NBA Power Rankings: Toronto Raptors Breaking New Ground
With less than a month remaining in the 2017-18 season, we have a first-timer atop the NBA power rankings.
How's that for unpredictability?
Injuries are shaking up the top five, sending powerhouses tumbling and opening up room for up-and-comers to advance. Meanwhile, the tank battle rages on in the lower third.
As always, these rankings are designed to organize all 30 teams into an order that reflects the league's current hierarchy. They're not title odds or a statement on which clubs have the best chance to perform well going forward. They're a rundown of who's most dangerous (at the top) or least potent (at the bottom) right now.
Health, full-season stats and recent play are all factors. And this week, head-to-head matchups take on special meaning. With a razor-thin margin between the top two teams, we had no choice but to use every piece of information available.
Bring on the stretch run!
Last week's rankings in parentheses.
30. Memphis Grizzlies (30)
If this season were a prize fight, the referee would have stopped it long ago. The Memphis Grizzlies cannot defend themselves, and it's getting macabre to watch.
An 0-4 week featured three double-digit defeats (two by lottery teams) and shoddy enough defense to let Milwaukee Bucks retread Brandon Jennings, fresh from the G League, nearly notch a triple-double in his first NBA action in almost a year.
After falling to the Chicago Bulls on Thursday, the Grizzlies are now four defeats shy of matching the franchise record of consecutive losses. Memphis is at 19 and counting.
29. Phoenix Suns (29)
The Phoenix Suns' only win since Feb. 1 came against the Grizzlies, and they haven't beaten a team currently occupying playoff position since knocking off the Oklahoma City Thunder way back on Jan. 7.
According to Dave King of Bright Side of the Sun, Phoenix is 13-17 when Tyson Chandler, T.J. Warren and Devin Booker start. Do not expect to see that threesome used much for the rest of this year. Phoenix can't risk notching a win if it wants a shot to catch the Grizzlies for top lottery odds.
28. New York Knicks (28)
The New York Knicks allowed a 19-0 run and scored just 12 points in the third quarter of their 110-97 loss to the Dallas Mavericks on Tuesday...and that's pretty much all you need to know about the way this team is playing out the string.
With 17 losses in their last 18 games, the Knicks (24-45) are virtual locks to log their fourth straight 50-loss season.
27. Brooklyn Nets (26)
It hasn't mattered much in terms of wins and losses, but D'Angelo Russell just put together one of his best runs of the year for the Brooklyn Nets.
He averaged 29 points per game and hit 11 of his 20 three-point attempts in an 0-2 week, getting particularly hot in the first quarter of Tuesday's loss to the Toronto Raptors. In the first 7:40 of the game, he hit seven straight threes and scored 24 points.
If it seems like we have a three-man rotation going in this space, in which we praise Spencer Dinwiddie, Caris LeVert and Russell in turn, it's because we do. Brooklyn has three guards who've shone for stretches this season—but almost never all at once.
26. Atlanta Hawks (25)
Kent Bazemore has a bone bruise in his left knee that'll shelve him for the season, and Dennis Schroder is a good bet to get frequent nights off going forward. That means Taurean Prince, who scored a career-high 38 points during Sunday's 129-122 loss to the Bulls, could be in for some more big scoring nights—if only by default.
Atlanta has lost five straight.
25. Sacramento Kings (27)
Monday's 106-101 loss to the Oklahoma City Thunder was a welcome improvement over Sunday's blowout snoozer in Denver. Fighting OKC all game and even taking a lead in the third quarter, the Sacramento Kings at least kept things interesting.
Bogdan Bogdanovic located his missing stroke and scored 19 points, De'Aaron Fox hit Willie Cauley-Stein for some high-wire alley-oops, and Justin Jackson zipped around off the ball. It was as encouraging—as 47th losses go.
Sitting at 22-47 after a thrilling win over the Miami Heat at home on Wednesday, the Kings will need several of their fellow tankers to slip up and win if they hope to secure a top-three pick.
24. Chicago Bulls (24)
If the Bulls wind up signing Zach LaVine to a fat extension this summer, they'll be doing it on faith, because the statistical case just isn't there.
LaVine has piloted Chicago's tank expertly since returning from his torn ACL, shooting tons of contested long twos and sabotaging defensive possessions with aplomb. He's made half his shots in a game just once over the last month, and his presence on the floor knocks Chicago's net rating down by more than any rotation regular but Cristiano Felicio.
Chicago is a cut above the true dregs, but more minutes for LaVine could remedy that.
23. Orlando Magic (22)
A five-game road swing through the West ended predictably for the banged-up Orlando Magic: with five losses.
Wednesday's 126-117 win over the Milwaukee Bucks kicked off a seven-game homestand that is already guaranteed to go better. Aaron Gordon's concussion and Evan Fournier's knee remain concerns, but when you can get 35 points from Jonathon Simmons and another 32 from D.J. Augustin like Orlando did against the Bucks, it sure helps.
22. Detroit Pistons (21)
It's tough to square the Detroit Pistons' mid-pack defensive ranking with the elite rate at which they force opponent turnovers. You'd think an active, passing-lane-stalking group would produce at least a top-10 rating on D overall.
Fortunately, we don't need to pore over mysteries like this anymore, as the Pistons have effectively packed it in for the season. They allowed a blistering 42-point first quarter to the Utah Jazz in a 110-79 loss on Tuesday and are 1-6 in their last seven games.
Peace out, playoffs.
21. Dallas Mavericks (23)
It seems like the Mavs always have one of these veteran-laden, inexplicably effective five-man units laying around. Earlier this year, it was J.J. Barea, Yogi Ferrell, Devin Harris, Dirk Nowitzki and Dwight Powell running up a plus-19.4 net rating in 231 minutes.
Now, they've swapped in Doug McDermott for Harris and have another. This new group owns a plus-46 raw plus-minus since the All-Star break. Not coincidentally, the Mavs have won three of their last four games.
20. Charlotte Hornets (20)
Virtually everything about the 2017-18 season has been disappointing for the Charlotte Hornets, but Malik Monk's crummy play stands out.
According to Scott Rafferty of the Step Back: "The only rookie to have scored at least 100 total points on the season less efficiently is Semi Ojeleye, who was selected in the second round of the same draft. Take it a step further, and only a handful of players in the entire league currently have a worse true shooting percentage than Monk."
Charlotte is 2-5 in March.
19. Milwaukee Bucks (18)
There's really just one way to lose to the Magic when you have Giannis Antetokounmpo on your team: get destroyed, embarrassingly, during the tiny sample of minutes in which he's on the bench.
Per Dean Maniatt of Brewhoop, Milwaukee's net rating was minus-94.0 in the 7:23 Antetokounmpo sat on Wednesday, resulting in a 126-117 defeat. Coupled with unimpressive wins over the Grizzlies and Knicks, the Bucks had a rotten week.
18. Miami Heat (19)
Thanks in part to the absences of Dwyane Wade (hamstring) and Hassan Whiteside, who's missed three straight with a hip injury, the Heat extended their road losing streak to nine games by falling to the Kings in Sacramento on Wednesday.
Goran Dragic scored 11 straight fourth-quarter points in that one, helping erase a 16-point deficit, but...hey, Heat, why are you down by 16 to the Kings in the first place?
Justise Winslow would have to flame out pretty spectacularly for the rest of March for it not to be the best month of his career. He's scored in double figures in seven of his last eight games (he had nine in the other), has his three-point percentage all the way up to 45.1 percent and offers critical versatility to a Heat rotation that, while deep, seems to always have a couple of bodies missing.
"He was facilitating, getting us organized into offense and then when it was time to be aggressive, he dropped his shoulder and got to the rim a few times," head coach Erik Spoelstra told reporters after Winslow grabbed 13 boards and keyed a late rally in Monday's loss at Portland.
17. San Antonio Spurs (13)
The San Antonio Spurs are assured of a losing road record this year for the first time since 1997-98, ending the longest streak of away-from-home competence in any major sport, per Elias.
Monday's loss to the Rockets dropped San Antonio to 10th in the West, the latest it's been outside the official playoff picture since 1996-97, also per Elias (via ESPN Stats & Info).
That sound you hear is the planet tilting on its axis in protest. All of this feels...wrong.
16. Minnesota Timberwolves (17)
Karl-Anthony Towns turned it on in a short 2-0 week for the Minnesota Timberwolves, averaging 34 points and 13 rebounds while running the fourth-quarter show in victories over the Washington Wizards and Golden State Warriors. It shouldn't have taken Jimmy Butler's injury to nudge the Wolves toward a Towns-centric approach when closing games, but at least they finally got there.
Reports that Andrew Wiggins is unhappy about his place behind Towns in the Wolves hierarchy could hardly have surfaced at a worse time.
KAT is carrying Minnesota and preserving its position in a crowded playoff push while Wiggins trudges down the stretch of a thoroughly disappointing individual season.
15. Los Angeles Lakers (14)
Julius Randle posted a career-high 36 points, 14 rebounds and seven assists, and Isaiah Thomas added 20 points and nine assists off the bench in a win over the Cleveland Cavaliers on Sunday. Both have played their best ball lately, with Randle continuing a breakout stretch.
"There's so much improvement," Lakers assistant coach Jesse Mermuys told ESPN.com's Ohm Youngmisuk. "Last year was like, grand slam and then strike out, grand slam, strike out. And now it is way more steady."
Randle and Joel Embiid are the only players averaging at least 20 points, 10 rebounds and three assists per-36 minutes this season. After not getting a contract extension over the summer, the third-year forward is a huge reason L.A., 2-2 this week, owns a 20-10 record since Jan. 7.
14. Denver Nuggets (15)
Isaiah Thomas roasted Nikola Jokic (and giggled about it before flipping in a layup), but the Joker has played some of his best ball lately.
Since getting called out by head coach Mike Malone for a lack of aggressiveness, Jokic has a 36-point game, two triple-doubles and the lion's share of credit for Denver's 3-1 week.
Jokic's 20 points, 11 rebounds and 10 assists in a 130-104 win over the Kings on Sunday gave him seven triple-doubles on the year, which is the most by a center since Wilt Chamberlain in 1967-68.
13. Cleveland Cavaliers (11)
Despite Cleveland amassing a 20-point lead at the end of the first quarter, head coach Tyronn Lue still found a way to squeeze 33 minutes and a triple-double out of LeBron James during Tuesday's 129-107 win over the Phoenix Suns.
Because, sure, there's no reason to rest the 33-year-old who holds the fate of your season and franchise in his hands.
Anybody know how his body held up after that?
Cleveland continues to play with fire.
12. New Orleans Pelicans (6)
Anthony Davis posted a career-high 10 blocks against the Jazz on Sunday, but since there's a leaguewide mandate that nobody's allowed to beat Utah, the swat-fest was for naught.
New Orleans' 10-game winning streak, led by Davis' repeated statistical explosions, turned a downward spiral into a playoff push. Now, having lost three of its last four games, New Orleans must do the more difficult work of making that incredible run count.
11. Los Angeles Clippers (16)
Even in the wake of Thursday's loss to the Houston Rockets, the Clips were due for a rankings bounce. They haven't lost to a lottery team since the Grizzlies beat them on Dec. 23, and a team with the 12th-best net rating through three-quarters of a season deserves better than last week's No. 16 spot.
That's not to say the Clips are world-beaters. They'll have to fight like hell with seven other teams fighting for position between the third and 10th spots out West. The Clippers seem to enjoy the challenge.
"These are fun times," Tobias Harris told Broderick Turner of the Los Angeles Times. "Every game is meaningful, but these are extremely meaningful games. You're pushing yourself and you're pushing yourself to the limit with the team."
10. Washington Wizards
Last Week: 10
Wins over the reeling Pelicans and injury-riddled Celtics (in double overtime) don't do much for Washington's ranking status, particularly with a pair of losses to the Heat and Wolves sandwiched in between. And for what it's worth, Boston should have put Wednesday's game away several times over. Washington was lucky to take that one.
The Wizards' schedule has been murderous of late; all 10 of their most recent opponents would be playoff teams if season ended today. In light of that, a 5-5 record during that stretch, without John Wall, isn't so discouraging.
9. Oklahoma City Thunder
Last Week: 12
Undefeated this week and winners in seven of their last nine games, the Oklahoma City Thunder are mopping up against beatable competition. They still haven't downed a playoff team since knocking off the Warriors back on Feb. 6, but there's something to be said for taking care of business.
Steven Adams' hip injury could make success against pushovers tougher, though. OKC's big man tweaked an ankle Saturday, and a sore hip kept him out of action against Atlanta on Tuesday. The Thunder are a plus-5.4 when Adams is on the floor but a minus-1.1 when he's off, which is no surprise.
It's difficult to replace his ferocious offensive rebounding and zero-maintenance scoring. His 18 rebounds off Thunder missed free throws are the most anyone's grabbed in a season in more than a decade...and he has another dozen games yet to play.
If he's hindered at all, the Thunder might need someone else to pick up the statistical slack. This seems like a good time to mention that Russell Westbrook had triple-doubles in all three OKC games this week.
8. Boston Celtics
Last Week: 5
A shell of the Boston Celtics couldn't seal the deal in a hard-fought loss against the Wizards on Wednesday, blowing a series of chances to ice the Wizards in a double-overtime defeat. The Celts, who squandered a 20-point lead and committed several late-game gaffes, took the floor without Kyrie Irving, Marcus Smart, Jaylen Brown and Al Horford.
So the result was understandable.
For rankings purposes, though, the mounting health issues are worrisome. In addition to the guys too banged up to play against Washington, the Celts will also be without Daniel Theis (knee surgery) for the remainder of the season, according to Shams Charania of Yahoo Sports.
Boston is securely locked into the East's No. 2 seed, so we should expect it to treat its injured players cautiously. Until they get several key bodies back, the Celtics are a borderline top-10 team.
7. Golden State Warriors
Last Week: 2
The Golden State Warriors have generally enjoyed fantastic injury luck during the four years since Steve Kerr took over as head coach and ushered in the current championship-contending era.
Lately, not so much.
Chris B. Haynes of ESPN.com reports Klay Thompson will miss two weeks with a fractured right thumb that he suffered against the Wolves on Sunday. With Stephen Curry also sidelined until at least March 20—when he'll have his balky right ankle re-evaluated—and Draymond Green battling a sore shoulder, the Warriors are in for a tough stretch.
It's difficult to gauge their quality with so many injuries. Perhaps Kevin Durant and role-fillers are still good enough for a top-five ranking. A skeleton crew was enough to survive against the Lakers on Wednesday, ending a two-game skid. But until we get a better sense of what the Dubs look like with so many dinged-up rotation players (remember, Andre Iguodala, Patrick McCaw, Jordan Bell and David West have all missed time recently), this is where they'll tentatively reside.
If everyone's healthy, the Warriors are still probably a narrow title favorite. But everyone is decidedly not healthy.
6. Philadelphia 76ers
Last Week: 8
Losers against five of the last six East playoff foes they've faced, the Philadelphia 76ers are having a hard time getting out of their own way.
"Just bonehead plays," T.J. McConnell told reporters after Philly coughed up 21 giveaways during Tuesday's 101-98 loss to the Indiana Pacers. "But it comes from being unselfish. Some of the turnovers are just trying to make the extra pass and that's just the kind of guys we have."
Joel Embiid committed a season-high eight turnovers against Indy, and the Sixers are blowing everyone away in turnover percentage. The difference between their league-worst turnover percentage and that of the 29th-ranked Hawks is nearly the same as the one separating the Hawks from the Kings, who rank 14th.
Fortunately for Philadelphia, nobody's stretch-run schedule is easier. The Sixers play 10 of their final 15 games at home and will only see four opponents with winning records. If they can curb the turnovers, they're a good bet to finish strong.
And for our purposes, their rise has more to do with Boston and Golden State getting trucked by injuries than anything else.
5. Indiana Pacers
Last Week: 9
March has been good to the Indiana Pacers, who've only slipped against the league's elite. They're 6-2 with defeats at the hands of the Raptors and Jazz since the calendar flipped.
Darren Collison made it back after missing 11 games, and he looked sharp in his return, scoring 17 points in last Friday's win over the Hawks. Along with Trevor Booker and Glenn Robinson III, Collison allows Indy's rotation to run 10 deep. Though that's not something that will mean as much in the playoffs, it'll serve the Pacers well as they fight for seeding on a tough closing schedule.
Case in point: Indiana beat a quality Sixers team on Tuesday, despite Victor Oladipo shooting just 4-of-21 from the field.
It helps that Myles Turner has also been on fire. He hung 19 points on the Celtics and 25 on the Sixers in back-to-back road wins this week, hitting 17 of his 25 shots from the field.
Hopefully, the high ankle sprain he suffered in Thursday's loss to Toronto won't sideline him for long.
4. Utah Jazz
Last Week: 7
Thanks to a perfect 8-0 record in March, the Utah Jazz finally (finally!) clawed their way into a playoff spot.
Rudy Gobert has been the best defensive player in basketball and should win Defensive Player of the Year despite missing 26 games. Since he returned to action on Jan. 19, the Jazz are 21-4 and easily own the NBA's top defensive rating.
They've won 11 consecutive road games, Donovan Mitchell is scoring 18 straight points just for fun, and Dante Exum is back—which injects an extra feel-good element to what may already be the league's most thrilling run. Remember, these guys went 1-2 in Gobert's first three contests back and sat nine games under .500 as recently as Jan. 22.
Cut to six weeks later, and they've got the league's best net rating in March, an unassailable defense and more momentum than anyone other than the top few teams in our rankings.
The schedule has been soft, but in good news for the Jazz's chances of holding onto their hard-won top-eight spot, it'll stay that way. Among teams currently occupying spots 3-10 in the West, only the Wolves have an easier remaining slate.
3. Portland Trail Blazers
Last Week: 4
Damian Lillard is great the hard way.
According to ESPN's Kevin Pelton: "It might not make him the league's best shooter, but Damian Lillard is definitely right about taking difficult threes. Per Second Spectrum data, he has the lowest quantified shot quality on threes of any player with at least 100 attempts based on location, shot type and nearby defenders."
If the NBA awarded extra points for degree of difficulty, Dame would lead the league. Even without the bonus, he ranks among the top 10 in scoring and made three-point field goals. Since the All-Star break, nobody has drained more treys than Lillard.
During the Blazers' 11-game winning streak, Portland has beaten the Jazz, Warriors (twice), Thunder and Timberwolves in the West. The list of prominent East victims now includes the Cavs and Heat.
2. Houston Rockets
Last Week: 1
James Harden didn't play against Dallas on Sunday and looked fresh enough the next night, scoring 28 points during the Houston Rockets' easy win over the Spurs.
Though it's tough to find new angles from which to appreciate these Rockets, perhaps we haven't given enough shine to their adaptability. In this case, Houston is showing a recent willingness to holster threes and attack more often.
Luc Mbah a Moute told Jonathan Feigen of the Houston Chronicle: "We have a lot of good shooters. Sometimes teams load up on James and Chris (Paul) and those guys, so the play is for you to drive. A lot of times … teams will try to take you away from that corner 3, which is a high-percentage shot, so it opens up driving lanes and opens up space for you to make plays. Just trying to take advantage of what the defense is doing."
The Rockets, more diverse in their approach than you might think, still lead our highest-ranked team in net rating and winning percentage. But they don't share the distinction of a top-five spot in both offensive and defensive efficiency and, critically, they lost the most recent face-to-face meeting.
If it were possible to cheat and rank our two best teams as 1A and 1B, that's the route we'd go. But that's a coward's move.
1. Toronto Raptors
Last Week: 3
Sometimes, it's cheap to lean on head-to-head results when comparing teams. Single games (or handfuls) just don't tell us as much as larger samples spread out across months or even seasons. But when the numbers between two teams are so close, they can function as tiebreakers.
That's why Toronto's 108-105 win over Houston last Friday mattered so much—particularly since the Raps beat the Rockets earlier this year, taking a 129-113 victory and setting up the season-series sweep back on Nov. 14.
Big picture, Friday's win may have been the last piece of evidence observers needed before finally giving in and adding the Raptors to the league's true elite. Holdouts will (somewhat reasonably) wait to pass judgment until they see what Toronto does in the postseason, but that aspect matters less here.
For now, we've got a Raptors team with a net rating and record right in line with Houston's. The differences are effectively negligible. While so much was made of the Rockets' 17-game winning streak, it was the Raptors who ended it. And it's also the Raptors who remain on an undefeated 10-game run of their own.
It's hard to remember the last truly dominant regular-season team to fly so far under the radar, but maybe that's just what happens when the Rockets are making offensive history and the Warriors are trying to win their third title in four years. It's hard to focus on Toronto's good-to-great leap with bigger narratives sucking up attention.
But that's what the Raptors are right now: great.
They're also atop our rankings for the first time all year.