2017 NBA Power Rankings: Stacking Up All 30 Teams Before the Home Stretch

Grant Hughes@@gt_hughesNational NBA Featured ColumnistMarch 3, 2017

2017 NBA Power Rankings: Stacking Up All 30 Teams Before the Home Stretch

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    You know we're hitting the stretch run when high-end NBA teams are surpassing last season's win totals and clinching playoff spots: The Houston Rockets and Golden State Warriors pulled off those respective tricks this past week.

    The real story in this installment of NBA power rankings, though, is injuries.

    Kevin Durant and Kyle Lowry are both out for extended time, and their absences will have major impacts on the playoff races in both conferences—not to mention potential championship-chase repercussions. While the Warriors may hold on to the top seed out West, they're demonstrably weaker for rankings purposes.

    Lower down the ladder, injuries have rendered the Philadelphia 76ers suddenly un-fun.

    As always, rankings are based on advanced stats, team record and health. The goal is to organize all 30 clubs into an order that reflects the league hierarchy in the moment. March is here, which means we've only got a few more weeks to sort all this out.

    And if this edition is any indication, nothing's certain yet.

30. Brooklyn Nets

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    The Brooklyn Nets released Luis Scola, which will probably be news to the vast majority of readers who had no idea Luis Scola played for the Brooklyn Nets (or the NBA anymore).

    And that, friends, is the most newsworthy item concerning the NBA's worst team: the waiver of a 36-year-old journeyman*. Unless you consider beating the dismantled Sacramento Kings for win No. 10 on the season a newsworthy item.

    Brooklyn has maintained a stranglehold on the No. 30 spot for several weeks, and even as a couple of other bottom-feeding teams head into the stretch run dramatically weakened, it remains difficult to envision a scenario in which somebody else occupies this space.

    There's room for moderate long-term optimism in light of the deadline moves that netted a first-round pick and a flier on K.J. McDaniels. But in the present, Brooklyn is still dead last in wins and net rating.

    Expect to see these guys here the rest of the way.

    *Nice of the Nets to do Scola a solid and cut him loose so he can latch on with a contender, though, right?

29. Los Angeles Lakers

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    Magic Johnson has a winning percentage of .000 since being granted control of the Los Angeles Lakers' basketball operations, but there have been some signs of hope for a club that went 0-3 this past week.

    Example: Julius Randle became the first Laker since 2003 to post totals of at least 23 points, 18 rebounds and six assists in a game. He pulled off that line during Tuesday's 109-104 loss to the Charlotte Hornets. And though Randle remains a suspect defender without much floor-spacing ability, his season averages are up to 13.0 points, 8.4 rebounds and 3.6 assists.

    The guy's getting numbers regularly.

    "That was the longest period of time he played hard like that all season long," Walton told reporters following the Charlotte loss. "That’s exciting to see. When he can play like that while still being under control, that’s when he is at his best. That was a lot of fun to watch him play like that."

    More broadly, L.A.'s offensive flow has improved a bit since trading Lou Williams. That doesn't necessarily mean it's better, but an extra 22 passes per game is a notable change, per Harrison Faigen of Silver Screen and Roll.

28. Sacramento Kings

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    ↓ 2 Spots

    Home losses and unreliable, turnover-laden offense may be the norm in the post-DeMarcus Cousins era of Sacramento Kings basketball.

    See their wholly uncompetitive 102-88 loss to the Minnesota Timberwolves on Monday for a prime example.

    During that contest, the Kings coughed it up 18 times, got demolished on the offensive glass and allowed Karl-Anthony Towns and Andrew Wiggins to combine for 56 points.

    For the sake of decency, it would probably also be best not to speak of Wednesday's 109-100 embarrassment against Brooklyn.

    And while it's been encouraging to watch Willie Cauley-Stein expand his game in a more team-oriented style, there's just no getting around the drastic decline in raw talent without Cousins. In fact, as unappealing as stagnant, throw-it-to-Boogie possessions once were, it's now clear why the Kings opted for so many: They don't have anyone else who can score consistently.

    It won't help much if Sacramento craters down the stretch (which looks increasingly likely). The Kings owe a first-round pick swap to the Philadelphia 76ers.

27. Philadelphia 76ers

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    We all lead busy lives riddled with appointments and obligations and various demands on our attention.

    Earlier in the year, the Sixers were one of the most exciting teams to watch. But now that Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons are both officially out for the season, we can cross the Philadelphia 76ers off the list of items cutting into that limited attention supply.

    Philadelphia made separate announcements five days apart, ruling Simmons' season over before it started (foot) and then removing the indefinite qualifier from Embiid's status (torn meniscus).

    I guess there are still some reasons to watch. T.J. McConnell will keep darting around the floor, scrapping for steals and hitting big shots. Dario Saric could solidify his claim to the Rookie of the Year award with a solid final few weeks. Maybe Jahlil Okafor will do something. Maybe Richaun Holmes will play well enough to ease the sting of losing Nerlens Noel.

    But the two most important figures in Philadelphia's big-picture plans are on the shelf, and there's little to do now but play out the string.

26. Phoenix Suns

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    Send a bad team on the road for a week, and this is what you get.

    The Phoenix Suns dropped three straight away from home, but at least when they returned to familiar digs, they got a win against the visiting Charlotte Hornets on Thursday.

    If you're looking for bright spots to follow as the Suns wind things down, focus on the second-unit pick-and-roll tandem of Tyler Ulis and Alan Williams, a pair that is seeing more run because the more heralded duo of Brandon Knight and Alex Len have disappointed.

    Ulis put in nine points and seven assists during Tuesday's loss to the Memphis Grizzlies, while Williams showed solid timing as a roll man.

    "He thinks the game at a really high level," Suns GM Ryan McDonough said of Ulis on Arizona Sports 98.7 FM’s Burns and Gambo. "He really manipulates the defense in terms of drawing double-teams and getting two defenders on the ball to free up teammates for lobs and rolls to the basket."

    Hey, it's something, right?

25. Orlando Magic

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    One quality win can do a lot this low in the rankings.

    That's why the Orlando Magic, after defeating the Atlanta Hawks on Saturday behind 24 points from Terrence Ross, get a little bump. Never mind that they went on to lose against the Knicks after getting three days off.

    Though the New York result was disappointing, the lineup that started the game was encouraging. Elfrid Payton, Ross, Evan Fournier, Aaron Gordon and Nikola Vucevic: If you squint at that quintet, you might talk yourself into calling it exciting.

    Young, undersized, athletic and equipped to score inside and out, that group should see as much time as possible going forward.

    Relatedly, do not expect the Magic to defend at a competent level for the foreseeable future. That group isn't stopping anybody.

    But who cares? Orlando should be positioning itself for a lottery spot and trying to give the fans something to enjoy. This team hasn't won consecutive games since December, so it might as well try to have some fun.

24. New York Knicks

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    Forget the weak schedule; you can only beat who's in front of you. And the New York Knicks darn near did that three times this past week.

    DeMar DeRozan's game-winner interrupted what could have been an undefeated week. Still, the Knicks knocked off the Sixers and Orlando Magic, which sadly gave them their first stretch of two wins in three games since the end of January.

    That's a nice distraction from the triangle offense's predictably nonsensical resurrection. Because, sure, why not keep trying to employ a scheme that has never worked unless one or two of the league's very best players were running it in tandem?

    You know what also used to work in basketball? The set shot.

    Maybe Knicks president Phil Jackson will bring that back, too.

23. Portland Trail Blazers

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    It was starting to feel like the Portland Trail Blazers weren't going to sort this mess out.

    Coming off a 2-7 record in February, Damian Lillard and Co. still aren't capable of defending at a level commensurate with playoff contention. They allowed 111.4 points per 100 possessions for the month, third-worst in the league during that span. Basically, the league at large scored against the Blazers as if it were the Cleveland Cavaliers.

    But then they knocked off the Thunder on Thursday, holding Russell Westbrook to 12-of-36 shooting.

    Ed Davis is done for the season after a shoulder injury, so a frontcourt already short on interior D and rebounding now has less help. Jusuf Nurkic played a fantastic game against OKC, though, registering 18 points, 12 rebounds, six assists and five blocks.

    It has long seemed as if the Blazers would succeed or fail on the strength of Lillard and C.J. McCollum's combined backcourt excellence. They'll need more support from guys like Nurkic if they're going to build on that big Thursday win.

22. New Orleans Pelicans

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    This...could have gone more smoothly.

    The New Orleans Pelicans haven't magically morphed into a playoff team with Cousins on board, which isn't all that surprising.

    What is somewhat startling is the way they've regressed, and it may have something to do with overreliance on their two stars.

    Cousins and Anthony Davis used an incomprehensible 89 percent of the Pelicans' offensive possessions during Sunday's 118-110 loss to the Oklahoma City Thunder. According to basketball analytics guru Dean Oliver, we haven't seen such a concentration since at least 2001.

    On the other end, the Pelicans have failed to compete with smaller, spaced-out offenses.

    "For Boogie, he’s not going to be able to guard guys on the perimeter, and he’s not a better rim protector, either," a Western Conference scout told B/R's Josh Martin. "I think defensively is where they’re really going to have problems."

    Case in point: the Houston Rockets hanging 129 points on the Pels last week.

    This may be a sign of a poor long-term fit or the result of too little practice time to integrate a pair of All-Star talents. For now, it means the Pelicans, 0-3 with Cousins and 1-0 in games he's missed because of suspension, slip.

21. Milwaukee Bucks

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    Head coach Jason Kidd gave Rashad Vaughn and Malcolm Brogdon a shot as the Milwaukee Bucks' starting backcourt on Wednesday, but the result, a 110-98 loss to the Denver Nuggets, didn't suggest the lineup swap will stick.

    "We're giving everybody an opportunity. We would love to start Khris (Middleton), but we're trying to keep him (off the bench) until he's ready to start," Kidd told Charles F. Gardner of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. "We're running out of guys, health-wise."

    The schedule's been tough for Milwaukee, which went 1-3 this past week with all three losses coming against teams currently in playoff position. With the defense struggling and Giannis Antetokounmpo improbably appearing on the wrong end of highlights, it's not looking good for the Bucks these days.

    On the positive side, Brogdon has a real shot at winning Rookie of the Year with Embiid's season concluding after only 31 games played.

20. Charlotte Hornets

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    It's way too early to say the Charlotte Hornets are playoff threats again, but at least they've pulled out of their nosedive.

    With a 2-2 mark in their last four games, the Hornets are doing what they can to salvage a once-promising season. Kemba Walker remains Charlotte's alpha and omega, but Frank Kaminsky has been nearly as vital of late. He averaged 18.1 points and 7.1 rebounds while shooting 38.6 percent from long range in February.

    "I'm a 'confidence' player," Kaminsky told Scott Fowler of the Charlotte Observer. "And I've got a whole lot of confidence right now."

    The Hornets managed to post the league's No. 12 defensive rating in February despite more minutes for their second-year big man, which is something of an achievement, as Kaminsky isn't known for his stopping power. If that trend holds and Kaminsky keeps scoring, Charlotte has a chance to make up more of the ground it lost. 

    It won't take much for the Hornets to close the gap between themselves and the No. 8 spotnobody above them has surged ahead.

19. Dallas Mavericks

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    You don't hear team representatives, let alone owners, be this frank very often, but Mark Cuban has always been a little different.

    Here's what he said on ESPN Radio's NBA Insiders:

    We had to match up to our criteria of trying to position ourselves to get a lot better. Then you combine that with the fact that I've always said, when a lot of teams are tanking, you don't want to tank. And when there aren't many teams tanking and everybody's trying to compete, that's the best time to consider trying to go for a draft pick.

    You can try to play as well as you can and still be in competition for a great pick.

    According to Mavs play-by-play man Mark Followill, the additions of Quinn Cook and Ben Bentil on 10-day contracts give Dallas 10 players on the roster who are 26 or younger. The Mavericks haven't been this young since the 1997-98 season.

    The Mavs still managed to go 2-2 this week, which maybe means tanking isn't as easy for some organizations as it is others.

    It's hard to get players to check out and give in when Harrison Barnes is aerially defiling Paul Millsap, too.

18. Detroit Pistons

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    There's not a lot to be done when the shots just aren't falling, which is why Detroit Pistons head coach Stan Van Gundy kept it simple after his team set an NBA record for foul-line inaccuracy during Wednesday's 109-86 loss to the Pelicans—a game in which Andre Drummond was tossed in the third quarter.

    Imagine what Detroit would have shot from the stripe if he'd stayed in...

    Anyway, here's SVG, via Vince Ellis of the Detroit Free Press, "It's pretty hard to play like that and on top of that, it's incredibly disheartening when you make a good offensive play and you get fouled and it amounts to zero."

    He was referring to the Pistons' 3-of-17 effort from the free-throw line, which looked even worse alongside a 3-of-23 night from long distance.

    The Pistons have dropped two out of three and look like they're ready to pack it in.

17. Minnesota Timberwolves

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    This might be it: the run we've been waiting for.

    The Minnesota Timberwolves won three out of four this week, punctuated by Wednesday's fantastic 107-80 win at the Utah Jazz.

    Karl-Anthony Towns has been torching everyone lately, becoming one of only three players in the last 25 years to total 115 points and 75 rebounds over a four-game span, per Elias. (He joins Shawn Marion and Zach Randolph in that club.)

    That stretch concluded Feb. 27, and all Towns did for an encore was bludgeon the Jazz for 21 points and 15 boards the next time out. He and Andrew Wiggins currently have the longest streaks of scoring at least 20 points in Minnesota history, per Timberwolves PR.

    The Wolves get the Spurs, Blazers, Clippers and Warriors in their next four contests. That'll go a long way toward proving (or disproving) the validity of Minnesota's recent surge.

    For the sake of playoff-race intrigue, let's hope the Timberwolves keep gaining steam.

16. Indiana Pacers

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    One good way to stay smack in the middle of the power rankings is to post a .500 record for the week while mixing perfectly equal amounts of disappointing and encouraging play.

    Behold the Indiana Pacers, a monument to mediocrity.

    To be fair, this might be a different conversation if Indy hadn't fallen to a controversial* Kawhi Leonard game-winner Wednesday.

    "I made him work for it and he picked his dribble up," Paul George told reporters afterward. "Then out of nowhere he had extra space. Plays like that, [the referees] got to see, they've got to see. He made a tough shot."

    But on balance, the Pacers haven't shown any kind of consistency this year. Long winning streaks have given way to similarly protracted cold spells, and the result is a 31-30 mark that inspires no one. It's why you can't trust a 17-point comeback against the Rockets on Monday.

    You just know there'll be a tough loss around the corner.

    *He traveled.

15. Chicago Bulls

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    The All-Star break did Dwyane Wade some good, as he finished a rebound short of a triple-double during the Chicago Bulls' 117-99 win over the Cleveland Cavaliers on Saturday.

    LeBron James missed the contest, so add the appropriate grains of salt. But still, the Bulls have held together well since losing Taj Gibson and Doug McDermott at the deadline. That Wade looks strong adds a solid veteran complement to the ongoing youth movement Cameron Payne and Bobby Portis headline.

    Kevin O'Connor of The Ringer described the latter delightfully: "Portis moves like a deer on ice skates when defending on the ball, but in college he was excellent at switching pick-and-rolls and sliding his feet on the perimeter. The time is now for Portis and the others to make strides, or else they face a long, painful rebuild."

    Payne, meanwhile, has yet to do much. Clearly not in the rotation yet, he hasn't topped six points during a game since joining the Bulls.

    Maybe it's an oversimplification, but beating the Cavs and Warriors in a week warrants a move up.

14. Toronto Raptors

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    DeMar DeRozan scored 37 points and drilled a go-ahead jumper with just under two seconds left in Monday's 92-91 scrape-by victory over the Knicks.

    Never has a game-winning jumper been so bittersweet.

    This is what Toronto Raptors fans have to look forward to now that Kyle Lowry's season is over because of wrist surgery. Lowry was probably the East's second-best player during the first half of the year, and even during Toronto's recent slide, he was one of the only consistent bright spots.

    So now, without him, the Raps will find it difficult to collect victories over even the softest opponents.

    Consider: Lowry's off-court net rating is minus-3.1. When DeRozan sits, Toronto is actually a plus-8.3. That says everything about which member of the Raptors' backcourt impacts team success.

    There's no good time to lose your best player, but it has to sting extra with the Raps going all in on winning this season by adding Serge Ibaka and P.J. Tucker at the deadline. If Ibaka plays big minutes at center, he could help offset Lowry's absence by spacing the floor on offense. It was encouraging to see him play the final 7:30 of his debut at the 5, and the Raptors should look to that configuration more.

    Ultimately, though, Lowry's extended absence forecloses the possibility of Toronto as a top-10 squad.

13. Denver Nuggets

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    The Nuggets put together a 3-1 mark this week behind, you guessed it, Nikola Jokic doing historically significant things.

    He became the first Nugget since Dikembe Mutombo to post back-to-back triple-doubles, per Chris Dempsey of Altitude Sports. Even more impressive, his full-season count of four triple-doubles made him just the fifth center since the NBA-ABA merger to reach that figure in a season, per Justin Kubatko of Statmuse.

    Denver has also gotten excellent individual defense from Wilson Chandler and steady scoring from Danilo Gallinari, who put up 22 points in consecutive wins over Chicago and Milwaukee.

    Team defense remains substandard, but Denver's margin for error is still growing. None of the other squads chasing that No. 8 spot in the West are making up any ground.

12. Miami Heat

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    Is there anything more fun than the Miami Heat just continuing to pile up wins?

    Miami went 3-1 this week, knocking off the Hawks and Pacerstwo teams currently ahead of them in the East standings. Throw in an easy one over the Sixers and a slip against the feisty Mavs, and you have a strong stretch to kick off the post-break portion of the schedule.

    We've reached the point where Goran Dragic and Hassan Whiteside's production is wholly reliable, but when the Heat can get ultra-efficient 23- and 24-point outings from Tyler Johnson (he led Miami in scoring in two of its wins this past week), it's pure gravy.

    If you start thinking about how teams will defend the Heat during a playoff serieswhich you can absolutely start doing right nowJohnson and the rest of the scrappy bench present real problems.

11. Atlanta Hawks

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    The Atlanta Hawks have been grinding out decent weeks for a while now, and their first set of games following the All-Star break was no different. After dropping their first two contests, Atlanta rallied behind its defense and felled the Celtics and Mavs to break even.

    Paul Millsap remains a part of the Defensive Player of the Year conversation, as his defensive real plus-minus figure ranks eighth in the league. Lately, though, he's had help in keeping the Hawks' overall defensive rating firmly in the top five.

    "I'm feeling really confident, but that's due to the coaching staff and my teammates really believing in me and me just flying around trying to be the best active player, the best defensive player, on the floor," rookie Taurean Prince told reporters.

    The rangy, active No. 12 overall pick has seen his most consistent playing time all season lately, averaging 22.5 minutes per game over his last six contestsprecisely because he's been bringing it on D.

    With Millsap's grit, Dwight Howard's rim protection and now Prince's athletic versatility, Atlanta's defense should be enough to keep it in secure playoff position. A step forward could even result in a top-10 spot in our rankings.

10. Memphis Grizzlies

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    The Memphis Grizzlies face a tricky decision as the season winds down.

    Within sniffing distance of the No. 4 seed, the currently sixth-slotted Grizz must decide if home-court advantage in the first round is worth pushing the veterans down the stretch. Marc Gasol and Mike Conley lead an experienced core that could use some nights off to freshen up for the postseason, but would the rest be worth it?

    Then again, might Memphis prefer to avoid the fourth and fifth slots altogether so as to duck a potential second-round meeting with the top overall seed?

    Head coach David Fizdale's willingness to sacrifice for long-term gains is about to be tested.

    More immediately, Memphis posted a 2-1 week with little trouble. One potential point of regret: The decision to sign Toney Douglas for the rest of the season. Had the Grizzlies known how the point guard buyout market would shake out (Brandon Jennings and Jose Calderon became available), maybe they would have waited.

9. Utah Jazz

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    ↓ 1 Spot

    Though they beat a Washington Wizards team still snoozing after the All-Star break, the Utah Jazz are on some suddenly unsteady ground.

    Done in by Russell Westbrook's late-game heroics Tuesday and cracked by the Wolves during a 27-point loss Wednesday, Utah is now suddenly within two games of falling all the way to No. 7 in the West. As always, we're Jazz optimists around here—even if we've learned elevating them anywhere near the top five guarantees a subsequent cold streak.

    Positive note: Dante Exum.

    Per B/R's Andy Bailey, he's averaging 16.6 points, 3.5 rebounds and 3.6 assists per 36 minutes since Feb. 1. And he's doing it while hitting 50.7 percent of his shots from the field. That's a nice development in light of George Hill's failed extension talks and potential looming exit this summer.

    Utah is 9-16 against teams above the .500 mark, so it better get something going before the schedule toughens in mid-March.

8. Los Angeles Clippers

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    ↓ 1 Spot

    Apparently, it takes massive numbers from Blake Griffin and Chris Paul to produce team success: On Sunday, Griffin posted a season-high 43 points and Paul handed out 17 assists without committing a turnover...and L.A. narrowly escaped with an overtime win against the Hornets.

    Those top two players were still excellent during the Clippers' other two games, but not quite that transcendent. So they fell to the Spurs and Rockets.

    In one sense, this week's results underscore an obvious truth: The Clippers depend heavily on Paul and Griffin. But in another, we may have seen evidence of the West's separate playoff tiers. The thinking has long been that L.A. could compete with anyone as long as its key players were healthy.

    In light of recent events, it's not clear that's true anymore.

    So while we can't bury the Clips for losing to the elite, we have to dock them a spot and reconsider how seriously to take them going forward.

7. Oklahoma City Thunder

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    Nobody came out of the break burning hotter than the Oklahoma City Thunder, and you can probably guess who was pouring jet fuel on the inferno.

    That's not to say Russell Westbrook has been perfect, though. He was the one who broke the Thunder's streak of 12 straight made triples to start Tuesday's win against the Jazz.

    Of course, he single-handedly won that game in the end, hitting a devastating step-back triple and finishing an and-1 layup during consecutive crunch-time sequences. It was part of a stretch in which Westbrook scored on five straight possessions.

    This is what Russ does now.

    He leads the NBA with an incomprehensible 60.9 percent usage rate in the last five minutes when the score is within five points, and his on-court net rating during those situations is plus-28.4.

    It's fine to mention Isaiah Thomas' fourth-quarter exploits, but Westbrook is the real late-game monster. He's the reason OKC is knocking on the door of the West's top four.

6. Boston Celtics

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    It's tough to beat the Cavs and not move up, but the Boston Celtics managed to do it this week.

    Losing to the Raptors without Kyle Lowry on Friday and then falling to Atlanta as Isaiah Thomas shot 4-of-21 on Monday offsets Wednesday's signature win. More importantly, it illustrates how poorly the Celtics have played against the East's top tier.

    Boston is 3-7 against the Cavs, Raps and Wizards this year, and it seems to have something to do with the way those clubs target Thomas, according to ESPN's Tom Haberstroh. In this week's Big Number feature, Haberstroh explained that the Cavs, Raptors and Wizards score 122.8 points per 100 possessions against the Celtics when Thomas is on the floor. That figure is only 101.3 when he is on the pine.

    It's a good thing teams don't intensify their targeting of defensive weak links in the playoffs.

    Oh, wait...

5. Houston Rockets

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    Though not quite as hot as the Thunder since the break, the Houston Rockets still piled up points (and allowed heaps nearly as large) en route to a 3-1 mark.

    James Harden has already created 200 more points via the assist than he did in any previous season, per Fred Katz of the Norma Transcript, and it's probably no coincidence the Rockets surpassed last year's win total Saturday.

    That victory over the Timberwolves, a 142-130 affair, was the season's highest scoring game.

    And while we're on the topic of ridiculous offense, Houston has also made at least 20 three-pointers nine times this year—four more than the rest of the league as whole, per Justin Kubatko of Statmuse.

    It's official: Houston can score.

4. Washington Wizards

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    The debut of Washington's new bench didn't go so well, as NBA.com's John Schuhmann noted the Wizards' stellar starters posted a plus-13 in 22.7 minutes against the Sixers on Friday, which wasn't enough to prevent the reserves from sabotaging the advantage.

    The Wizards lost that game by eight points.

    On the flip side, Washington is adding Brandon Jennings to their deadline acquisition of Bojan Bogdanovic. And anything that decreases Trey Burke's minutes can only help improve the backups' numbers.

    More encouraging: The Wiz beat the Warriors, albeit with Kevin Durant heading to the locker room early in the proceedings. That's a major win—far more significant than Boston over the Cavs—and it erases that previous loss to the Sixers as well as one to the Jazz.

    If the Wizards reach a point where they can trust two or three reserves to sustain leads built by the first unit, they'll have no trouble sticking in the top five.

3. Golden State Warriors

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    The impact Kevin Durant's sprained MCL will have on the Golden State Warriors varies depending on your timeline.

    For our in-the-moment purposes, removing him from the rotation for at least four weeks and factoring in the Dubs' recently shoddy (by their standards) play, it's enough to result in a drop.

    Extend the scope enough to encompass the balance of the regular season, and the significance diminishes. Kevin Pelton's models for ESPN.com show the Warriors are still prohibitive favorites to enter the playoffs as the West's No. 1 seed.

    Pull back even further, though, and the possible repercussions of Durant's absence increase: The Warriors know from recent experience that a player returning from an MCL injury isn't always the same as he was before. Stephen Curry's grade-1 sprain severely compromised his mobility after coming back in last year's playoffs.

    Durant, sporting a more severe grade-2 sprain, might find it at least as difficult to hit the ground running whenever he's cleared.

    There will be no sympathy for Golden State's plight. Every other team in the league would love to have Stephen Curry, Draymond Green and Klay Thompson as fallback options.

    All the same, these guys are struggling. Head coach Steve Kerr is resisting a pick-and-roll attack, and the Dubs have shot under 30 percent from long range in three straight. The result: back-to-back losses for the first time since early 2015.

2. Cleveland Cavaliers

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    ↑ 1 Spot

    The Cavs' 2-2 week means all three of the East's top teams played .500 ball over their last four games.

    The reason Cleveland stays above above the Wizards and Celtics (and climbs over the Warriors) is simple: It keeps adding talent.

    Deron Williams is already on board, and it's clear the Cavs trust him. Here's Dave McMenamin of ESPN.com:

    [Williams] ended up playing all but eight seconds of the fourth quarter in a thrilling 103-99 loss to the Boston Celtics that had players in both locker rooms marveling at the playoff-type intensity of the game. 

    Not only did he log all those minutes, but he found the ball in his hands for Cleveland's biggest shot of the night—a potential game-winning corner three-pointer with five seconds left and the Cavs down by two.

    Andrew Bogut has yet to play, but he's officially a Cavalier now too.

    If you think about it, Williams and Bogut with the Cavs says everything about how players view the East hierarchy. Neither had any reported interest in Boston or Washington.

    It's clear Cleveland occupies its own level in its conference.

1. San Antonio Spurs

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    Jayne Kamin-Oncea/Getty Images

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    It doesn't feel fair to call the San Antonio Spurs opportunists (because they're also sentient cyborg juggernauts), but that's kind of what they are. Lying in wait, never faltering, just lurking for a chance to overtake the top spot the moment the Warriors slip.

    Durant's injury, a loss to the Wizards and a ghastly 0-of-11 night from Curry during a close win over the Sixers was all it took. The Spurs are back at No. 1.

    San Antonio's eight wins and plus-10.8 net rating were both second-best in the league during February, and that net rating, by the way, was higher than the Spurs' full-season figure. In other words, the machine is learning to improve itself.

    Pau Gasol is back now, but Dewayne Dedmon has earned the starting role ahead of him by offering a threat as a lob-finishing roller, not to mention posting the NBA's 17th-best RPM. Gasol has plenty to offer, particularly as a passer and second-unit hub, and all this means is the Spurs have, yet again, developed weapons out of nowhere.

    And of course, Gasol is fine with it, telling reporters: "I think [Spurs coach Gregg Popovich] is trying to do a good job of putting the best lineups and how they work together, and also maximizing everyone's talents. With the second unit, I have more opportunities to score, to play my game. With the first unit, it's a little more limited, my options."

    This level of perpetual high-functioning professionalism is almost sickening.

    Follow Grant on Twitter and Facebook.

    Stats courtesy of NBA.com and Basketball-Reference.com unless otherwise indicated and are accurate through games played through Thursday, March 2.


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