NBA Power Rankings Entering Final Weeks of 2016-17 Season

Grant Hughes@@gt_hughesNational NBA Featured ColumnistMarch 17, 2017

NBA Power Rankings Entering Final Weeks of 2016-17 Season

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    Bill Baptist/Getty Images

    At this point, it might be easier to just alert you when we don't have chaos and rampant place-swapping in the top 10 spots of these NBA power rankings.

    Yet again, there's top-end shuffling afoot.

    As several powerhouses succumb to fatigue and complacency while doing everything possible to gear up for postseason runs, their positioning continues to suffer. And while we shouldn't start ruling out teams we once thought were contenders because they're taking the long view in March, there are signs of real weakness developing in some of the league's elite.

    Opportunities abound for the clubs hitting their strides as others stumble.

    As always, rankings are based on record, advanced stats and team health. Recent performance matters most in our evaluation of the league's current hierarchy because we're trying to lay out how each team is playing in the present.

30. Los Angeles Lakers

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    Take a break, Timo...for, like, a month.
    Take a break, Timo...for, like, a month.Andrew D. Bernstein/Getty Images

    ←→ No Movement

    Thanks to an all-out tank job that would have Sam Hinkie questioning whether he'd gone too far, the Los Angeles Lakers have their net rating approaching Brooklyn Nets territory.

    That's what happens when you bench vets left and right while barely even pretending to play defense.

    Since March 1, the Lakers have been outscored by 12.9 points per 100 possessions. That's the worst figure in the league during that span, and it's notably 10.9 points worse than the Nets'.

    In a logically twisted way, the Lakers' decision to fully shut down Luol Deng and Timofey Mozgov (both of whom are fully healthy) is the best vindication for their ridiculous contracts. At least resting them now indicates they might be capable of helping the team win.

    That's a pretty damning assessment of the $136 million L.A. spent on those two this past summer, but that's where we are with this organization.

29. New York Knicks

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    Frank Franklin II/Associated Press

    ↓ 3 Spots

    Quick peek behind the curtain here at power rankings headquarters: When compiling notes every week for the Knicks slide, some version of "Triangle offense B.S." almost always shows up.

    Which brings us to this encouraging tidbit from Kristaps Porzingis after Sunday's loss to the Nets, via Ian Begley of

    It was like, 'maybe this will work, maybe this will work.' So we're kind of looking for stuff. Coaches, they obviously try to do the best job they can and [are] giving us as much as they can so we have the information. But we never really got it all together and were able to execute the way we should have. It's been a lot of confusion.

    The only thing worse than running the Triangle all the time, it seems, is running it some of the time.

    Losing to the Nets twice makes any week rough, and seeing Porzingis go down with a nasty thigh bruise doesn't help either

    At least Willy Hernangomez tallied 13 points, 16 rebounds, four assists, three steals and a block in Tuesday's 87-81 win over the Indiana Pacers. Imagine what he and KP could do with consistent offensive principles.

28. Brooklyn Nets

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    David Zalubowski/Associated Press

    ↑ 1 Spot

    Nets head coach Kenny Atkinson says Jeremy Lin and Brook Lopez, who played just 207 minutes together together through the end of February, are getting on the same page.

    Turns out he's right, as the tandem produced a plus-4.0 net rating in 186 minutes since March 1.

    Maybe that's a modest figure for a team's two best players, but anything in positive territory is basically a parade-worthy event in Nets country. Note, too, that those 207 pre-March minutes produced a minus-7.5 net rating.


    Brooklyn took down a disjointed New York Knicks squad on Sunday, then did it again on Thursday, giving it wins for the third week in a row.

    You're in no danger of falling back to No. 30 in these rankings if you keep winning every week.

27. Orlando Magic

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    ↓ 3 Spots

    The Magic can at least blame some of their misfortune on bad luck.

    On the year, they've allowed opponents to hit 37.1 percent from beyond the arc, the seventh-highest percentage in the league. Since Feb. 1, that figure is 39.5 percent, which is highest in the NBA.

    Good three-point defense generally involves preventing attempts, and the Magic are fine in that regard, ranking in the middle of the pack. It seems everybody just gets a little hotter when they see Orlando on the schedule.

    The Magic have lost four straight, and aside from hoping for some development from Mario Hezonja and Aaron Gordon down the stretch, the only thing worth watching with this team is Elfrid Payton's pursuit of triple-doubles.

    He has three in his last six games.

26. Sacramento Kings

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    ↑ 2 Spots

    There may not be a right way for the Sacramento Kings to play out the string over the season's final month.

    If they're trying to win, which head coach Dave Joerger and the veterans on the roster contend is the case, playing guys with experience would seem to be the best approach. But an eight-game losing streak in which Sacramento leaned heavily on its vets proved that theory wrong.

    And then when the Kings pivoted and doled out minutes to the kids—Willie Cauley-Stein, Buddy Hield, Skal Labissiere—they beat the Orlando Magic on Monday. Labissiere scored 21 of his career-high 32 in the fourth quarter of yet another win, a 107-101 contest against the Suns on Wednesday.

    Developing youth, in this instance, has the unintended consequence of hurting Sacramento's draft position.

    Cauley-Stein posted 18 points in that Orlando win, and Labissiere looks like a potential starting-caliber big man. And yet, the success of those developing prospects damages the Kings' long-term outlook.

    Nothing's ever simple in Sacramento. 

25. Philadelphia 76ers

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    ↑ 2 Spots

    The only thing keeping the Philadelphia 76ers from a bigger jump this week is the Golden State Warriors' diminishing status.

    If the Dubs were their typical selves, Philly pushing them to the brink in a 106-104 loss on Tuesday would have counted for a lot more.

    Still, the Sixers held a double-digit fourth-quarter lead against a former champ on the road, which looks pretty good as part of a 1-2 week that also included a win in Los Angeles over the Lakers.

    Dario Saric is probably going to win Rookie of the Year—partly because Joel Embiid decreed it so, and partly because he's averaging 22.4 points, 7.2 rebounds and 4.0 assists in his last five games.

    Bonus points for the Sixers being the only bottom-feeding team that always plays hard.

24. New Orleans Pelicans

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    ↑ 1 Spot

    Forgive us for having a few reservations about the New Orleans Pelicans, who move up just a tad after Anthony Davis went statistically bonkers during a highly successful week.

    AD piled up 46 points and 21 rebounds to beat the Charlotte Hornets in overtime on Saturday, but the biggest story in that game was DeMarcus Cousins' benching down the stretch. He has continued to produce negative net results when on the court, and Davis playing better alone must be cause for concern.

    Cousins claims he wasn't mad about the benching, but let's see if that sentiment holds over the season's final months.

    Also an issue: Davis' repeat customer status in the X-ray room. He left his 12th game this season after hurting his wrist on Tuesday night. X-rays, as they've been so many times this year, were negative. But, man, that guy gets dinged a lot.

    He also produces wild numbers. Davis now has three games of at least 40 points and 20 rebounds in his career. Since the 1983-84 season, only Shaquille O'Neal (four) has more. There's a good chance Davis adds to that total...if he can avoid in-game exits.

23. Chicago Bulls

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    ↓ 1 Spot

    Sorry if this analysis of the Chicago Bulls gets overly technical, but it's important to be precise when diagnosing a deep, debilitating malaise like the one that afflicted this team during a five-game losing streak that mercifully ended on Sunday.

    Ready for it?

    Here goes: Yuck.

    What else is there to say about a team that phones in transition defense in back-to-back 20-point losses to the Houston Rockets and Boston Celtics?

    What nuance is there in a club inexplicably dumping Nikola Mirotic from the rotation for several games at a time and then reinserting him for no apparent reason?

    Consider this from ESPN's Micah Adams: "Two years ago, Nikola Mirotic led the NBA in fourth-quarter scoring in March. Two years later, he's inactive in a game in March."

    How do we evaluate an outfit that looks for all the world like it's ready to quit, then unleashes four 20-point scorers in a last-gasp win over the Hornets on Monday, then loses Dwyane Wade for the season?

    Yuck. That's how.

22. Phoenix Suns

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    Matt York/Associated Press

    ↑ 1 Spot

    The Suns are .500 in March, and they've been generating that moderate success with a level of excitement you wouldn't expect from a team still on pace to lose well over 50 games.

    Devin Booker has had a lot to do with the drama.

    He knocked off the Dallas Mavericks on Saturday with his second buzzer-beater of the year, and the Suns have more such last-second winners this season (four) than any other team. In fact, according to ESPN Stats & Info, their penchant for late-game heroism is something we haven't seen since the 2009-10 Lakers.

    Phoenix hits the road for a rough six-game trip through the East to close out the month, so it may be tough to sustain the energy we've seen of late.

    But that's nothing another buzzer-beater can't cure.

21. Charlotte Hornets

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    ↓ 1 Spot

    Remember when the Charlotte Hornets played decent defense?

    It wasn't that long ago, actually.

    Through Jan. 1, they were sixth in the league with a 103.1 defensive rating. Since then, they've ranked 14th. And if you slice the data thinner, beginning with games Feb. 1, they're 18th.

    Trends like that are why head coach Steve Clifford is saying things like this, via David Scott of the Charlotte Observer: "It’s mistake after mistake. We play with no discipline defensively. We don't. It’s been the story too many times this year. This is on me now. I have to do a better job of getting them to understand what we have to do. We do it at times."

    If Nicolas Batum's persistent migraines, severe enough to warrant a CT scan, don't clear up, Charlotte will only find it harder to compete.

    Oh, and how is it the Hornets rank above the Bulls (who beat them this week) despite all these nasty numbers? Simple: Chicago's are nastier. The Bulls rank dead last in offensive efficiency since March 1.

20. Detroit Pistons

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    ↓ 2 Spots

    We've been rough on the Detroit Pistons around here lately, but a week that concluded with two ugly performances—one on defense followed by one on offense—doesn't provide an opportunity to go any easier on this team.

    In fairness, the Cleveland Cavaliers light everyone up, and the Utah Jazz shut everyone down. So surrendering 128 points to the Cavs on Tuesday and then scoring just 83 against the Jazz on Wednesday is something that could happen to almost any team.

    But that's just it. If the Pistons hope to separate themselves from the morass of mediocrity stumbling into playoff spots in the East, it'll have to be more than just any team.

    "We haven't been good in back-to-backs anyway, and that's the worst we've been," Pistons head coach Stan Van Gundy said after the Utah loss, via Rod Beard of the Detroit News. "We didn't play either game well at all and really didn't have a legitimately good stretch in either game."

    Just two of Detroit's nine remaining games in March will come against playoff teams. This upcoming stretch could make or break the Pistons' season.

19. Indiana Pacers

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    ↓ 2 Spots

    There's no rule stating the Indiana Pacers have to stay one spot ahead of the Pistons in our rankings, but that always seems to happen.

    Indy got a big win against the Miami Heat on Sunday that felt like a potential tone-setter. But then the Pacers fell to the Knicks, which quickly halted momentum. And if it seems like that sort of fits-and-starts dichotomy has come to define this Pacers season, it's because it has.

    Since Feb. 16, Indy has alternated wins and losses. That's a full month of one step forward and one step back, and it's getting to the point where a streak of any kind would feel strange.

    More broadly, it's hard to be this inconsistent when Paul George keeps being spectacular. He hit the Hornets for a season-high 39 points to close out Indy's ranking session Wednesday and is averaging 25.6 points and 8.8 rebounds over his last five games.

    He's also made 53 of his last 54 free throws.

18. Portland Trail Blazers

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    ↑ 5 Spots

    The Portland Trail Blazers are hellbent on making this interesting.

    One of a trio of resilient playoff pursuers in the West, Portland capped an exciting and often inspiring week with a terrific road win against the San Antonio Spurs.

    "That had to be probably our best win of the year," Blazers coach Terry Stotts told reporters. "To beat a team like San Antonio on the road. Not only that, but how we won. I thought it was one of our better games as far as staying focused throughout the game."

    Damian Lillard's 36 points helped produce that triumph, which would have been the Blazers' second excellent win since we last ranked...if they'd been able to hold off the Washington Wizards in overtime Saturday. That defeat, paired with a head-scratcher against the Pelicans on Tuesday, meant the Blazers only finished the session with a 2-2 mark.

    But if you're going to write off a team that just knocked off the Spurs on the second leg of a road back-to-back, you'll be doing it alone.

17. Memphis Grizzlies

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     ↓ 4 Spots

    "I don't even know who you are anymore, man" - Anyone watching last week's Memphis Grizzlies.

    "Oh right, I remember" - Anyone watching this week's Grizzlies.

    For a long time, even when the Grizzlies were bad, you could count on their defense. That wasn't the case in early March when they started 0-5 and surrendered some gaudy point totals.

    Even after holding the the Bucks, Bulls and Hawks to 93, 91 and 91 points in three straight wins this week, the Grizzlies are still just 3-5 with the fourth-worst defensive rating in the league since March 1.

    Sad as it sounds, Chandler Parsons' season-ending knee surgery to repair a torn meniscus is going to help Memphis improve. His perfunctory rehab minutes were always ineffective. Now that he's out of the rotation (and hopefully on the road to recovery), the Grizzlies are buckling down a little better.

    Removing an immobile wing shooting 33.8 percent from the field and struggling to get any lift is essentially a mercy.

16. Dallas Mavericks

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    Alex Brandon/Associated Press

    ←→ No Movement

    Missing Nerlens Noel and Wesley Matthews for stretches this past week compromised the Dallas Mavericks' defense, but they were still just a Devin Booker buzzer-beater away from a 3-1 record—one highlighted by Wednesday's 112-107 win over the Wizards.

    Noel returned against Washington after three games off nursing a sore knee, coming off the bench to score a dozen points and post a tidy plus-seven in 23 minutes. His critical late free throws helped scoring binges from Dirk Nowitzki and Seth Curry, both of whom scored 10 points in the fourth quarter, hold up.

    "We're still trying to chase the eighth seed even though it doesn't look good after the last two losses," Nowitzki told reporters. "We're going to keep plugging."

    Dallas is 5-3 in March with the No. 9 net rating in the league. If the Mavs don't pressure the Nuggets for that eighth spot, it won't be for lack of trying. It'll be because there just wasn't enough time.

15. Milwaukee Bucks

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    You can't talk about the Milwaukee Bucks' recent run without mentioning Giannis Antetokounmpo being an extraterrestrial force or Khris Middleton stabilizing a shaky perimeter shooting corps. But there's been a defensive component that has also quietly contributed to the Bucks' stretch of seven wins in their last eight games.

    They're limiting opponents' three-point attempts.

    Before the All-Star break, Milwaukee ranked 28th in the NBA by allowing 30.2 long-range tries per 100 possessions. Since the break, they've trimmed that number to 24.1, which ranks fifth.

    The sample is still small, but that's a good explanation of why the Bucks defense has climbed from 21st before the break to 12th after it.

    Currently in playoff position, Milwaukee must lean on its improved defense to sustain this late-season surge.

14. Minnesota Timberwolves

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    ↑ 1 Spot

    The hole the Minnesota Timberwolves dug was just too deep. Even though they're ranked ahead of and playing better than both Dallas and Portland, the gap between them and the eighth-seeded Denver Nuggets may be too wide to bridge.

    But, man, are these guys playing some complete ball lately.

    Before Nemanja Bjelica went down with an ankle injury Wednesday, he'd posted three double-doubles in seven games. Prior to that first one Feb. 27, he hadn't logged one all year.

    Rick Rubio has been the best version of himself, highlighted by his 19-assist effort in Monday's terrific win over the Wizards.

    And Karl-Anthony Towns has been one of the absolute best players in the league, averaging 26.9 points and 13.3 rebounds on 60.6 percent shooting in March. He even drilled a couple of dagger threes to help beat Washington.

    Buy stock in these guys for next season.

13. Toronto Raptors

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    David Goldman/Associated Press

    ↓ 3 Spots

    The Toronto Raptors shot just 31.6 percent from three-point range in their first seven March games, compiling a 3-4 record and finally showing the real cost of playing without Kyle Lowry.

    "We’re more of a spread-it team," coach Dwane Casey told Doug Smith of the Toronto Star. "Cory's [Joseph] an attack guy, but he's going into where everybody else is. It’s not that Cory's doing something wrong; that's just his game. When Kyle's in there, he can space out and be one of the [pass] receivers out there."

    In the first few games after Lowry's wrist surgery, the Raptors curiously looked fine. But that was never going to last.

    Without Lowry threatening the defense as a shooter in the pick-and-roll, and without his spacing the floor as an outlet for DeMar DeRozan's mid-range attacks, the Raptors are too compacted. When Cory Joseph drives, he runs into a thicket of friends and foes.

    Until Lowry returns from wrist surgery, Toronto is stuck navigating a spacing crunch.

12. Denver Nuggets

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    ↑ 2 Spots

    Beset by hungry young teams and past playoff participants striving for a return to the dance, the Nuggets refuse to give ground.

    Winners of six out of eight in March, Denver is still in the driver's seat in the race for No. 8 out West—even if the indefinite absences of Danilo Gallinari and Wilson Chandler inject some uncertainty.

    One key to the Nuggets' steady play: defense.

    Relatively speaking, of course. We all know the Nuggets are defined by their scoring. But it's important to note that more of that scoring has been the result of things happening on the other side of the floor.

    Before the break, Denver ranked last in the league in percentage of points scored off turnovers. The Nuggets didn't generate many takeaways, and they did little with the ones they created, scoring only 12.1 percent of their points that way.

    Since the break, the Nuggets are producing 15.9 percent of their points off turnovers, which ranks in the league's top 10.

    That may be an anomaly considering the size of the sample. But it might be something much more encouraging: a sign the Nuggets are getting a little more serious about playing both ends.

11. Atlanta Hawks

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    ↑ 1 Spot

    When Dennis Schroder scores, the Atlanta Hawks tend to win, and his three-point shooting is especially correlated with his team's success.

    Through March 15, Schroder hit 40.8 percent of his treys in Atlanta's wins but under 25 percent in its losses.

    Scoring, in general, has been an issue for the Hawks. They went nine-and-a-half minutes without a bucket against the Spurs on Monday.

    "We had a few empty possessions," Paul Millsap told reporters after the 107-99 loss. "Can’t have that against a good team. You’ve got to do better, especially against a good team when it comes down to a few possessions."

    Empty possessions have been a constant for Atlanta this season. Its offensive rating is all the way down to 25th in the league.

    Fortunately for the Hawks, the defense has been steady. That loss to San Antonio snapped a three-game winning streak.

10. Los Angeles Clippers

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    ↓ 1 Spot

    In light of Monday's hotly contested loss, I don't think anybody would be opposed to the Clippers squaring off in a seven-game series against the Utah Jazz.

    Unfortunately for the Clips, that defeat (and another one against the Bucks on Wednesday) mean that first-round matchup will likely favor the Jazz, who have a three-game lead on L.A. for the No. 4 spot and home-court advantage in the first round.

    It'll be good either way, though. Because in addition to the talent involved and the compelling "young, hungry team takes on veteran squad desperate to make one more run" angle, there's also some chirping going on.

    As Bill Oram of the Orange County Register relayed: "Bad blood brewing between Clippers and Jazz already. CP3 on Gobert: 'He talks a lot. He can play, but he just talks a lot.'"

    Can we fast-forward to April, please?

9. Oklahoma City Thunder

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    The Oklahoma City Thunder continue to rise and fall by the grace of Russell Westbrook, and they've been rising a lot more often when his assist totals spike.

    Per Erik Horne of the Oklahoman

    Thunder coach Billy Donovan believes Westbrook has good players around him, but also is cognizant that much of the offense has to be created by his point guard. At 42.2, Westbrook is on pace to smash the record for usage percentage in a season set by Kobe Bryant (38.74) in 2005-06.

    Yet, in the past two games, when Westbrook has looked to facilitate first (albeit against short-handed San Antonio and Utah squads), other Thunder players have shot a combined 53 percent (68-of-127) from the field.

    Cut to Westbrook's amassing 19 assists during a win over the Nets and 16 more to beat Toronto next game.

    For a guy with such a frosty relationship with the press, it sure seems like Westbrook has a good handle on his press clippings.

8. Miami Heat

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    If you're trying to avoid getting too excited about the Miami Heat, please ignore this tweet from B/R's Zach Buckley: "Since Jan. 17, Heat are first in wins (22), third in defensive, sixth in offensive rating, second in net rating. Essentially, two months of championship-level dominance."

    And not to take anything away from Dion Waiters, but Goran Dragic is the real reason all of this is happening. The Heat are 1-8 in games he hasn't played, and he's been effective with only one eye.

    Finally, some love for Erik Spoelstra from an admittedly invested party:

    "I’ve said it for years—but because I worked with him I'm biased and nobody writes it—there’s not a better coach in the league than Erik [Spoelstra]," Pistons head coach Stan Van Gundy told Sam Amick of USA Today. "Certainly in my mind, it’s the best coaching job that’s gone on this year."

    Considering Miami followed up an 11-30 start with a 22-5 blitz (mostly without Justise Winslow, Josh Richardson and, of course, Chris Bosh), that seems like a fair assessment.

    Miami has won five of its last six games and remains in hot pursuit of a playoff spot.

7. Utah Jazz

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    ←→ No Movement

    At this point, Rudy Gobert, Gordon Hayward and George Hill (if healthy) are constants. They're the biggest reason the Jazz have hung around the top 10 for most of the year, and few teams boast a point guard-wing-big man trio any better.

    But when the supporting cast in Utah comes through, that's when the Jazz get scary.

    Dante Exum hung a career-high 22 points on the Thunder on Saturday, albeit in a loss, and Joe Ingles chipped in 18 of his own in a win over the Clippers on Monday.

    When role-fillers step in like that, the Jazz become a different kind of team. Toss in a few Joe Johnson late-game bombs, and the potential to get something (anything!) out of Derrick Favors down the stretch, and you have a Utah squad with several ways to win.

6. Golden State Warriors

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    Jim Mone/Associated Press

    ↓ 2 Spots

    If you don't count blowing the 2016 Finals—which, why wouldn't you?—this is the single worst stretch for the Golden State Warriors since Steve Kerr took over as head coach in 2014-15.

    Across-the-board fatigue and Stephen Curry's ongoing slump (don't call it that, though) have the Dubs looking profoundly vulnerable. 

    And while Curry's hitting 5-of-13 from distance against Philly on Tuesday might look like a sign of hope, please note the only reason Golden State stole that 106-104 win at home was Draymond Green's refusal to let the slide continue.

    He finished that one with 20 points, eight rebounds, eight assists, six blocks and four steals—a line not produced since Hakeem Olajuwon did it in 1990, per Monte Poole of CSN Bay Area.

    The Warriors are trying to keep perspective, and Kerr is wisely seeing the wakeup-call potential of this adversity. But the Warriors have looked exhausted, and Kevin Durant's healthy return is far from guaranteed.

    A 4-5 stretch isn't quite a crisis, but it's the closest the Warriors have come to one during the regular season in a long time.

5. Washington Wizards

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    ↓ 3 Spots

    In one sense, we can now be sure the Washington Wizards are a top-tier team this season.

    Because one thing elite teams have done this year (Spurs excluded) is climb way up to the top of our rankings and then lose a little bit of focus against weaker opponents, resulting in a slide back out of the tip-top.

    Cleveland, Golden State and Boston have all done it.

    The Wizards punch their ticket into the club by eking out two overtime wins and then dropping their last two against clubs with losing marks this week. Dallas and Minnesota aren't ordinary lottery squads, but the Wizards shouldn't be falling to them.

    John Wall now has more games with 25 points and 10 assists than any Wizards player since the 1984-85 season, and he earned the most recent East Player of the Week award for his efforts.

    Here's hoping the left foot sprain he suffered against the Mavs doesn't linger. If it does, the Wizards' recent skid will go from being a sign of complacency in a very good team to a potentially disastrous slide.

4. Cleveland Cavaliers

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    ↓ 1 Spot

    Stop me if you've heard this before, but the Cavs are reloading.

    This time, it's Larry Sanders.

    It's hard to know what Sanders, once a defensive monster who quit the game two years ago, will bring. But the fact that the Cavaliers keep hauling in the most prized available commodities (Andrew Bogut and Deron Williams came before Sanders) says a lot about the organizational push to make this year count at all costs.

    Cleveland's defense still stinks, ranking 22nd overall and 28th since the All-Star break.

    The offense is still unstoppable, Kevin Love and J.R. Smith are back, and this is a team that cranked up its defense by several points per possession when it mattered two postseasons ago.

    Wins and losses still matter for our more immediate purposes, and the Cavs are under .500 in March. But it's getting harder to ignore the title path so clearly laid out for this group.

3. Boston Celtics

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    ↑ 2 Spots

    Washington and Cleveland's struggles provided the Celtics with an opportunity, and Isaiah Thomas' club took advantage with a 2-1 week marred only by a road loss in Denver.

    Boston knows where its offense is coming from, as Thomas has led it in scoring for 32 consecutive games. According to ESPN Stats & Info, only Michael Jordan and Kobe Bryant ever posted longer team-leading streaks.

    And even if the defense has been far less consistent than Thomas' production on the other end, the Celtics have elevated their defensive rating to 14th overall after allowing the seventh-fewest points per possession since the All-Star break.

    With the easiest remaining schedule in the league (combined opponents' winning percentage of 39.4), Boston has a chance to make a move on the top seed in the East.

2. Houston Rockets

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    ↑ 4 Spots

    Two blowout victories over pushovers (the Bulls and Lakers) sandwiched around a more telling win over the Cavs have the Houston Rockets occupying their highest power rankings spot of the season.

    We have to be mildly cautious, as that win over the Cavaliers still wasn't good enough to move Houston's record against winning teams above the .500 mark, but it's difficult to exercise restraint with an offense this dominant.

    The Rockets average a league-best 117.4 points per 100 possessions since the break—nearly four points better than Cleveland's No. 2 rating and 11.1 points better than the Spurs in that span.

    Sure, Houston's playoff fate is tied to what we like to call a three-heavy, high-variance offensive style. But is it fair to label it high-variance when James Harden is among the most reliable scorers we've ever seen, and nobody has figured out how to consistently guard a team that stretches the floor three or four feet beyond the arc?

    The longer this goes on, the harder it becomes to discount what the Rockets are doing.

1. San Antonio Spurs

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    Eric Gay/Associated Press

    ←→ No Movement

    Kawhi Leonard made it back from his concussion after missing just one game, and LaMarcus Aldridge only sat out a pair following his even scarier bout with minor heart arrhythmia.

    Both looked fine upon their returns against the Hawks (Leonard) and Trail Blazers (Aldridge). San Antonio lost versus Poertland, but the particulars—two stars returning and Portland going all out to erase the previous night's embarrassing fall in New Orleans—mean there's no reason to knock the Spurs from their perch.

    San Antonio actually took over the West's top seed from Golden State this week, only to relinquish the advantage two days later. Still, with ownership of the head-to-head tiebreaker and a much better recent track record, the Spurs look capable of regaining and keeping that playoff position.

    Follow Grant on Twitter and Facebook.

    Stats courtesy of and unless otherwise indicated and are accurate through games played Thursday, March 16.     


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