NBA Power Rankings at the End of March

Grant Hughes@@gt_hughesNational NBA Featured ColumnistMarch 31, 2017

NBA Power Rankings at the End of March

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    Marcio Jose Sanchez/Associated Press

    We've finally gone deep enough into the season where the standings have mostly sorted this out for us.

    You can make it a long time, fool a lot of observers and give off the appearance that you're better than your record. But you can't do it for 75 games.

    Eventually, things normalize. And then, in a way that has to please old-schoolers and anti-analytics pundits, you are your record.

    There are some exceptions, and we always prioritize recent play over the full-season sample. This is, after all, a measure of each team's quality in the present. That's how the Brooklyn Nets, owners of the league's worst record by a mile, are nowhere near the bottom of our rankings.

    As always, we're evaluating on the basis of advanced stats, wins and losses, and anything else that composes the full picture of a team.

    Those portraits are clearer than ever as March winds down.

30. Los Angeles Lakers

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    And now, cleansed of a sibling power struggle, the Los Angeles Lakers must prove unity of management and clarity of purpose mean as much as we like to think they do.

    Jim Buss' position as co-trustee is no more, and Jeannie Buss now rules unchallenged, according to Nathan Fenno of the Los Angeles Times. An ownership group working at cross purposes is no longer an excuse. So if the Lakers continue their belief in their exceptionalism, sign a few bad contracts and/or fail to make the most of the lottery-plucked talent in their young core, there's nowhere to hide.

    That L.A. just keeps losing (2-12 in March) suggests it has its priorities in order. Adding a potentially franchise-altering piece in the draft is all that matters now, so keeping its selection by finishing in the bottom three is the main goal over the season's final few weeks.

    A secondary aim should be figuring out what D'Angelo Russell might become, which is tough, as Matt Moore of CBSSports.com explains:

    Russell looks like the Laker most likely to become a truly dominant, top-five player, but you also don't look at him now and see it. You see the potential, but not a clear line. With some players you could tell "they're going to be great." With Russell, it's "he could be great." And that creates problems for a franchise that needs sure things.

    Not to mention one likely to pick at the top of a point guard-rich draft.

29. Phoenix Suns

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    ↓ 1 Spot

    There's almost never anything worth remembering from a season that will push up toward 60 losses.

    Almost.

    Devin Booker provided an exception for the Phoenix Suns, whose fans will never forget 2016-17 now—not after watching the 20-year-old guard put up 70 points on the Boston Celtics last Friday. Even if the total was partly the result of some unsporting late fouling by the Suns, who did everything they could to get Booker extra possessions and shots, the achievement was remarkable.

    Nobody had cracked 70 since Kobe Bryant hit 81 more than a decade ago, and there have only been two other 20-year-olds since 1963-64—LeBron James and Brandon Jennings—to get over the 50-point barrier.

    In more pedestrian matters, the Suns have been getting smashed in first quarters lately, posting a league-worst minus-56.2 net rating in the 0-3 week they put together since we last ranked.

28. New York Knicks

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    ↑ 1 Spot

    Sometimes, you stumble across a seemingly innocuous stat that just...sticks with you.

    That happened after the New York Knicks beat the Detroit Pistons, 109-95, on Monday.

    In that game, New York got at least 20 points from Carmelo Anthony, Kristaps Porzingis and Derrick Rose—something that had only happened five previous times this year, per ESPN Stats & Info. Including that Monday win, the Knicks' record in such contests is an uninspiring 2-4.

    Maybe that doesn't mean anything. But it's hard to be optimistic about a team that loses twice as often as it wins on the rare occasions its three most prominent players get their points on the same night. It just underscores so much of what we already think about the Knicks: They're ill-fitting, suboptimally deployed and lacking in players who'll do the little things...if you consider playing half-decent defense, shooting efficiently and making others better to be little things.

    As another disappointing Knicks season winds down, it's getting harder to find positive signs—even amid positive outcomes.

    And in closing, here's head coach Jeff Hornacek on New York's being mathematically eliminated from the playoffs Tuesday, per Mike Vorkunov of SportsREDEF: "Today was mathematically, but I think the writing has been on the wall."

27. Orlando Magic

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    ↓ 2 Spots

    Officially eliminated from playoff contention Tuesday, the Orlando Magic endured an altogether unpleasant week. Because in addition to punching its ticket to another lottery, Orlando had to literally confront the decisions that helped get it there.

    Serge Ibaka's Raptors smacked them Monday, and Victor Oladipo's Thunder (OK, the Thunder belong to Russell Westbrook, but humor me) did the same in overtime Wednesday. Ibaka, brought in via a shortsighted trade—a Magic special—and then sent out in a matter of months, is part of a defensive rise with his new team. Worse still, the tactic enabling him—small-ball lineups in which he plays center—probably would have helped in Orlando.

    And Ibaka even asked to utilize them, according to comments he made to Joshua Robbins of the Orlando Sentinel.

    Oladipo has developed in an injury-marred campaign and would be Orlando's best player right now. He's what it cost (plus Domantas Sabonis) to get Ibaka.

    The Magic went 1-2 this week, but the larger theme here is mostly one of sadness and disappointment. That's enough for a drop.

26. Brooklyn Nets

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    The Brooklyn Nets won seven games in March.

    Seven!

    And since they're losing their lottery pick to the Boston Celtics, we can cue that full-on hacky Anchorman reference that applies so perfectly.

    "I do feel the improvement," head coach Kenny Atkinson told reporters after March win No. 7 against Atlanta on Sunday. "But it's not about the wins. Before the road trip, I felt we were starting to improve. I felt like it was coming."

    These haven't been high-quality victories; a 122-109 win over the Memphis Grizzlies on March 6 was probably the best, but Memphis has been a mess for a few weeks now. Otherwise, the Nets' victims include the Sacramento Kings, the Knicks (twice), the Detroit Pistons, the Suns and then the Hawks (sans Paul Millsap).

    Still, wins are wins, and the Nets got themselves another one this week to cap their best month of the season.

25. Sacramento Kings

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    Hero.
    Hero.Chris Szagola/Associated Press

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    As Bonnie Tyler so famously queried:

    Where have all the good men gone?
    And where are all the gods?
    Where's the streetwise Hercules to fight the rising odds?
    Isn't there a white knight upon a fiery steed?
    Late at night I toss and I turn,
    And I dream of what I need!

    Sam Hinkie, fresh off a hiatus in Palo Alto, California, in which he refueled and, probably, stocked up on spreadsheets, soy lattes and half-zip Patagonia pullovers, is the hero the Sacramento Kings need.

    They have permission to speak to the architect of the Sixers, per ESPN's Marc Stein and Zach Lowe. And The Vertical's Adrian Wojnarowski says they're actively looking for someone to take over top-end personnel decisions from Vlade Divac.

    Though they've arrived here via the maddeningly capricious whims of ownership, and though further upheaval will only feel like more of the same, somehow convincing Hinkie to pilot this rusty bird would easily be the best move the Kings have made in decades.

    Sure, they had 2-2 week on the court, earning one-point victories over the Memphis Grizzlies and Los Angeles Clippers. But this hardly seems like the time to discuss that.

    A hero looms on the horizon. Maybe.

24. Philadelphia 76ers

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    Sporting a breathtaking mustache, Tiago Splitter played NBA basketball for the first time in over a year. He even made a bucket, notching two points in seven minutes of the Philadelphia 76ers' 106-101 win against the Nets on Tuesday.

    In addition to a member of the team's demonstration that 13 months off is enough time to grow A-plus facial fur, the Sixers taught us that Dario Saric pretty much has to dominate for them to have a chance.

    In their two wins, Saric scored 55 points on 20-of-34 shooting. In two losses, he managed 24 points on 8-of-33 from the field.

    The good news is that Saric isn't ticketed for this pivotal role going forward. Ideally, he'll be a fantastic sixth man or role-filling stud as the Sixers develop around Ben Simmons, Joel Embiid and whoever comes aboard via this year's lottery.

    These are valuable developmental games for Saric, though, and he's not squandering them.

23. Detroit Pistons

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    ↓ 1 Spot

    Mercifully, it appears we're done here.

    The Detroit Pistons suffered a crotch kick of a loss to the Miami Heat on Tuesday, as Stanley Johnson got a technical for stepping over the line while defending an inbounds play and then Hassan Whiteside tipped in a buzzer-beater to steal the victory.

    The Pistons are 10th in the East and must win out to finish .500.

    "You know me, until it's elimination time, I'm not one to call things a must-win. But this is as close to a must-win as I've probably had in the regular season," head coach Stan Van Gundy told reporters before the brutal loss.

    Detroit's five-game losing streak ended with a win over Brooklyn on Wednesday, but the damage is already done. Now, the concerns shift to possibly shutting down Reggie Jackson, mulling over the roster for next season and deciding whether Kentavious Caldwell-Pope is worth a max extension.

22. Minnesota Timberwolves

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    ↓ 1 Spot

    Some corrective action late in the week came in the form of wins over the Pacers and Lakers, but the Minnesota Timberwolves are out of chances to prove their flirtations with success are sustainable.

    This year, anyway.

    Here's Sports Illustrated's Rob Mahoney on how the Wolves unraveled during a six-game losing streak that finally ended with Tuesday's win over Indy: "In those games, Minnesota—one of the slowest-paced teams in the league—has surrendered 120-plus points three times and 110-plus points five times. They allowed the Lakers, who are trying their damnedest to lose games, their highest point total (130) of the season."

    Minnesota will reach a consistently excellent level of performance eventually. Karl-Anthony Towns is too good for there to be any other outcome.

    He scored 37 points to beat Indiana, and he's just the third player ever to average at least 24.6 points and 12.1 rebounds with a 61.0 true shooting percentage. The others? David Robinson and Charles Barkley.

21. Dallas Mavericks

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    ↓ 3 Spots

    We've now got over a month of the Nerlens Noel experience in Dallas, and the results have been good.

    The Mavs' net rating is plus-2.3 with Noel on the floor, which gives him the best figure on the team of anyone who's played at least 100 minutes this season. Toss in a 20-16 record since Seth Curry became a starter, and you've got plenty of reasons to buy the Mavs as a more serious playoff contender next year than they were in 2016-17.

    That's a good way to take the sting out of the franchise's first losing season since 1999-2000.

    Russell Westbrook's late-game takeover assured the Mavs of a sub-.500 record with loss No. 42, and the Pelicans rubbed it in with a 121-118 win two nights later. Dallas went 0-3 this week, and frustrations seemed to boil over a bit.

    Better luck next year, Mavs.

20. Chicago Bulls

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    ↑ 3 Spots

    It's not that easy to beat the Milwaukee Bucks these days, but the Chicago Bulls did it behind a season-high-tying 28 points from Nikola Mirotic on Sunday.

    Chicago has distanced itself from the Pistons (and beat them last week to boot), and this team's bizarre refusal to die remains surprising. Though, this might be one of those times where it's fair to whisper about how the Bulls' net rating has been in positive territory this year without Dwyane Wade on the floor.

    With him, that figure is minus-3.4.

    The Bulls' inexplicable 20-game winning streak in Thursday TNT home games is alive, and if we see the Bulls face the Cavs in a first-round series, we'll do it knowing Chicago went 4-0 against the defending champs this year.

    The Bulls have a soft closing stretch ahead. It's road-heavy, but the only opponent left with a winning record is the reeling Hawks.

    If Indiana or Miami slips at all, the Bulls could easily finish seventh or eighth.

    Amazing, right?

19. Charlotte Hornets

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    Where'd this offense come from?

    The Charlotte Hornets, clinging to their final tattered shreds of playoff hope, somehow ranked third in the NBA with an average of 116.8 points per 100 possessions this week—a wholly out-of-character effort for the league's No. 14 offense overall.

    Kemba Walker got all heroic with a pair of late three-pointers to beat the Toronto Raptors on Wednesday, but that 110-106 success only meant the Hornets broke even at 2-2 since our last ranking. That's not going to cut it with three games to make up on that eighth spot and only seven to go.

    If the Hornets somehow get in, they'll have earned it. Because not only is the math daunting, but the schedule is also a beast. Charlotte gets Denver on Friday, and after that, it'll finish with four of its final six on the road.

    All of those games come against opponents currently in playoff position.

18. Atlanta Hawks

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    ↓ 2 Spots

    The seven-game losing streak is over, but single-digit wins over the Suns and Sixers aren't going to save the Atlanta Hawks from another week of wrong-way momentum.

    Paul Millsap has missed the last six games with knee synovitis, which explains the struggles, and he won't even be re-evaluated until after Saturday's meeting with Chicago.

    He's the team's most consistent player on both ends, and an offense that barely survives with him can't do anything without him. Atlanta has reached the century mark in just one of the half-dozen games Millsap has missed, posting the lowest offensive rating in the league this past week.

    A league-worst turnover percentage since the All-Star break isn't helping the scoring output, either.

    These Hawks are staggering to the finish, limping worse than any likely playoff participant.

17. Memphis Grizzlies

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    You can lose to the Warriors and Spurs on the road. That's fine. That's normal.

    But if you're planning to do anything in the playoffs (or avoid falling in the rankings), you can't bookend those defeats with road losses to the Pelicans and Kings.

    Horrendous on defense since the break, Memphis now ranks 28th in points allowed per possession in that span. This isn't just off-brand. This is unfathomable. How do the Grizzlies, an organization defined by defense for almost a decade, turn into this?

    If you're one of those folks using points allowed per game as a defensive metric, first, congrats on tying your shoes all by yourself this morning. Second, the only reason Memphis looks half-decent by that standard is its pace—slowest in the NBA since the break.

    Fixing this is going to be tough because Marc Gasol, a cure-all for years, isn't up to the task of salvaging this defense. Memphis has actually defended better all year with him off the floor.

16. New Orleans Pelicans

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    ↑ 4 Spots

    New Orleans is 5-2 in its last seven games, and if Anthony Davis would quit slacking off, who knows how much better things might be going.

    AD really coasted in Wednesday's 121-118 win over the Mavs, snapping a three-game streak in which he scored at least 30 points and grabbed 15 rebounds by managing only 30 points and 13 boards.

    Now he's only tied for the second-longest such streak in the last two decades, per ESPN Stats & Info. Two more measly rebounds, and he'd have had it all to himself.

    What a bum, right?

    The Pels aren't going to make the playoffs, but they've looked strong lately. Davis and DeMarcus Cousins combined for 59 points Wednesday, and any chemistry they can build in these few remaining games will augur well for next year's prospects.

15. Indiana Pacers

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    Even if there's no way it played out like this, it's fun to imagine a scenario in which team president Larry Bird hears Paul George's latest public expressions of dissatisfaction and picks up the red phone on his desk, shouting into the receiver, "Get me Lance Stephenson! He's the only one who can fix this!"

    So anyway: Lance Stephenson!

    He's a Pacer again, after signing a three-year, $12 million deal to occupy the spot vacated by Rodney Stuckey, whom Indy waived to save $7 million next season.

    We know he'll look right in the jersey, but it's unclear whether Stephenson can keep George from saying things like this to reporters after scoring 37 points in a loss to Minnesota on Tuesday: "There's no urgency, no sense of urgency, no winning pride."

    Adding Stephenson certainly feels like an urgent move.

    Indiana also fell to Memphis on Wednesday, dropping below .500 for the year and slipping into eighth in the East after occupying the No. 5 spot two days prior.

14. Denver Nuggets

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    One of the best stories of the season won't end as happily as the Denver Nuggets might like.

    A 1-2 week culminating with a 122-113 loss to the Portland Trail Blazers all but assured the Nugs won't make the playoffs. Though it only trails the Blazers by a game-and-a-half in the standings, Denver's brutal closing schedule makes that gap nearly impossible to close. The Nuggets play six of their final eight games on the road.

    Long-term, this is fine. Denver avoids a likely first-round sweep, gets another crack at the lottery and heads into next year knowing where it must improve.

    If there were any doubt about that last part, the Portland loss removed it.

    The Nuggets can't stop anyone, and the relentlessness with which the Blazers ran pick-and-rolls targeting Nikola Jokic bordered on cruel. CJ McCollum scored 39 points, and Jusuf Nurkic hurt his old team with a career-high 33. None of this was surprising for a Nuggets squad that ranks 29th in defensive efficiency.

    Jokic assures excellent offense, but the Nugs must now find ways to survive on the other end when he's on the floor.

13. Miami Heat

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    The Miami Heat have leveled off of late, going 5-4 in their last nine games and needing Hassan Whiteside's game-saving tip-in to avoid a sub-.500 two-week stretch.

    Dion Waiters' ankle injury remains a concern. He's been out since spraining it March 17, and though an MRI conducted Tuesday came back negative, per Anthony Chiang of the Palm Beach Post, his absence is making things even harder on Goran Dragic. Miami's point guard hasn't shot it well since losing his backcourt mate, and the Heat have been worse on both offense and defense without Waiters this season.

    Talk up the scrappiness, great coaching and attitude all you want. At some point, we have to acknowledge the Heat saved their season at least partially because they had players more talented than most believed. Waiters is one such example.

    There's no timetable for Waiters' return. But if he comes back healthy, the Heat may yet move back into the top 10 before season's end.

12. Milwaukee Bucks

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    The Milwaukee Bucks are 17-7 since Jabari Parker went down for the season, and though the timing of this will feel like piling on, it's worth wondering: Are they better because he's out?

    Defensively, there's little doubt the Bucks' performance gains are tied to Parker's absence. His on-court defensive rating of 109.3 was the worst among all Bucks rotation players. And when Khris Middleton replaces his scoring (or someone like Tony Snell steps in and scores a career-high 26 points, like he did to help beat the Hornets on Tuesday), it's easy to see why Milwaukee has surged.

    The Bucks went 3-1 this week with a terrific 103-100 win against the Celtics on Wednesday to move a season-best three games over .500. Giannis Antetokounmpo produced 22 points, nine rebounds, three assists, three steals and three blocks in that one, and his overall stat line of 23.1 points, 8.5 rebounds and 5.3 assists would be getting MVP consideration in a normal year.

    Milwaukee's in a tricky spot, as the No. 5 seed is there for the taking, but staying in sixth would avoid a potential meeting with the Cavs in the second round.

11. Portland Trail Blazers

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    Sometimes we get bogged down in the details—like we did when lamenting the Blazers' shoddy defense, lack of quality frontcourt options and seemingly unsustainable, low-assist offense. And then, suddenly, we realize there's a simple, big-picture remedy.

    A star—Damian Lillard in this case—just has to start doing star-type things.

    Lillard killed it in March, posting the third-highest individual scoring average for the month while hitting over 40 percent of his threes.

    Jusuf Nurkic stuck it to his former team, scoring a career-high 33 points against Denver on Tuesday. CJ McCollum's game-high 39 moved the Blazers into sole possession of eighth in the West and secured the fifth-best post-All-Star break record in the league as we move into April.

    Portland isn't perfect, but it's peaking at the right time.

10. Utah Jazz

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    ↓ 2 Spots

    We love the Jazz here, but it takes a quality win once in a while to avoid slippage.

    Utah hasn't logged one of those since beating the Los Angeles Clippers back on March 13, and L.A. returned the favor with a 108-95 victory this past Saturday. In March, the Jazz have only beaten one other playoff-bound foe: the Rockets on March 8.

    It's entirely possible Utah will prove itself against better competition. It gets Washington, San Antonio and Portland in its next three contests, so we'll see how things look against real opponents.

    For now, it's encouraging that Gordon Hayward's quad injury isn't limiting him anymore. Though George Hill's strained groin cost him a game against the Kings on Wednesday.

    Utah's on pace for 50-plus wins, is as dangerous as anybody when healthy and has a great chance to advance into the second round of the playoffs. It's just the Jazz haven't done enough lately to keep those things in the front of our minds.

    Plus, a couple of other teams need to climb. So Utah gets the short end despite a 2-1 week.

9. Los Angeles Clippers

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    ↑ 1 Spot

    An embarrassing loss to the Kings marred an otherwise splendid week for the Clippers, who took down the Jazz and Wizards—both top-10 clubs.

    J.J. Redick tallied a season-high 31 points against Washington, and DeAndre Jordan scored at least 20 points in back-to-back games for the first time this year against Sacramento and Washington.

    Also notable: The offense is looking stout these days. According to ESPN Stats & Info, L.A. cracked the 100-point barrier quicker than anyone else this season, reaching the century mark with 5:43 left in the third quarter of Wednesday's win over the Wizards.

    Unfortunately for the Clips' ranking, almost everyone else in the top 10 was at least as good as they were this past week. So there's only so much upward mobility available, even if they seem to warrant a bigger bump upward.

    For example, the team directly in front of them is riding a suffocating defensive performance to six wins in its last seven games.

8. Toronto Raptors

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    The Toronto Raptors are buckling down.

    Serge Ibaka was the more heralded acquisition, but it's been P.J. Tucker who's injected new tenacity into a unit already possessed of respectable stopping power. His presence on the floor coincides with nearly a dozen points per 100 possessions of defensive improvement.

    Since the All-Star break, the Raptors rank third in defensive efficiency.

    Tucker relinquished his starting gig to DeMarre Carroll, who returned after two games off Wednesday. But a backup role may only intensify the impact of Tucker's defense. Now, he can get back to the familiar job of rocketing off the bench and torturing opposing wings wth fresh legs.

    DeMar DeRozan was named Eastern Conference Player of the Week, Kyle Lowry has resumed shooting with his surgically repaired right wrist and the Raps won't see a foe with a winning record until they face Cleveland on the final day of the regular season.

7. Cleveland Cavaliers

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    ↓ 2 Spots

    You can lean on more than faith and a belief in switch-flipping if you're looking for reasons to keep trusting the Cavs amid their ongoing slide. After they lost possession of the No. 1 seed in the East on Monday, SB Nation's Tom Ziller reminded us of some facts: 

    LeBron James' teams have made six straight NBA Finals. His teams have been the East's No. 1 seed only twice in that span: last season and in 2012-13. The Bulls were the No. 1 seed in 2011 and 2012, the Pacers won it in 2014 and the Hawks took it in 2015.

    LeBron's teams went a combined 12-3 against those No. 1 seeds in their respective playoff series.

    Wherever Cleveland ends up in the seeding game, its fate still depends on LeBron James summoning his extra gear (and everyone else following along). Still, it's hard to get past the stats.

    The Cavs are under .500 since the break and have gone 2-7 against playoff-bound teams in March. Only the Lakers have been worse on defense.

    Eventually, trusting in a return to normalcy will become foolish, and it often seems like we're reaching that point. But James and the Cavaliers have been in similar situations before—even if they haven't seemed quite this severe.

6. Washington Wizards

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    ↑ 1 Spot

    This late into the season, you really have to dig around for new stats to toss into the rankings, but this one's kind of fun: Otto Porter's turnover rate of 4.6 percent is the lowest of anyone in the league who's played at least 25 minutes per contest in more than 40 games.

    When you've developed into one of the league's absolute best spot-up specialists, it's apparently easy to avoid driving into trouble.

    It'll be interesting to see if playoff opponents try to force him into doing more than he's comfortable with. Porter hasn't distinguished himself as a passer (just one game with more than five assists this year) or a rim-attacker (1.5 free-throw attempts per game), so hard closeouts could push him into awkward situations.

    That's a ways off, though. For now, Washington moves up a spot after winning four of its last five games and clinching its first division title since 1979.

5. Oklahoma City Thunder

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    ↑ 1 Spot

    Take your pick.

    Did you prefer Russell Westbrook's 12 points in the final three-and-a-half minutes of a win against the Mavs on Monday? Or maybe you like the simpler game-winner he hit to punctuate that comeback.

    Perhaps the 57-point triple-double he turned in Wednesday strikes your fancy. Nobody has ever scored more points in a triple-double, so that one's a worthy selection, too.

    Or how about this: Of Westbrook's league-high 75 clutch field goals this season, 72 of them have been unassisted, per Micah Adams of ESPN.

    If none of those do it for you, just wait a game or two, and Westbrook will do something else completely ridiculous.

    OKC has won three of its last four and eight of its last 10 as Russ continues to bolster his MVP case with singular brilliance.

    There are better teams out there, but there's not a better show anyplace.

4. Boston Celtics

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    The defense we've been waiting for is here.

    Boston ranks fifth in points allowed per possession since the All-Star break and just ripped off four wins in its last five games to seriously push the flagging Cavaliers for the No. 1 seed in the East.

    A head-to-head meeting with Cleveland on Wednesday could prove decisive in a seeding battle that seemed over just a few weeks ago.

    Isaiah Thomas' 32 points in Wednesday's loss to Milwaukee (Boston's first at home in March) helped him add to a record-setting season. A. Sherrod Blakely of CSNNE.com lists several of the franchise marks Thomas has hit this year, with his status as the Celtics' single-season leader in made threes standing out as particularly remarkable.

3. Houston Rockets

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    You can't make 'em all, and though the Warriors did well to bother the Houston Rockets' three-point tries in Tuesday's 113-106 loss, James Harden and Co. can't feel too badly about a seven-point loss to Golden State in which they shot just 5-of-31 from deep.

    Regardless of scheme and the opponent's defensive focus, Houston's treys will go in more often than that on most nights.

    Then again, Houston is 26-of-110 from distance against Golden State this season. So maybe there really is something to having several long-limbed defenders switching and sprinting all over the place in desperate attempts to run the Rockets off the line. Fortunately for the Rockets (until a possible conference finals meeting, that is), nobody else has Draymond Green, Andre Iguodala, Shaun Livingston and Klay Thompson on its roster.

    Houston is secure in its No. 3 seed, and even if James Harden doesn't want one, he could take a break for the rest of the season without fear of standings slippage.

2. San Antonio Spurs

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    Heading into a highly anticipated meeting with the Warriors on Wednesday, the San Antonio Spurs were 9-1 against the league's top five teams this season.

    There's no shame in 9-2.

    The Spurs built a massive lead on the Dubs, only to watch as Golden State ratcheted up its defense and moved the ball in a blur during the comeback win. The result snapped a five-game winning streak that included Monday's 29-point undressing of the Cavs.

    So, all we've really learned this week is the Spurs are waaaaaay better than everyone else, but they also might not be quite as good as the Warriors.

    The standings make that clear, but it's nice to have on-court illustrations once in a while.

    Six of San Antonio's final eight opponents are in playoff position, so there's little chance we see the Spurs move out of the No. 2 spot in the West...and here, for that matter.

1. Golden State Warriors

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    The Golden State Warriors reclaimed the top spot and restored order last week. This week, they set about widening the gap between themselves and everyone else.

    With conspicuous use of the pick-and-roll in back-to-back wins over the Rockets and Spurs, the Warriors looked a lot more like themselves. Kevin Durant's absence has something to do with the return to offensive simplicity, and it'll be worth watching how the Dubs work him back in when he returns.

    Speaking of which, his progress remains on track, and KD could still be back from his MCL sprain before the end of the regular season.

    You can't make the case that Golden State is better without Durant unless your job as a hot-take radio host compels you to. The on-off numbers don't support the contention, and no right-thinking person could possibly argue Matt Barnes or Patrick McCaw looks better in the starting lineup than a healthy KD.

    But you can say there's been a silver lining to Durant's absence. The Warriors have put the ball in Stephen Curry's hands, rediscovered their defensive intensity and built confidence.

    Once KD returns, it'll be all systems go. And the league's best team will get better.

    Follow Grant on Twitter and Facebook.

    Stats courtesy of NBA.com and Basketball Reference unless otherwise indicated and are accurate through games played Thursday, March 30.

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