    "It feels so off right now," head coach Erik Spoelstra told reporters after the Heat's final game. "It feels like we can do some damage in that postseason. I feel like we could be playing for a while."

    He's not wrong.

    Great run, Heat. Great run.

12. Portland Trail Blazers

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    ↓ 1 Spot

    Damian Lillard took care of a career high and the Portland Trail Blazers' franchise record in one fell swoop Saturday, pumping in 59 points to beat the Utah Jazz.

    It's a good thing he didn't play the whole season like he has since the All-Star break. Because if Lillard had been this good—averaging 29.7 points and 6.0 assists per game while shooting 41.3 percent from deep and leading the Blazers to the league's fourth-best net rating in that span—an already crowded MVP race would have had another participant.

    It's hard to ding a Portland team that has been really good for nearly two months, but Jusuf Nurkic isn't healthy. And he might not be for the first round of the playoffs. Without him, the Blazers aren't the same (see: his team-high plus-9.6 on-court net rating).

11. Milwaukee Bucks

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    It's been a good week for Greg Monroe, who lost the distinction of being the active player with the most games played without a postseason berth.

    The Bucks clinched a spot Saturday, and Monroe—who had said upon signing with Milwaukee two years ago he was starving for a playoff trip—told Sophia Minnaert of Fox Sports Wisconsin he "finally got something to eat."

    The new leader in that undesirable category: Omri Casspi. Congrats, pal.

    Meanwhile, Antetokounmpo became the first player in NBA history to rank in the top 20 in total points, rebounds, assists, steals and blocks—which seems hard.

    With him involved, the Bucks have a puncher's chance against the Raptors in the first round.

10. Oklahoma City Thunder

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    I haven't had a chance to lay out my pick for MVP yet, and with the Oklahoma City Thunder having played only meaningless games this week, now seems like a good time.

    Forget the triple-doubles. They're dumb. The base-10 system is arbitrary.

    Focus instead on Westbrook's incredible usage and clutch performance, and you've got your winner.

    Anecdotally, you've got Russ burying the Nuggets, engineering a 13-point comeback with under 3:30 left against the Mavs and dunking over Clint Capela to seal a win over the Rockets—to name just three prominent examples among many.

    Statistically, OKC ranked second in the NBA in clutch net rating, and Westbrook's takeovers in those situations are utterly unfathomable. He used 62.3 percent of the Thunder's possessions in close-and-late scenarios while assisting on 58.3 percent of their made baskets. Both lead the league.

    Basically, Westbrook did absolutely everything when it mattered most, everyone knew it, and no one could stop it.

    Value is hard to define, but having a guy who wins games on his own, consistently and spectacularly, seems pretty valuable.

    Harden, James and Kawhi Leonard might be better players in a vacuum, and you could vote for any of them with loads of supporting evidence. But Westbrook has been more valuable this season.

9. Washington Wizards

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    ↓ 2 Spots

    It's tough to overstate the significance of Ian Mahinmi's calf injury, which is a strange thing to say about a guy who played just 31 games and averaged 5.6 points per contest.

    Candace Buckner of the Washington Post reported Mahinmi will miss the start of the postseason.

    "We'll definitely miss Ian because he was actually playing his best basketball," Wizards head coach Scott Brooks said. "Defensively, he was giving us a very good rim protector and pick-and-roll player."

    The Wizards finished with just the No. 20 defensive rating, and they were even worse (27th) after the break. As Marcin Gortat wore down under a minutes load no 33-year-old center should be asked to shoulder, it got harder and harder for the Wiz to get stops.

    When Mahinmi was on the floor, Washington posted a 104.0 defensive rating, which would have been in the top five overall.

    John Wall, Bradley Beal and Otto Porter Jr. will produce points as they have all year. We need not worry about Washington scoring in the postseason.

    Defending will be another story.

8. Utah Jazz

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    The Jazz finished with 51 wins and a No. 9 ranking here, and somehow it feels like a disappointment and a triumph all at once.

    The win total is impressive, but the Jazz started the season at No. 4 spot in our rankings, and it's hard to avoid thinking they might have held on to it if not for constant injury issues.

    Utah was 12-2 this season when George Hill, Rodney Hood, Gordon Hayward, Derrick Favors and Rudy Gobert were healthy enough to play together. The only thing more striking than that record is the fact they got only 14 cracks at sharing the floor.

    What would the win total have looked like with better health?

    We'll never know, but it's best not to dwell on what might have been—especially with the focus now shifting to a tough first-round matchup with the Los Angeles Clippers.

7. Boston Celtics

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    ↓ 2 Spots

    Isaiah Thomas fell one point short of setting the Celtics' franchise high in scoring average, but he'll get a shot at redemption in the playoffs.

    If he can score consistently and avoid being exploited on D, he'll quiet the legion of skeptics pegging his team as a paper tiger.

    Sports Illustrated's Ben Golliver noted Boston's series against Chicago is the closest No. 1 vs. No. 8 matchup since 2010 in terms of average point differential. And it's not like the Bulls are some sleeping giant. Thomas' Celtics are one of the least statistically imposing top seeds we've seen.

    For that reason, ESPN.com's Kevin Pelton tabbed Boston as the likeliest upset victim in the first round, citing a massive experience gap: "The Celtics also have the least playoff experience (5,461 minutes) of any No. 1 seed since the 2004-05 Suns. Dwyane Wade alone (6,380 minutes) has more playoff experience than Boston's entire roster, and Chicago has nearly 7,000 more minutes total."

    It's fun to note Boston's situation could be vastly different if it'd traded for Butler this year. Instead, he'll try to ruin its season.

    If the numbers are correct, he's got a great shot.

6. Los Angeles Clippers

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    ↑ 2 Spots

    The Clippers finished the season on a seven-game winning streak that actually mattered, as they needed every one of those victories to secure home-court advantage in the first round.

    Given all the meaningless games, outright tanking and rampant rest that occurred elsewhere in the league, it feels like we know a little more about Los Angeles' current strength than we do about most other teams'.

    The Clips have their three best players healthy and playing well, which gives them a shot against absolutely anybody—except the Warriors. L.A. cannot beat Golden State in any circumstance, and that's relevant because a first-round win means a second-round matchup with the Warriors.

    So no matter how desperate the Clippers are to capitalize on what could be the last ride of the Chris Paul-Blake Griffin-DeAndre Jordan trio, it'll be curtains in the second round.

    Final note: Paul would have earned serious MVP consideration if not for the torn tendon in his hand. NBA.com's John Schuhmann noted his presence on the floor led to a bigger positive spike in point differential than that of any other player in the league.

5. Houston Rockets

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    ↓ 1 Spot

    The 2016-17 Rockets shot and made more threes than any team in NBA history.

    So whatever happens in the playoffs, Houston got here—55 wins, the third seed in the Western Conference and a possible MVP Award for Harden—by blazing its own trail.

    If forced to make predictions about this Rockets team before the season, though, you probably would have guessed it'd be more likely to break all-time shooting records than finish in the middle of the pack on defense.

    But Houston managed both.

    The Rockets have their hands full with Westbrook and the Thunder in the first round, and Harden has had a tougher time scoring against OKC than he has against any other in-conference foe.

    Wouldn't it be something if Houston's advancement depended more on getting stops than outscoring the opposition? It's possible that's how it will play out, as Oklahoma City is well-equipped to slow down the Rockets' record-setting attack.

4. Toronto Raptors

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    ↑ 2 Spots

    Nobody in the East had a higher net rating this year than the Raptors, and that plus-4.9 figure might actually undersell how good this version of the team is.

    That number might be higher if Kyle Lowry hadn't missed time because of wrist surgery. And if Toronto had a whole season of Serge Ibaka and PJ Tucker to transform the defense, that would have helped, too.

    What matters now, though, is that all three of those players are raring to go for the postseason, along with DeMar DeRozan, who's coming off a career year in which he scored at will and kept the team afloat without Lowry by leaning on an outdated style of mid-range jumpers and isolation attacks.

    Say what you will about the guy's process, but don't deny the results.

    In fairness, DeRozan sputtered in last year's postseason, and it could happen again if Antetokounmpo defends him in the first round. But on balance, the Raptors enter the playoffs with the best mix of offense and defense in the East.

3. Cleveland Cavaliers

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    The Cavs didn't finish the season with the top seed in their conference. They didn't secure the highest net rating. They didn't even win more often than they lost after the All-Star break.

    In fact, they lost several games spectacularly—like the one in which they led the Hawks by 26 points in the fourth quarter. The last 1,005 times a team had a lead that big that late, the result was a win. Cleveland did some spectacular failing.

    Ranking the Cavs here, in the face of overwhelming recent evidence that they're nowhere near deserving, is an act of faith. There's no logic to it.

    If Cleveland gets bounced before the Finals, we'll have a million red flags to reference.

    But it's just too difficult to look at James, the league's best player still operating in his prime, and rank his team any lower.

    I'm buying the efficacy of switch-flipping until this team proves the fuse is blown.

2. San Antonio Spurs

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    The San Antonio Spurs defense has been stingy all year, and it showed no signs of regressing down the stretch.

    Conversely, the Spurs struggled to score after the break, managing just 106.2 points per 100 possessions and ranking 16th in the league during that span.

    Tony Parker can't create anymore, LaMarcus Aldridge needs a size advantage to score in the post these days, and you can only ask for so much efficiency from Leonard and his mid-range and post-up arsenal. If things go south for San Antonio, particularly in a down-the-road matchup with Golden State, it'll be because it can't score enough to compete.

    For now, the Spurs remain the clear No. 2.

    The possible MVP, stout defense and another 60-win season made that an easy choice.

1. Golden State Warriors

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    The Warriors are peaking at the right time—not just this season but also in their three-year run.

    Their average margin of victory was higher this season than it was during any other in franchise history, notably eclipsing the marks they set in last year's 73-win effort and the title-winning one before that. And after the All-Star break, Golden State damn near doubled the net rating of the No. 2 team, posting a plus-11.0 to Miami's plus-5.6.

    Relative to the rest of the league and their own standards, the Dubs are better than they've ever been.

    Whether that equates to a vicious, no-resistance run to their second title in three years is a separate question. We saw them stumble last season as injury, fate and LeBron intervened. Nothing about the future is certain.

    As for the present, the Warriors appear unstoppable. Having forged an airtight defense and re-empowered Stephen Curry with more pick-and-roll touches sans Kevin Durant, they have KD back for the games that matter.

    Nobody is in Golden State's league as the playoffs begin.

        

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    Stats courtesy of NBA.com and Basketball Reference unless otherwise indicated and accurate through Thursday.