2015 NBA Power Rankings: Who's on Top Heading into Playoffs?
No, Jim Mora. We're not kidding you. We, too, are excited for the NBA playoffs. After five-and-a-half months of back-to-backs, TNT Thursday nights and countless hours debating who's better and who's best, it's finally time to let the players and coaches decide a true champion.
To be sure, you'll hear no complaints from me about the season that was. The 2014-15 campaign was arguably the most exciting and intriguing one the Association has seen in some time. From the rise of the Golden State Warriors and Atlanta Hawks to the depth of competition out West to the scramble to fill out the Eastern Conference bracket, there was nary a dull moment from start to finish in the league's schedule.
That being the case, it might seem like a tall order for the playoffs to live up to the regular season that just transpired. But without a clear-cut favorite to take home the Larry O'Brien Trophy, this postseason is shaping up to be every bit as captivating as the slate that preceded it, if not more so.
Before we get wrapped up in all the best-of-seven series to come, let's look back to see how the NBA as a whole finished up by ranking each of the 30 teams based on how they played down the stretch and which players they had available.
30. Minnesota Timberwolves
Conference Finish: 15th in the West
Another year, another sad slate of basketball for the Minnesota Timberwolves. An incessant spate of injuries—from Kevin Martin's wrist to Kevin Garnett's knee to Shabazz Muhammad's finger to the ankles of Ricky Rubio and Nikola Pekovic and beyond—doomed the Wolves to their 11th straight trip to the lottery from start to finish in 2014-15.
Despite the misery, there's more hope in the air than usual in the Land of 10,000 Lakes. Andrew Wiggins, the presumptive Rookie of the Year, was the lone Wolf to play in all 82 of the team's games. The Canadian sensation showed tremendous progress over the course of his initial campaign and should take another huge step next season, assuming he has better support. As Grantland's Zach Lowe wrote of Wiggins:
Everything is hard for him now, and he’s not good enough to make it easier. But you know what else makes basketball easier? Having good teammates, and not playing with dudes like Justin Hamilton, Zach LaVine, Adreian Payne, and Lorenzo Brown! Wiggins can already do the hard work of scoring in the post and in isolation, drawing double-teams, and earning foul shots. Imagine how much better he'll get when he has teammates who can actually set him up...
LaVine might (eventually) be one of those teammates. The UCLA product nearly averaged 19 points, five rebounds and five assists while shooting better than 40 percent from three over his final 18 games (17 starts).
The Wolves can look forward to a summer marked by growth from their youngsters, rather than one consumed by the inevitable ouster of an anxious franchise cornerstone. That, in itself, could be enough to ignite a productive offseason in Minnesota, along with whatever the team yields from its latest lottery pick.
And if the Wolves can exterminate their infestation of injury bugs before October, they just might make something meaningful of 2015-16.
29. Philadelphia 76ers
Conference Finish: 14th in the East
Nerlens Noel won't likely wind up as the NBA's Rookie of the Year, but unlike last year's winner (Michael Carter-Williams), the Kentucky product can probably count on a long-term future with the Philadelphia 76ers.
Noel did plenty to make up for lost time after missing what would have been his maiden campaign in 2013-14 while recovering from a torn ACL. He led all rookies in double-doubles and was the only player in the league to finish in the top 10 in both steals and blocks, all while missing a mere six of his team's 82 games.
More importantly, Noel played hard, despite the Sixers' overall (and overwhelming) lack of success. As Bleacher Report's Jared Zwerling detailed, there was a strong correlation between Noel's effort level and Philly's results:
Each game, eight Sixers staffers would track different metrics, including shot contests, hustle plays and how quickly players attacked different areas after an offensive miss and filled sections of the court defending in transition. After the game, the overall team and each player would receive a grade, 1-20, with the latter being the highest.
Brown said more than 60 percent of the time in games this season, the team finished at a respectable 16. As for Noel, more than 60 percent of the time he was better than 12 in games. But the most significant number is this: When he was an 18 or higher, the Sixers won 15 of the 18 games.
Noel may not be the star of the future for the Sixers, but if everyone else plays as hard as he does, the team should still be in good shape long-term.
28. Orlando Magic
Conference Finish: 13th in the East
The Orlando Magic were never likely to so much as sniff the playoffs this year, even in the weak East. From the get-go, their roster was more smorgasbord of useful pieces than cohesive whole and wasn't likely to move much from the former toward the latter under the uninspired auspices of Jacque Vaughn. The team's decision to can Vaughn during the season confirmed as much.
Whoever fills Orlando's void on the bench more permanently will be charged with that same daunting but doable task—of molding the likes of Victor Oladipo, Elfrid Payton, Nikola Vucevic, Aaron Gordon and the fruit of the Magic's lottery pick into an honest-to-goodness team.
James Borrego, who replaced Vaughn on an interim basis, will get a look at the gig, following a so-so second-half audition.
"I absolutely believe that I can do this," Borrego told NBA.com's John Denton. "My confidence is very high, and this position has forced me to get there. Give our players credit and our staff credit because they have helped me get through this."
Granted, Borrego isn't out of the woods just yet. According to the Orlando Sentinel's Brian K. Schmitz, Michael Malone, who was one of the finalists to succeed Stan Van Gundy three years ago, is among those eager to interview for the gig.
If there's any consolation for Orlando's post-Dwight Howard doldrums, it's that the team's job opening could be the most desirable one in the NBA this summer.
27. Los Angeles Lakers
Conference Finish: 14th in the West
If the Los Angeles Lakers didn't, in fact, hit rock bottom this season, then they're going to need some sturdier digging equipment.
After losing a then-franchise-record 55 games last year, the purple and gold managed to fall even further in 2014-15. They registered their first 60-loss campaign and their lowest single-season winning percentage while logging more games lost to injury than 2013-14's snakebitten bunch.
Steve Nash was done before the schedule began. Rookie Julius Randle broke his leg in Game 1. Kobe Bryant's shoulder gave way in January. By the time the Lakers made it to the finish line, four more guys (i.e., Nick Young, Ronnie Price, Wayne Ellington and Dwight Buycks) would suffer season-ending injuries.
Not to mention the emotional stress that Jeremy Lin endured while chafing under head coach Byron Scott's stewardship. As Bleacher Report's Kevin Ding wrote:
Lin really wanted this to work, entering this season with one of the most unstable career paths in sports history. And in search of feel-good stories in an unquestionably dry spell for the franchise, the Lakers hoped bringing Lin back to his birthplace would spark the sort of special stuff we all know he's had in the past.
Instead, Lin was downright disappointing night after night early in the season. He was unnerved by Lakers coach Byron Scott's lack of belief in his game and discouraged by the rising negativity all around him.
Chances are that Lin will find employment elsewhere this summer. In his place, the Lakers will likely turn to rookie Jordan Clarkson, the lone bright spot amid this year's cloudy misery, or a high-priced free agent of some sort to run point.
And, with any better luck, the Lakers will have the pieces in place to restore some of their signature shine next season.
26. New York Knicks
Conference Finish: 15th in the East
Like the Lakers, the New York Knicks came into the 2014-15 season intending to win, even though the circumstances were ripe for failure.
Injuries and roster turnover all but assured the Knicks of a return trip to the lottery, as did the 5-36 start that the instability precipitated. Carmelo Anthony's decision to undergo knee surgery after the All-Star Game was merely another nail in New York's orange-and-blue coffin.
As miffed as many folks in the Big Apple may be with the job Phil Jackson and Derek Fisher have done in leading the Knicks so far, not everyone in town is so down on the team's prospects.
"There's hope. There's definitely hope," Anthony said during his first media appearance since Valentine's Day, according to the New York Daily News' Peter Botte. He continued:
Nobody expected the season to be like this. We all expected at least to somewhat compete in the Eastern Conference. At the end of the day we wanted to make a playoff push, but that's not how the season played out.
This next season for me and for the organization and for Phil this is where we earn our money. This is where it starts. We got to put our money where our mouths (are) at. We've been put in a situation where the pieces are broken and a lot of things have been changed around here. Now we got a clean plate. We got a chance to get a top draft pick. We got a lot of money in the cap. So we got to put that to work. We got to put something together.
25. Charlotte Hornets
Conference Finish: 11th in the East
The Charlotte Hornets could have easily blamed their 5-16 finish to the 2014-15 season—and the playoff shortfall it sealed—on the incessant spate of injuries, but they didn't.
"This is a disappointing year. We took a step back," head coach Steve Clifford admitted, per The Charlotte Observer's Rick Bonnell. "We weren't as disciplined, we made too many mistakes, more nights when we weren't ready to play. We're not a 33-win team. And I'm primarily responsible for that."
The players, to their credit, aren't running from their failures. Lance Stephenson, for one, doesn't intend to shoot 17 percent from three forever.
"My three-point percentage was the lowest ever in history. That's terrible," Stephenson said, per The Charlotte Observer. "I have to come in and figure out how to be a better shooter. Being a good shooter will help my overall game. When people sag off of me (playing him to drive), it's harder for me to be successful.
"It's confidence—just wanting the shot to go in so bad and then you lose your confidence. That plays a major part when you don't have confidence in your shot. This summer I'm going to find my confidence."
While Stephenson spends his offseason trying to gain confidence, Al Jefferson will be doing his darndest to lose weight—before and after he officially opts into the final year of his contract.
"I've got unfinished business here. That's not even an option for me," Jefferson said, per The Observer. "Unless something dramatic changed, I can't see myself opting out, and leaving that bad taste in my mouth. And in the Charlotte Hornets' mouth. I can't walk away from that."
24. Sacramento Kings
Conference Finish: 13th in the West
What could be worse than a ninth straight year without playoff basketball for the Sacramento Kings? How about another tumultuous summer, perhaps one featuring DeMarcus Cousins' departure?
Rumors are already swirling about Boogie's availability, courtesy of head coach George Karl's candid comments on Monday.
"I've had some great players and I've never had one player that I have said is untradeable," Karl said, according to CSNBayArea.com's Bill Herenda. "You always got to be ready for the possibility of a great trade that could come your way.
"I know I respect him (DeMarcus Cousins) a tremendous amount...I think our give and take and our communication has been almost on a daily basis...until we can really get to a special place together, I think we've got to continue to communicate, what he wants and what I want."
The relationship between star player and coach will be crucial to the Kings' fortunes going forward. Cousins and the Kings seemed ready to thrive early on, when they got off to a 9-6 start under Mike Malone. But Boogie's 10-game absence on account of viral meningitis gave Sacramento's higher-ups the daylight they needed to part ways with Malone. That move ushered in two months of rote mediocrity under interim coach Tyrone Corbin, before Karl came aboard during the All-Star break.
There's no telling how the Karl-Cousins relationship will develop from here on out, though, as The Sacramento Bee's Ailene Voisin suggested, Boogie's performance over the final two months of the season points to better times ahead:
Though a lukewarm convert to a faster tempo, he has thrived in a system that emphasizes spacing, passing and movement, not unlike Mike Krzyzewski's philosophy last summer with Team USA. It isn't a coincidence that Cousins had triple doubles in two of his last three games and is ranked fifth in the league in scoring (24.1), third in rebounding (12.7) and 11th in blocks (1.75).
23. Denver Nuggets
Conference Finish: 12th in the West
Coaching played a pivotal role in the Denver Nuggets' ongoing doldrums this season.
Head coach Brian Shaw continued to push his square-peg/round-hole approach by playing slow with a team and in a city for which a faster pace would have made more sense. His philosophy backfired, to the tune of a 20-39 start and a subsequent pink slip.
According to Yahoo Sports' Adrian Wojnarowski, the Nuggets' search for a long-term replacement is already underway. Melvin Hunt, the Nuggets' interim coach, will get a crack at it, though he'll hardly be the only one to get an interview. His competition will likely include former head coaches (Michael Malone, Mike D'Antoni, Alvin Gentry, Scott Skiles), current NBA assistants (Portland's David Vanterpool) and eager college guys looking to make the jump (Florida's Billy Donovan, Iowa State's Fred Hoiberg).
"I'm not a coach, but I do think we're Denver," said general manager Tim Connelly, per The Denver Post's Chris Dempsey. "We've got to play with pace, we've got to play uptempo basketball. And uptempo basketball can take on various styles. We're certainly looking for a coach that understands how we've been successful in the past and probably how we'll be successful in the future, with fast basketball and playing with pace."
22. Phoenix Suns
Conference Finish: 10th in the West
Whatever hopes the Phoenix Suns had of battling for the West's No. 8 seed for the second year in a row went right out the window during a 1-10 stretch over the final three weeks of the 2014-15 season.
"I don't think that truly reflects where we are and the season we had," said Suns president Lon Babby during the team's exit interviews, according to AZCentral.com's Paul Coro.
Perhaps not, though the fact that Phoenix bobbed its way into and out of the playoff race as often as it did was reflective of an unsteady situation on the court and in the locker room.
"We didn't have all guys that were just concerned with winning," head coach Jeff Hornacek said, per Coro. That much was clear once Goran Dragic publicly demanded a trade (and got his wish) and Isaiah Thomas followed him out the door at the February deadline, albeit to a different destination.
All told, the Suns' point guard experiment didn't pay off like they'd hoped. Fortunately for folks in Phoenix, the team will be flush with cap space to restock the roster, once the front office decides how to spend its fifth straight lottery pick.
"This year was more of a humbling experience," said general manager Ryan McDonough, per Coro. "I think we'll all learn from it and get better from it and bounce back."
21. Detroit Pistons
Conference Finish: 12th in the East
A busy season will give way to an even busier summer for Detroit Pistons head coach/team president Stan Van Gundy. The shocking decision to cut Josh Smith in December breathed new life into the slumping squad. The trade-deadline arrival of Reggie Jackson eventually did the same, albeit after a slump in the wake of Brandon Jennings' Achilles tear.
"We made some progress—not enough—but some progress at both ends of the floor," Van Gundy said during his exit interview, according to MLive's Brendan Savage. "Going forward, we feel like we've established a base of good young players. Over the last two-thirds of the year, which is not a small sample size, we played .500 basketball, which would have put us in the top five in the East over that time period.
"So we think things are looking up going forward."
How Detroit's fortunes fare from here on out will depend on what Van Gundy is able to accomplish from his front-office post this summer. Come July 1, Greg Monroe will be an unrestricted free agent, Jackson will be restricted, and Andre Drummond will be eligible for a sizable contract extension. Those three aside, the Pistons figure to make a pitch to at least one Michigan native: Golden State's Draymond Green.
If Van Gundy plays his cards right, his Pistons might (finally) be in position to snap their six-year playoff drought next spring.
20. Miami Heat
Conference Finish: 10th in the East
Last year, the Miami Heat finished up in the NBA Finals, fighting an ultimately futile battle for their third straight championship. This year, their summer will start two months earlier, without a seventh straight playoff appearance.
The biggest difference, of course, is LeBron James. He left South Beach; therefore, the sands aren't quite as warm as they otherwise would be for the Heat.
But the story of Miami's demise is much broader than that. Between Dwyane Wade, Chris Bosh, Josh McRoberts, Luol Deng and Hassan Whiteside, the Heat racked up frequent flyer miles going to and from the training room to cover the cost of travel for their summer vacations.
"It's just tough, man," Deng told Bleacher Report's Ethan Skolnick. "It's just been that type of year. It seemed like the whole year, we were always fighting and dealing with something, instead of staying consistent and just kind of playing our game. I'm not making excuses or anything, but no one on this team can tell you that they've had a consistent rhythm the entire year. It's been tough to be consistent. We've had guys in and out. You have different roles."
Those roles may be more defined next season if Pat Riley has his way in the coming months. With better health and the retention of Goran Dragic and Deng, both opt-out candidates, the Heat could field one of the best starting fives not only in the East but in the entire league.
Lose either or both of those guys, though, and Miami's path back to relevance might not be so smooth.
19. Indiana Pacers
Conference Finish: Ninth in the East
Paul George's comeback from his devastating leg injury serves as an all-too-perfect microcosm of the Indiana Pacers' season as a whole.
Like their wounded superstar, the Pacers fought through pain, uncertainty and doubt to put themselves in position to control their own destiny at the end. Aside from George, Indiana had to survive lengthy stretches without stalwarts like David West and George Hill, along with newcomers Rodney Stuckey and C.J. Miles.
Against all odds, the Pacers hung around the muck at the bottom of the Eastern Conference playoff picture, just in time for George to return to action. His mere presence gave Indiana a much-needed shot in the arm; the Pacers won their first five games with George in the rotation, despite him never playing more than 18 minutes in a given game.
But, on the final night of the season, the calf in George's other leg gave way, as did the Pacers' postseason hopes in Memphis.
"Just came off a screen and felt a pop, but they looked at it and it's nothing more than just a calf strain," George said afterward, according to The Indianapolis Star's Candace Buckner. "It wasn't a knee injury but it's tough, you work so hard in rehab and have something else pop up. The good thing is, I know we've got a long summer and a lot to look forward to."
So do the Pacers, assuming West and Roy Hibbert—both of whom can opt out of their contracts—don't leave Naptown this summer.
18. Oklahoma City Thunder
Conference Finish: Ninth in the West
Russell Westbrook's response to his first scoring title could easily double as the Oklahoma City Thunder's thoughts on this lost season of theirs.
"S---. It doesn't mean nothing," Westbrook said after OKC's season-ending win over the Timberwolves, according to ESPN.com's Royce Young (h/t Bleacher Report). "Good job. Hooray. I'm at home, watching other teams play. Doesn't mean nothing."
Westbrook's disappointment is understandable, if not downright appropriate. He wound up with career highs in nearly every counting category, including points (28.1), assists (8.6), rebounds (7.3) and steals (2.1).
But Westbrook's best efforts weren't enough to overcome devastating injuries to Kevin Durant and Serge Ibaka. Nor could general manager Sam Presti's moves make up for those losses, though the additions of Dion Waiters, Enes Kanter, D.J. Augustin and Kyle Singler should serve the Thunder well going forward.
With that supporting cast in place and its stars in better shape, OKC should find itself back in the title hunt next season.
Whether Scott Brooks is there to guide the Thunder is another story. According to Yahoo Sports' Adrian Wojnarowski, the team will evaluate its relationship with Brooks, who has one year left on his contract—much like the injured superstar whose absence doomed OKC.
17. Brooklyn Nets
Conference Finish: Eighth in the East
Lionel Hollins' assessment of his Brooklyn Nets' chances against the Atlanta Hawks was as harsh as it was accurate.
"I don't think we have any advantages over the Hawks," Hollins said, per The Brooklyn Game's Devin Kharpertian.
That may sell his team a bit short. Surely, Atlanta doesn't have anyone who can compare with Brook Lopez's size and skill in the post. Lopez finished the season on an absolute tear, averaging 23.7 points and 9.4 rebounds over a 16-game stretch that saw the Nets go 11-5.
Nor can the Hawks claim to boast the best individual perimeter player in this series. That distinction belongs to Brooklyn, courtesy of former ATL resident Joe Johnson.
Other than those points of contention, Hollins is probably right. By and large, Brooklyn has been mediocre and uninspiring this season.
Then again, as much of a sting as Hollins' comments may have carried, they still paled in comparison to the five-alarm fire that spewed out from Paul Pierce's mouth, courtesy of ESPN Boston's Jackie MacMullan.
16. Washington Wizards
Conference Finish: Fifth in the East
Lost amid the hubbub over Paul Pierce ripping the Nets a new one in public were his comments regarding the Toronto Raptors, the Washington Wizards' first-round playoff opponent.
"We haven't done particularly well against Toronto, but I don't feel they have the 'It' that makes you worried," Pierce told ESPNBoston.com's Jackie MacMullan. "There isn't a team I look at in the Eastern Conference that makes me say, 'They are intimidating, we don't have a chance.'"
To Pierce's point, the Raptors swept the Wizards in their three regular-season meetings. But the most recent two of those tiffs were decided by a total of six points.
15. Milwaukee Bucks
Conference Finish: Sixth in the East
Forget about all the usual tropes about how terrible the Eastern Conference is and how that somehow degrades the Milwaukee Bucks' finish as the sixth seed. The fact that the Bucks are in the playoffs at all right now is nothing short of a Wisconsin miracle.
Milwaukee won a league-worst 15 games last season and could have plunged back to similar depths this time around in light of all the setbacks this squad suffered over the course of 2014-15. Instead, the Bucks fought through injuries (Jabari Parker, Ersan Ilyasova, John Henson), trades (Brandon Knight) and outright defections (Larry Sanders) to nearly triple their win total from a season ago.
And how, pray tell, did they do it? Among other things, behind a long-armed, switch-heavy defense—orchestrated by head coach Jason Kidd—that wound up second in the league in efficiency, per NBA.com.
For its efforts, Milwaukee will get to begin its playoff push a mere 90 minutes from home. Grantland's Jason Gallagher sees this Bucks-Bulls bonanza as a potential spark to set off a real rivalry between these Central Division foes and their rabid Midwestern fans:
These fans hate each other, too. This isn't a theory — it's scientific fact proven by years of mutual enmity between Bears and Packers fans. Now imagine that same level of anger and hostility, but on a basketball court. Spectacular, right? Joakim Noah calling Giannis Antetokounmpo soft in the playoffs could create our first Internet civil war. Now imagine future battles between Chicago South Side natives and Simeon's own Jabari Parker and Derrick Rose. I can't take it.
14. Boston Celtics
Conference Finish: Seventh in the East
The Boston Celtics needed quite a bit of outside help to secure a spot in the Eastern Conference playoffs. Between the Cleveland Cavaliers resting their stars during a recent home-and-home with Boston and the rest of the East's fringes falling off, the C's benefited from a conference-wide "effort" to get them into the postseason—in addition to their own 24-12 surge over the final 36 games.
But it was another outside assist that might have given a certain Celtic the extra energy he needed to nudge this scrappy squad up the standings. According to The Boston Globe's Adam Himmelsbach, Isiah Thomas—who had his fair share of battles with the C's as a member of the "Bad Boy" Pistons in the 1980s—texted words of encouragement to Isaiah Thomas upon the latter's arrival in Beantown at the Feb. 19 trade deadline.
"This is gonna change your career," Zeke wrote. "They're one game out of the playoffs. Lead them to the playoffs."
That's precisely what the younger Thomas did while averaging 19 points and 5.4 assists off the bench.
Thomas could use a few more texts like that from his almost-namesake in the days to come, as his C's prepare to take on LeBron James' Cavs in the first round of the playoffs.
13. Utah Jazz
Conference Finish: 11th in the West
No team did more to boost its collective stock after the All-Star Game than the Utah Jazz. Once the break came and went, the Jazz went 19-10—the fifth-best record in the West—while holding opponents to a league-low 94.8 points per 100 possessions, per NBA.com.
Enes Kanter's trade-deadline departure and Rudy Gobert's subsequent explosion as a starter had plenty to do with that. For his efforts, Gobert figures to garner plenty of votes for Most Improved and Defensive Player of the Year honors.
Of course, Gobert wasn't the sole reason Utah finished with a record good enough to qualify for the playoffs in the East. Gordon Hayward's borderline All-NBA play had plenty to do with it, as did Derrick Favors'. As Grantland's Zach Lowe wrote of that duo, "They've been really good on both ends, and Hayward carried Utah's offense without much help from any perimeter threat until Rodney Hood emerged over the last 25 games."
"Clearly we sit here today in a better position than when we started," general manager Dennis Lindsey said during the team's exit interviews, according to The Salt Lake Tribune's Aaron Falk. "The group is moving in the right direction."
12. Toronto Raptors
Conference Finish: Fourth in the East
If three-point shooting is, indeed, all the rage in the NBA, then the Toronto Raptors are as fashionable as any team around. They finished among the top 10 in three-point makes and attempts, went 19-2 when they made more than 10 threes in a given game and became the second team in league history with five players who knocked down at least 100 treys apiece.
The only other team to pull that off? The 2008-09 Knicks.
Of course, this year's Raptors fared far better than those Knicks did. New York lost 50 games that year. Toronto, on the other hand, fell just one win shy of 50 on the other side of the ledger but still came away with a second straight Atlantic Division title and a franchise record for victories in a single season.
Next up: a first-round date with the shooting-averse Wizards, whom the Raptors swept during the regular season.
11. Portland Trail Blazers
Conference Finish: Fourth in the West
The Portland Trail Blazers aren't short of reasons to worry about their postseason prospects. Their wing depth has been decimated by injuries, with Wesley Matthews, Arron Afflalo, Nicolas Batum, Dorell Wright and C.J. McCollum all falling victim. Worse still, the Blazers will have to begin their playoff push on the road against the Memphis Grizzlies.
All of which makes Portland's earlier title hopes seem like distant memories. As Grantland's Zach Lowe wrote:
Halfway through the season, Portland looked like a dark-horse contender — a two-way powerhouse seasoned with rare roster continuity and some playoff experience. Their starters could hit the marks of Terry Stotts's "flow" offense while wearing blindfolds, and they had improbably sharpened into a borderline top-five defensive team.
Despite the doom and gloom around Rip City, the Blazers still have two huge factors in their favor: LaMarcus Aldridge and Damian Lillard. Those two carried Portland past Houston in last year's playoffs, combining for 55.3 points, 17.5 rebounds and 8.7 assists in a six-game victory.
10. Memphis Grizzlies
Conference Finish: Fifth in the West
The Memphis Grizzlies won't exactly be a picture of health for their first-round series against Portland, either. Marc Gasol returned from a sprained ankle in time for the Grizzlies' season finale, but he wasn't joined by Mike Conley and Tony Allen. They've been sidelined by foot and hamstring injuries, respectively, and may remain so for some time, per The Commercial Appeal's Ronald Tillery.
Those absences figure to be massively problematic for Memphis, despite the decimation that Portland has suffered. As much as the Grizzlies' universe revolves around Gasol and Zach Randolph in the middle, it's Conley, who would otherwise be charged with checking Damian Lillard, and Allen (aka "The Grindfather") who serve as the heart and soul of this squad.
9. Dallas Mavericks
Conference Finish: Seventh in the West
There are many ways to compare the strength of the West to the weakness of the East, but perhaps none is more striking than where the Dallas Mavericks stand at season's end.
In the Western Conference, the Mavs' 50 wins were only good enough to snag the seventh seed. Were Dallas an Eastern Conference squad, it would start the playoffs at No. 3, matched up against the Bucks in the first round.
Instead, the Mavs will have to face the Houston Rockets in a series whose subplots have their own subplots.
"That's for the media to talk about," Dirk Nowitzki said, referring to the off-court drama between Mavs owner Mark Cuban and Rockets general manager Daryl Morey, per Mavs.com's Earl K. Sneed. "That's for fun little side notes, I guess, which the players don't really care that much about. It's about which team comes out at the end. Obviously, they have home-court advantage. We'd love to go down there and steal one or steal the first one, but it's going to be tough."
It'll be even tougher if Chandler Parsons—one of the sticking points in the ongoing feud between these two teams—isn't ready to play in Game 1. He missed the last six games of the regular season while resting his swollen right knee.
Head coach Rick Carlisle, though, is confident that Parsons will be available. Parsons' offensive versatility and familiarity with Dallas' Texas foe will be vital to the Mavs' attempt to spring the seeded upset.
8. New Orleans Pelicans
Conference Finish: Eighth in the West
For every transcendent superstar, there is an initial foray into the playoffs, one that sets the stage for the years to come.
In 2006, LeBron James averaged about 31 points, eight boards and six assists while carrying the Cleveland Cavaliers to a second-round loss against the Detroit Pistons. In 2010, Kevin Durant poured in 25 points per game (albeit on a subpar 35 percent shooting) in a six-game loss to the eventual-champion Lakers.
What will 2015 bring for Anthony Davis? Probably not much in the way of victories. His New Orleans Pelicans will have to contend with a Golden State Warriors squad that is coming off a historically great regular season.
However Davis fares from here on out, folks in the Crescent City won't soon forget what The Brow did to put the Pelicans back into the playoffs for the first time since 2011, when they were still the New Orleans Hornets. In what was, to date, the biggest game of his NBA career, Davis dominated the streaking San Antonio Spurs, piling up 31 points, 13 rebounds, two assists, two steals and three blocks in 43 minutes of a 108-103 win for New Orleans.
"Honestly, I know I all told ya'll before this game it didn't mean nothing, but I tried to downplay it because I didn't want to get too excited," Davis said afterward, via ESPN. "It meant a lot—and we played like it meant something.
"We played our hearts out."
Now, they'll have to locate their hearts and put them back in place, lest they let the Warriors stomp them from the get-go.
7. Chicago Bulls
Conference Finish: Third in the East
Physically speaking, Derrick Rose may not be the same player he was prior to his three knee surgeries. But from a confidence standpoint, he's as sturdy as ever.
"I believe I'm one of the best players in the NBA...still," Rose insisted, even after leaving the Chicago Bulls' season finale early with soreness in his left knee, per ESPN.com's Nick Friedell.
The Bulls can only hope Rose's confidence will pay actual dividends in the playoffs. With Joakim Noah, Taj Gibson and Kirk Hinrich all battling injuries, Chicago will need whatever it can squeeze out of the former MVP if it's going to be more than a dark horse in the East.
6. Houston Rockets
Conference Finish: Second in the West
After all the ups and downs, the injuries and roster changes, the Houston Rockets wound up with the No. 2 seed in the West—which probably beats out most preseason predictions.
It's one thing to snag such prime seeding on the strength of James Harden's MVP-caliber campaign. It's another thing to capitalize on it.
To that end, the Rockets may have help on the way if they can stay alive long enough. Patrick Beverley, who was recently ruled out for the season after undergoing wrist surgery, could be back at point guard in Houston...assuming the team hasn't been eliminated by mid-May.
"I don't care about the pain. I can play through pain. I've been playing through all type of stuff the whole year, so I can play with the pain," Beverley told Fox26 Sports' Mark Berman. "I just have to get this cast off. When the cast comes off May 18, May 20th, wrap it up with tape and (I'll) be good to go. I don't care how weak it is. I don't care how strong it is. I don't care about that.
"As soon as this cast is off I'm back to business."
In the meantime, the Rockets will have to contend with the likes of Rajon Rondo and Tony Parker at the point, with the hope that whatever Harden, Dwight Howard and their supporting cast can do will be enough to see Houston through to the Western Conference Finals.
5. Atlanta Hawks
Conference Finish: First in the East
However and whenever the Atlanta Hawks' surprising season winds up, they can take pride in what they've accomplished together. Despite turmoil at the front-office and ownership levels, the Hawks managed to set new franchise records for consecutive wins (19), All-Stars (four) and total single-season victories, among other things.
In the bigger picture, the Hawks earned the respect of the rest of the league, which could pay off handsomely (i.e., via free-agent signings) in the years to come.
"I think there's been a couple of times during a game, end of games, when we're gonna win, and the other team will come up and say 'man, I love how you guys play,'" Kyle Korver told NBA.com's David Aldridge. "They just got, you can tell, they're like, I would love to play for your team. That's the ultimate sign of respect in the NBA. When you're on a team, and your team's supposedly good, but man, I'd rather be on your team. It feels good to hear that."
You know what would beat that? The Hawks' first trip to the penultimate round of the playoffs since 1970.
4. Cleveland Cavaliers
Conference Finish: Second in the East
Remember when all the Chicken Littles huddled in northeast Ohio (and across the country, for that matter) were wondering why the sky was falling on the Cleveland Cavaliers and how they'd ever survive it?
Yeah, me neither.
A second-place conference finish did wonders to erase memories of the panic that set in amid the Cavs' disappointing 19-20 start. Cleveland now looks like the favorite to win the East (and a co-favorite to win it all), thanks in no small part to a second half that saw the Cavs win 34 of 43 games.
Now comes the real test for this largely untested bunch...
Well, maybe not right away. The Cavs should make quick work of the Celtics in Round 1.
After that, though, Cleveland's path through Chicago and Atlanta will put this team's title-contending chops to the test.
3. Los Angeles Clippers
Conference Finish: Third in the West
The basketball gods always seem to find ways to mess with the Los Angeles Clippers. Let The Orange County Register's Dan Woike recount their latest bit of chicanery at the Clippers' expense:
There were eight scenarios for a first-round playoff opponent for the Clippers heading into Wednesday’s final day of the regular season.
Four of the scenarios had the Clippers playing the Memphis Grizzlies for the third time in four years.
That didn’t happen.
Two of the scenarios had them facing Dallas and one had them meeting Houston in the first round.
Those didn’t happen either.
The last scenario – a scenario some would classify as worst-case – had the Clippers, the league’s second-hottest team, facing the San Antonio Spurs, the hottest.
And wouldn’t you know it, the worst case became the reality.
The Clippers, though, aren't about to complain about their cruel fate. "I'd rather go through them now while we're fresh," said DeAndre Jordan, per ESPN.com's Arash Markazi.
They'll have to hope that their own season-ending hot streak (seven in a row, 14 of 15) gives them enough juice to overcome a San Antonio Spurs squad that was riding an 11-game spurt prior to a defeat to the Pelicans in the finale.
2. San Antonio Spurs
Conference Finish: Sixth in the West
Has there ever been a stronger sixth seed in any postseason in any sport than this year's San Antonio Spurs? All they did was win 11 games in a row and 21 of 24 prior to the season's final night. They might have made it 12 in a row and 22 of 25 if not for a poor opening to what turned out to be a 108-103 defeat in New Orleans.
"That first half was the worst we've played in a long time," head coach Gregg Popovich said afterward, via ESPN. "The Pelicans were on fire. They were committed. They were playing hard. They had a lot to play for and it showed."
The Spurs had plenty to play for themselves. A win would have locked them into the No. 2 seed in the West as the Southwest Division champions, with a first-round matchup against the Mavericks. Instead, San Antonio will begin its title defense in L.A., opposite a Clippers team that the Spurs swept out of the second round three years ago.
Tiago Splitter's ongoing calf troubles have cast some doubt on San Antonio's chances of repeating. But if the Spurs can get him back in time for the Western Conference Finals, they'll pose a serious threat to Golden State's dream season.
1. Golden State Warriors
Conference Finish: First in the West
A great regular season guarantees the Golden State Warriors nothing more than the No. 1 seed in the West and a pitfall-filled path to the NBA Finals.
And, of course, the No. 1 spot in the last power rankings of the regular season.
To be sure, the Dubs didn't just coast their way to the top. Rather, they fought to the very end for each of the 67 wins they racked up.
Stephen Curry certainly didn't take anything for granted. Over the final 18 games of the season, the presumptive MVP knocked down 52.3 percent of his long-range looks on the way to shattering his own record for single-season three-point makes (286).
As easy as Golden State made the regular season seem, the playoffs will look like anything but that. First comes figuring out how to contain Anthony Davis. Then, the Warriors will likely have to contend with the "Grit-N-Grind" Grizzlies.
And before the Dubs can book their first trip to the Finals in 40 years, the defending champion Spurs will have a word or two to offer.
Golden State had better hope, then, that the same stroke that helped Curry knocked down more than half of his treys over the last month of the season and another 77 in a row in a single practice holds true during the pressure cooker of the playoffs.
Josh Martin covers the NBA for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter.