NBA Power Rankings: Lakers Join the Ranks of Cavs, Thunder

Grant Hughes@@gt_hughesNational NBA Featured ColumnistMarch 9, 2018

NBA Power Rankings: Lakers Join the Ranks of Cavs, Thunder

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    The Houston Rockets refuse to lose, and the rest of the Western Conference elite are following suit. 

    That's made it tough to get our order straight in this edition of power rankings, because how do you decide on who moves up or down when everyone keeps winning? Fortunately, we have more information than win-loss records to draw upon.

    With just over a month remaining in the 2017-18 regular season, playoff positioning remains unsettled in both conferences, and the race to the bottom has tankers urgently sprinting toward failure.

    As always, these rankings organize all 30 teams into an order that reflects the league's current hierarchy. Recent play gets extra weight, advanced stats matter more than a team's record and injuries have an impact.

30-26

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    Last week's ranking in parentheses.

         

    30. Memphis Grizzlies (30)

    Rookie Dillon Brooks scored 20 of his career-high 29 points during the fourth quarter of Memphis Grizzlies' 119-110 loss to the Chicago Bulls on Wednesday as Marc Gasol and JaMychal Green watched from the bench. 

    The Grizz have dropped 15 straight games, and Gasol's frustration has been visible before, during and after each defeat. If only for Gasol's sake, Memphis' season can't end soon enough.

         

    29. Phoenix Suns (29)

    Dragan Bender just isn't doing anything.

    As ESPN.com's Zach Lowe noted on March 3, the Phoenix Suns 20-year-old big man became the first player since 2012 to log 36 minutes while taking either one or zero shots from the field and zero free throws. At least he contributed six rebounds, four assists and a block in that 124-116 loss to the Oklahoma City Thunder last Friday.

    One of the only good things about tanking is the way it allows young players to stretch themselves in a low-stakes environment. If this is how Bender performs with nothing to lose, it's hard to be enthusiastic about his chances of mattering when games actually mean something. Then again, he's only 20.

    Marquese Chriss often seems confused about everything happening around him on the floor, but he zeroed in on Atlanta Hawks rookie John Collins this week for what'll likely go down as the block of the year.

    The Suns have won once since Jan. 31.

             

    28. New York Knicks (24)

    Nobody has played worse on defense since the All-Star break than the New York Knicks, who have permitted a grotesque 117.5 points per 100 possessions in their last six games.

    After the Knicks gave up 128 points to the Los Angeles Clippers last Friday, head coach Jeff Hornacek told reporters his team's defense was "terrible." Enes Kanter went with "embarrassing." Neither assessment was wrong.

    New York was wise to take a flier on Emmanuel Mudiay, but the verdict is in. Opponents have outscored the Knicks by a cool 100 points in Mudiay's 218 minutes of court time. Yuck.

              

    27. Sacramento Kings (28)

    Who says there's no drama when a third of the league is tanking?

    The Knicks came back from a 19-point fourth-quarter deficit to tie Saturday's game against the Kings, only to watch Skal Labissiere drill a three on a fake handoff with 1.6 seconds left. Zach Randolph rushed the floor to celebrate and earned a technical, but Courtney Lee clanked the free throw, and Trey Burke's last-second heave missed the mark.

    It's hard to say which team wanted to lose more.

              

    26. Brooklyn Nets (25)

    Caris LeVert is rendering D'Angelo Russell obsolete.

    "Caris was great. That's it," Nets head coach Kenny Atkinson told reporters after LeVert scored a career-high 27 points and kept Russell glued to the bench for the entire fourth quarter of Sunday's 123-120 loss to the Clippers. "There was no way with the game he was having [that he was coming out]."

    Russell looked better during Tuesday's loss to the Warriors, posting 20 points and eight assists while displaying sound shot selection, but it isn't hard to imagine a Nets future in which LeVert—a bigger, rangier, more versatile guard—features more prominently than Russell.

    Neither young guard has done much to help the Nets compete this year, though. Brooklyn's net rating checks in at No. 25 in the NBA.

25-21

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    25. Atlanta Hawks (22)

    Despite their best efforts to lose, the Atlanta Hawks got another win this past Sunday, edging the Suns by a final of 113-112 on Taurean Prince's game-winning three.

    Atlanta basically played without a point guard in the second half (despite Dennis Schroder being healthy and available), and Prince initiated much of the offense. Nobody out-tanks the Suns, though.

    Prince's recent play has been a bright spot for the Hawks. He's added three more long-range attempts per game to his shot profile and is scoring 16.5 points per game since the All-Star break.

        

    24. Chicago Bulls (26)

    According to Shams Charania of Yahoo Sports, the NBA warned the Chicago Bulls this week to stop resting healthy players. That is infuriating.

    Hey, NBA, maybe change the incentive structure that makes losing games the smartest thing Chicago (and teams in similar positions) can do? If the draft lottery didn't directly motivate the Bulls, maybe they would have been playing Robin Lopez and Justin Holiday.

    We'll see if the shifted lottery odds make a difference next year. Don't hold your breath.

    Not that it matters, but the Bulls used a 30-15 fourth-quarter surge to upend the Dallas Mavericks on Friday and then beat the Grizzlies on Wednesday. Against Memphis, Holiday scored 14 points on 5-of-5 shooting in 17 minutes. He then sat for the rest of the game.

    Hooray for NBA-mandated competitive integrity!

        

    23. Dallas Mavericks (23)

    It took a lot for the Mavericks to log their first double-digit win since Jan. 22. But with Dirk Nowitzki and Yogi Ferrell combining to go 11-of-14 from deep and Dennis Smith Jr. posting 18 points and a career-high 11 assists, the Mavs did enough to take down the listless Denver Nuggets by a final of 118-107 on Tuesday.

    Nowitzki has been hot lately, juicing his three-point percentage to a career-high 43.9 percent. He's also on pace to set a new personal best in effective field-goal percentage. The volume is way down; Nowitzki is attempting just 10 shots per game, the fewest since his rookie season. But that type of accuracy at age 39 remains incredible.

    There have been 20 seasons in NBA history in which a player shot 46 percent from the field, 43 percent from distance and 90 percent from the line. Nowitzki is on pace to log the 21st.

        

    22. Orlando Magic (27)

    The Orlando Magic got hosed by an obscure rule Wednesday that resulted in a jump ball (and not a do-over possession) when officials started the clock too early on the final play of their 108-107 loss to the Los Angeles Lakers.

    Orlando still would have had to convert an improbable tip-in to win, but to have the opportunity snatched away altogether felt unfair. Rules are rules, though, and this one at least kept the Magic from securing a 3-1 week. Given the team's tanking efforts, the clock snafu counts as a blessing in disguise.

       

    21. Detroit Pistons (21)

    Since adding Blake Griffin, the Detroit Pistons have six wins. All of them have come against teams playing the second night of a back-to-back set, as Dan Feldman of NBC Sports noted.

    Summation: Without a schedule-based advantage, the Pistons stink. They've lost 10 of their last 16 overall, and though they aren't mathematically eliminated yet, it is safe to rule them out of the playoff picture entirely.

20-16

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    20. Charlotte Hornets (19)

    With playoff hopes all but gone and Michael-Carter Williams' season likely done following a shoulder injury, the Charlotte Hornets have no reason to hold Malik Monk out of action.

    The rookie logged 16 minutes in Charlotte's 128-114 loss to the Sixers on Tuesday, scoring nine points and running the offense a bit. For a team with few ways to get off the mediocrity treadmill, the Hornets have to give Monk reps. They need to know if he's worth developing.

    Charlotte's defense has performed at a bottom-10 clip over the last month, a stretch in which it has just one victory (and seven losses) against winning teams.

                

    19. Miami Heat (20)

    Dwyane Wade's return has been fun, and everyone digs throwback moments—like his game-winner against the Philadelphia 76ers last month. But the Heat have been markedly better with Wade on the bench, and his 32.1 fourth-quarter usage percentage leads the team.

    Since the All-Star break, the Heat's clutch net rating is minus-1.8. We're necessarily dealing in small samples, but it was plus-14.2 before that.

    "I'll say this always: I'll go to my grave—and I will go to my grave—with Dwyane Wade shooting with the game on the line," Heat coach Erik Spoelstra told Manny Navarro of the Miami Herald.

    There might be an awkward conversation looming in Spoelstra and the Heat's future.

               

    18. Milwaukee Bucks (14)

    One of the reasons we rely on net rating so much is it gives a better sense of a team's quality than wins and losses. If you smash an opponent by 30, it's more impressive than winning by a single point. Margin of victory and per-possession figures are better information.

    This is why it's so concerning that the Bucks have just three double-digit wins over playoff teams this season—and only one in the last two months.

    The Bucks are excellent in the clutch, which is largely why they're safely a playoff team (even if they're eighth in the East). But without blowout victories, particularly against quality opponents, it's difficult to trust this team.

    And though we've just spent time devaluing wins and losses, it's still worth mentioning Milwaukee has dropped six of its last seven. We're seeing the Bucks' record sliding back toward its net rating, which is 15th.

                 

    17. Minnesota Timberwolves (16)

    Derrick Rose? For real?

    Yep, for real, according to ESPN's Adrian Wojnarowski, who reports the Wolves have agreed on a deal with the former MVP for the rest of the season. In light of head coach Tom Thibodeau's affinity for his former players and the whispers that surfaced shortly after the Utah Jazz waived Rose on Feb. 10, this reunion has felt like fait accompli.

    But it's still ridiculous.

    Jeff Teague is good. Tyus Jones is better than most backups (and several starters) at the point. There's no justification for Rose's presence.

    Locked in a fight for playoff position and playing poorly without Jimmy Butler (meniscus surgery), Minnesota didn't need this.

                           

    16. Los Angeles Clippers (17)

    The Los Angeles Clippers haven't had trouble scoring, ranking fourth in offensive efficiency since the All-Star break. But they've struggled to get consistent stops, and lapses in execution are largely responsible for a defensive rating that checks in at No. 28 during that same post-break span.

    One microcosm of the issue: not sending a second defender at Anthony Davis in the mid-post late in Tuesday's loss to the New Orleans Pelicans, which allowed AD to drill a tough turnaround that sealed the result.

    Lamenting the poor attention to detail, head coach Doc Rivers told reporters: "We allowed a great player to be great."

    L.A.—pretty good but far from great itself—went 2-1 this week.    

15-11

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    15. Denver Nuggets (15)

    Nikola Jokic didn't play the fourth quarter of Tuesday's gut-punch loss to the Mavs, got called out by head coach Mike Malone for a lack of aggression and then posted his second-highest scoring total of the season—36 points on 12-of-14 shooting—in Wednesday's loss to the Cleveland Cavaliers.

    For Denver to have any shot at salvaging a playoff spot, Jokic must sustain the form he showed against the Cavs. Even then, the Nuggets defense may still be terrible enough to force them into the lottery. They've lost four of their last six and rank last on that end since Feb. 1.

                      

    14. Los Angeles Lakers (18)

    The Los Angeles Lakers stayed rolling.

    Winners in six of their last seven games and owners of a shocking 18-11 record since Jan. 1, the Lakers also strung together a 4-0 road trip for the first time since the 2008-09 season, according to Tania Ganguli of the Los Angeles Times.

    Lonzo Ball is hitting heaps of threes late in games, the offense is humming and #LABron is a thing that feels slightly less ridiculous now than it would have a few weeks ago.

    Brandon Ingram's groin injury is a bummer, but the Lakers' arrow is firmly angled up.

                

    13. San Antonio Spurs (11)

    Lately, fourth-quarter leads are disappearing at alarming rates for the San Antonio Spurs. And the consequences are looking serious.

    They've coughed up late advantages against the Jazz, Nuggets, Pelicans and Lakers over the last month. As a result, a playoff berth is in doubt for the Spurs after 20 straight appearances.

    "We bring it and we execute and we play hard. But then it's like a snowball down the stretch," Manu Ginobili told Tom Orsborn of the San Antonio Express-News after his team fell to the Lakers on Saturday. "Some little things start to happen and it compounds…It feels like we are not catching a break."

    Only the Suns, Nets, Knicks and Grizzlies have fewer victories than the Spurs since Feb. 1.

                 

    12. Oklahoma City Thunder (12)

    The Oklahoma City Thunder are settling in, and that's a little troubling.

    Since drubbing the Warriors on Feb. 6, the Thunder haven't beaten a playoff team (or the Lakers, who have basically played like one for the season's second half). OKC is still treading water by knocking off tankers and generally inferior competition, but with the West race so tight, it's starting to feel like it'll take more than that for these guys to survive.

    The Houston Rockets are in a different class altogether, but it was still illuminating to watch their offensive execution deconstruct the Thunder on Tuesday—particularly as OKC tried to fight back with shoddy structure and porous defense.

                   

    11. Cleveland Cavaliers (6)

    LeBron James can still engineer victories on his own, which he proved by scoring nine points in the final 1:41 of the fourth quarter against the Nuggets on Wednesday. He finished the contest with 39 points and said afterward his level of play was at "probably an all-time high."

    Cleveland went 2-1 this week, and James is averaging a near triple-double over the last six weeks. But the Cavs are still just 4-4 since the All-Star break.

    James' late-game heroism and general excellence aside, the Cavaliers are still looking a little suspect. The pieces, understandably, haven't fit together yet. There's time, but it's only fair to judge this new version of the Cavs on its results instead of its potential.   

10. Washington Wizards

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    Last Week: 9

    Single-digit losses to the Pacers and Raptors knocked the Washington Wizards down a peg but didn't quite drop them out of the top 10. That's partly because the Wiz salvaged their week with an overtime win against the Heat—thanks to Bradley Beal's hyper-efficient 30 points on 12-of-16 shooting.

    Also a factor: Washington's overall profile since John Wall went down remains encouraging.

    In 18 games without their starting point guard, the Wizards are 12-6 with wins against every East playoff team but Boston, which got them by six points Feb. 8.

    Washington can compete with anyone.

    Wall is doing shooting drills as he works his way back from knee surgery, and though his return might force the Wizards to adjust the fluid style they've established in his absence, his return should at least ease some of the burden on Beal, who averaged 41.7 minutes in three games this past week.

9. Indiana Pacers

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    Last Week: 13

    The Indiana Pacers recovered from a pair of ugly post-break losses to the Mavs and Hawks by winning three straight against playoff-bound foes from the East, peaking at a season-best 10 games over .500 following Monday's 92-89 victory against Milwaukee.

    Bojan Bogdanovic scored 29 points in that one, carrying over the scoring momentum from a torrid February in which he averaged 18.9 points on 52.3 percent shooting from the field.

    If the Pacers continue to tighten their defense (they rank sixth in the league on that end since Jan. 1 and 13th overall), they'll soon join the Warriors, Rockets and Raptors as the only teams performing at top-10 levels on both ends.

8. Philadelphia 76ers

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    Last Week: 5

    Sunday's turnover-riddled loss to the Milwaukee Bucks wasn't the best look for a Philadelphia 76ers squad angling for a top-four spot in the East. But a slip like that is forgivable (and not too damning for purposes of our rankings) when you consider the team's larger body of work.

    Since Dec. 1, the Sixers have profiled as the Eastern Conference's second-best team. In that three-plus-month stretch, they've outscored opponents by a larger average margin than everyone in the East but Toronto. Defensively, Philadelphia ranks fourth in that 43-game span.

    In other words, we've got roughly two-thirds of a season telling us the Sixers are just a notch below their conference's elite.

    And though this quote from frustrated head coach Brett Brown, delivered to reporters after the Milwaukee loss, has little to do with our ranking, its verbiage is too good to skip: "Whatever we do we have to get done as a team. We have to have violent cuts, we have to have adult screens and we have to cut to mean it."   

7. Utah Jazz

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    Last Week: 8

    The Utah Jazz went 4-0 this week, capping the stretch with an impressive road win in Indiana on Wednesday. But because they play in the West and life isn't fair (and because they dug a massive hole while Rudy Gobert was out earlier this season), the Jazz remain outside the postseason picture.

    For now.

    Everything we've seen from Utah over the past six weeks screams "playoff team." Since Jan. 24, these guys are 17-2 with the NBA's fourth-best net rating. Nobody's come close to their defensive production during that span.

    Fortunately for Utah, its remaining schedule is easier than that of any team fighting for a West playoff spot. When someone slips, the Jazz are the favorite to capitalize.

6. New Orleans Pelicans

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    Last Week: 10

    This is too high for the New Orleans Pelicans, right? Based on the roster's talent and the quality of several teams behind them, it has to be.

    But try telling that to Anthony Davis, who is playing better basketball than anyone in the league over the last month and has led the Pels to 10 straight wins, a stretch that included seven road games. Already the West's player of the month for February, AD has seen his surge take on storybook qualities.

    After suffering bruised ribs in the first half of New Orleans' win over the Clippers on Tuesday, an injury that had him doubled over in the tunnel, Davis returned to pour in 31 points, nine rebounds, two steals and three blocks after halftime.

    No. Big. Deal.

    B/R's Dan Favale noted that just three other players have managed those totals in an entire game this season. And none did it with contused bones.

    Davis finished with 41 points and drilled a clinching turnaround in the final minute.

    Though the Brow deserves most of the credit for New Orleans' improbable rise, Jrue Holiday warrants mention. He handed out 17 dimes against the Clips and has scored at least 19 points in each of the Pels' 10 straight wins.

5. Boston Celtics

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    Last Week: 4

    Despite dropping a game this week and losing Kyrie Irving to knee soreness, the Boston Celtics surrendered only minimal ground.

    The defeat came against the Houston Rockets in a road game where Boston held a lead deep into the fourth quarter, so no shame there. And Irving, though much celebrated, hasn't been that integral to Boston's success this season. The Celtics' net rating is plus-4.9 when he plays and plus-3.3 when he doesn't.

    There's a difference, sure, but not one nearly as big as the on-off disparity attached to Al Horford (plus-7.2), Jaylen Brown (plus-7.1) or even Jayson Tatum (plus-6.8). And yes, Terry Rozier's effectiveness contributes to the Celtics' solid play without Irving, whereas the wing backups aren't so hot, but still...

    Horford has laid a few eggs since the All-Star break, scoring five points or fewer three times. He still contributes as a passer and team defender, but the dip in box score production for a 31-year-old late in the season is cause for concern.

    That'll be a situation to monitor as Boston heads down the stretch.

4. Portland Trail Blazers

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    Last Week: 7

    It is becoming increasingly clear that Zach Collins matters.

    "Tonight, you were able to see a glimpse of how special he is," CJ McCollum told Joe Freeman of The Oregonian after the rookie played a vital role in Portland's 108-100 win over the Thunder on Saturday.

    The rookie was disruptive on defense and productive in the box score, logging eight of his career-high 12 points in the fourth quarter while playing all but 27 seconds of the decisive period.

    The Blazers are rolling because Damian Lillard has inserted himself into fringe MVP contention by hitting deeper and deeper daggers every night. He scored 19 of his 39 points in the fourth quarter of Portland's 108-103 win over the Lakers on Monday. But Collins is a pivotal long-term figure in Portland—one who's becoming increasingly helpful in the present. Because the Blazers lack cap flexibility, there's a good chance their future hinges on his becoming their third-best player.

    He's not there yet, but the rookie has made a difference in games that matter as Portland, a winner in 10 of its last 11 games, has climbed all the way to third in the West playoff race.   

3. Toronto Raptors

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    Last Week: 3

    The Toronto Raptors are immune to letdowns, having won 27 of their 29 games against opponents with sub-.500 records.

    The Raps' depth is responsible for some of that stat. On the year, Toronto's bench has outscored foes by the league's highest per-game average. And when your backups not only sustain advantages the starters build but can also pick up the slack when the first unit lags, it's easier to stomp out inferior competition.

    "There is nobody in this league who is going to come out and allow you play your game the way you want," head coach Dwane Casey told Michael Grange of Sportsnet. "Especially when you are on the top of the heap."

    Everything about Toronto screams this year's team is different than the ones that have produced past playoff letdowns. From the style revamp to the youth corps that's leading the reserve charge to the acknowledgement that success won't come easily.

    The Raptors have been the East's best team for months, and they're on pace to win a franchise-record 60 games.

2. Golden State Warriors

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    Last Week: 2

    The Golden State Warriors cracked the 50-win plateau this week but continue to bring maximum focus and effort only when it's necessary. Case in point: The Dubs jumped out to a 35-19 lead after the first quarter against Brooklyn on Tuesday and then gave it all back, allowing the Nets to blast them by 21 in the second period.

    "We want that No. 1 seed," Klay Thompson told reporters following a Tuesday shootaround. "We're obviously paying attention to what Houston is doing. But we control our own destiny if we take care of business."

    Taking care of business won't be enough—not if business hours only include a quarter or two on most nights. The top team in Golden State's conference and our rankings isn't slowing down, so it's up to the Warriors to find their top speed and stay there.

    Quietly, Stephen Curry leads the league in true shooting percentage and is on pace to post a career high in that category. In 50 games this season, Curry has logged more field-goal attempts than points scored just four times. Whatever issues with consistency plague the Warriors, they don't stem from Steph.

    That's why his latest ankle tweak, which he suffered Thursday against San Antonio and was serious enough to sideline him for the final three quarters, is so concerning.

1. Houston Rockets

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    Last week: 1

    You already know about the historic three-point rate (the Houston Rockets are on pace to become the first team to ever attempt more than half of its field goals from long range) and the isolation dominance (James Harden and Chris Paul rank first and second in points per isolation possession), but the lineup versatility makes this team special.

    The sheer breadth of options is staggering.

    Play Paul and Harden together, or don't. Use Luc Mbah a Moute at center alongside Trevor Ariza, PJ Tucker and two guards for eminent switchability. Let Ryan Anderson and Eric Gordon pull defenses several feet beyond the arc while Clint Capela rolls through an unobstructed lane. It all works.

    On the season, Houston boasts a dozen different five-man units that have logged at least 50 minutes. Eleven of them have positive net ratings. Ten of them are at least plus-7.7 per 100 possessions.

    Depth like that makes Houston the league's most adaptable team, and when you can morph into whatever form is necessary to win a given night's game, you can do incredible things...like string together 17 straight victories.

                      

    Stats courtesy of Basketball ReferenceCleaning the Glass or NBA.com unless otherwise specified. Salary-cap info courtesy of Basketball Insiders. Accurate through games played Thursday, March 8.

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