NBA Power Rankings Leading into 2019 All-Star Game

Grant Hughes@@gt_hughesNational NBA Featured ColumnistFebruary 15, 2019

NBA Power Rankings Leading into 2019 All-Star Game

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    The NBA All-Star break is here, which means all 30 teams in our power rankings have a week off to reassess and regroup before the second half of the season begins.

    Except...that's not exactly true.

    Just less than a third of the year remains, which makes the post-break schedule a sprint to the finish. Clubs at the top will soon focus on hitting their peaks ahead of the playoffs, while those on the opposite end of the spectrum may soon throw in the towel and focus on developing youth for next year.

    And tanking. Even with flattened lottery odds, there'll be race to the bottom. There always is. 

    These rankings consider record, advanced metrics, recent play and injuries in an effort to organize all 30 teams into an order that reflects the NBA's current power structure.

    Take this opportunity to catch your breath. Once this break is over, it's a straight shot to June. 

30-26

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    Last week's ranking in parentheses.

                         

    30. New York Knicks (29)

    Please make yourself aware of Mitchell Robinson's location if you are at any point in the process of shooting the basketball. It doesn't matter if you're near the rim or 24 feet from the bucket; he's coming for you.

    He rejected two jumpers on the same possession against the Pistons, which, on the one hand, shouldn't be that startling for the league leader in block rate. On the other, it's jarring to see NBA players come to grips with the fact that they're no longer technically open when there's no defender within 10 feet of them.

    Oh, and the Knicks lost a franchise-record 18 straight games before they toppled the Hawks on Thursday. We should probably move on.

                                 

    29. Phoenix Suns (28)

    "There's nothing in between. There's winning and misery," head coach Igor Kokoskov told reporters after Wednesday's 134-107 loss to the Clippers.

    The Suns have lost 15 straight, which equates to a month of deflating sadness. They dropped their three games this week by an average of 16.7 points. Phoenix is lucky the Knicks are around to occupy the No. 30 spot.

                            

    28. Cleveland Cavaliers (30)

    Jordan Clarkson scored 42 points in Cleveland's triple-OT loss to the Nets on Wednesday, doing everything he could to give the Cavs a two-win week. It wasn't enough, but at least Monday's 107-104 victory over the Knicks earned the Cavaliers a bump up the rankings.

    Cleveland is a respectable 3-5 since Jan. 27, and Larry Nance Jr. is playing better than ever. He's averaging 11.8 points and 13.8 rebounds on a 44.8/53.3/73.3 shooting split in February. 

                    

    27. Memphis Grizzlies (26)

    Avery Bradley scored a career-high 33 points in Tuesday's 108-107 loss to the Spurs and then led Memphis in scoring again with 15 points as the Grizzlies fell to the Bulls on Wednesday. Since Marc Gasol's Feb. 7 departure, the Grizz are 1-3, and the lone victory came against the disintegrating Pelicans.

    Mike Conley deserves better.

            

    26. Chicago Bulls (27)

    Maybe Otto Porter Jr.'s more than an overpaid role player after all. He scored a career-high 37 points to lead Chicago in its 122-110 win over the Grizzlies on Wednesday. Of course, you have to keep the "somebody's got to get numbers on a bad team" caveat in mind.

    Chicago is 3-4 in its last seven games, though, and Lauri Markkanen is averaging 24.4 points and 13.2 rebounds on 38.9 percent shooting from distance in his last five contests. There are more positive signs here than anywhere else among the bottom five.

25-21

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    25. Washington Wizards (20)

    Sorry, but wins over the Bulls and Cavs this week don't do much for the Wizards, who sit 10 games below .500 and own the league's sixth-worst defensive rating over the last calendar month.

    Turns out Trevor Ariza wasn't the defensive panacea so many thought he'd be. In fact, according to a stunning stat from NBA.com's John Schuhmann, Ariza has had the biggest negative defensive impact in the league among players who've logged at least 750 minutes. Both Phoenix and Washington's defenses have been 9.8 points per 100 possessions better with him off the court.

                     

    24. Dallas Mavericks (21)

    Luka Doncic is on pace to join Oscar Robertson as the only rookies in league history to average 20 points, seven rebounds and five assists per game in a season. And if the stats don't get you juiced about Doncic's campaign, how does hitting James Harden with a step-back three strike you?

    Dallas has lost three of its last four games, but it's pretty much impossible to be down on the team's big-picture outlook as Doncic makes history and doesn't blink against the league's established superstars.

                   

    23. Atlanta Hawks (22)

    Trae Young is still a disaster on defense, but February has been his most productive scoring and facilitating month. He put up 22 points, 14 assists and six boards to help beat the Lakers on Tuesday, and he's up to 39.6 percent on threes in February after he failed to crack 35 percent in any previous month.

    Atlanta is 3-4 in its last seven games and continues to outperform expectations—the ugly loss to New York on Thursday notwithstanding. With Jeremy Lin gone to Toronto, Young's role will only grow. He seems more ready than ever to handle it.

                 

    22. New Orleans Pelicans (24)

    "We sucked," Anthony Davis told reporters after he scored three points in a 118-88 no-show defeat against Orlando on Tuesday. "Nobody was interested in playing. That's what it looked like."

    The lack of engagement was obvious in that defeat, but credit the Pels for going 3-2 in their last five and beating a tough Thunder team Thursday. Davis left the OKC game (and the arena) at halftime with a shoulder injury, but Jrue Holiday, who played fantastic defense against Paul George, led New Orleans to the victory.

    Depending on what happens with AD's shoulder, we could see a lot more of Holiday in a primary role.

                      

    21. Orlando Magic (25)

    Don't look now, but the Magic, presumed to be lottery-bound toast several times in these rankings, are within a half-game of the East's eighth playoff spot.

    Jonathan Isaac continues to play the best ball of his short career, posting three of the four highest-scoring outputs of his season this past week with 17 points in wins against the Bucks and Hawks and 20 against the Pelicans. Still defined by his defensive potential, Isaac also grounded human pogo stick John Collins with three blocks on a single possession.

    Though in his second season, Isaac has only played 80 career games. We might be seeing his official sophomore breakout...just a little later than expected.

20-16

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    20. Miami Heat (19)

    Josh Richardson scored a career-high 37 points and led a barrage from long distance against the Warriors on Sunday, but it wasn't enough to avoid a 120-118 defeat. With a 2-6 record in its last eight games, Miami is in a virtual tie with the Pistons for the East's last playoff spot.

    The Heat will play 10 of their first 13 games after the break at home. To take advantage, they'll have to reverse a bizarre season-long trend that has seen them go just 11-16 in Miami this year.

                     

    19. Detroit Pistons (23)

    The Pistons couldn't handle the Celtics on Wednesday, but they still head into the break winners in four of their last five.

    "This past week, week and a half, I think we played really, really good basketball," Andre Drummond told reporters after Wednesday's 118-110 loss. "We set a goal to go 5-2, and we succeeded with that. ... Got a week off, take a break, come back and it's off to the races from there."

    Detroit is just 26-30, but it hasn't looked this good since it won five straight in late November and early December.

                                   

    18. Los Angeles Lakers (16)

    The Lakers are 3-8 in their last 11 games (and 2-3 in the five contests LeBron James has played since he returned from a groin injury). One win came on a Rajon Rondo buzzer-beater in Boston on Feb. 7, and another was a 123-120 overtime victory against the Clippers on Jan. 31. The only other recent success came against the bedraggled, lottery-bound Suns. That's as weak as resumes get among playoff hopefuls.

    That's what the Lakers are, by the way: hopefuls. Nothing's assured in the West, and little of what we've seen from Los Angeles, 10th in the conference, inspires confidence. James' presence means there's no counting out the Lakers, but that's about the extent of the positivity we can summon as L.A. heads into the break looking awfully flimsy. 

                 

    17. Minnesota Timberwolves (17)

    With Jeff Teague and Derrick Rose simultaneously available for the first time since Jan. 20, the Wolves downed the Clippers on Monday. A 121-111 win over the Rockets on Wednesday, fueled by Teague's 27 points and 12 assists, sent Minnesota into the break with a 2-1 record for the week.

    In February, the Wolves have the No. 4 offense and 24th-ranked defense. That split can't stay so extreme if they want to make up the four games that separate them from the eighth spot in the West.

           

    16. Charlotte Hornets (15)

    Kemba Walker scored at least 30 points in five of Charlotte's last six games, but the Hornets only managed a 2-4 record in that stretch.

    Thursday's loss to Orlando snapped a 13-game winning streak against the Magic and dropped the Hornets within a half-game of the lottery. Seven of Charlotte's next eight games come at home, where it is 19-9 with a plus-5.3 net rating. If things go as expected, the Hornets' grip on a playoff spot should soon get a little tighter.

15-11

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    15. LA Clippers (18)

    L.A.'s six-game, 11-day road trip mercifully ended with a 130-120 loss to the Wolves on Monday. Lou Williams did what he could, scoring 45 points off the bench in that one, but the Clips had to settle for a 3-3 trip. Upon returning home, Williams posted 30 points and 10 assists to snuff out the Suns 134-107.

    The schedule will stay rough after the break, as the Clippers will play four of their next five games away from home.

                

    14. Brooklyn Nets (14)

    The Nets were a season-best 20-of-41 from deep against Toronto on Monday, but they really could have used one more trey. D'Angelo Russell missed a potential game-winning triple in the waning seconds of a 127-125 loss—one that followed a dispiriting 125-106 home defeat to the lowly Bulls.

    Russell recovered to score 14 points in the third overtime of Wednesday's 148-139 win against Cleveland, finishing with 36.

    Few teams need the All-Star break more than the Nets, who head into the weekend looking shaky and having lost six of their last nine.

              

    13. Sacramento Kings (13)

    Proving yet again that their relentless attacking mentality wears opponents down, the Kings roared back from a 17-point deficit and held Miami to two points over the final 6:29 of last Friday's 102-96 victory. Their heart-breaking, last-second loss in Denver on Wednesday put them a game back of the Clippers for the eighth spot, but they're tied with L.A. in the loss column.

    The guys over at Sactown Royalty unveiled a playoff tracker this week. A playoff tracker. For the Kings. This is getting real, and it's difficult to overstate the significance of the fact that this franchise is playing meaningful games this late in the season.

                    

    12. San Antonio Spurs (11)

    The first leg of the Spurs' annual rodeo trip has been ugly. San Antonio ran up a season-high four-game losing streak—culminating with Saturday's 125-105 loss to Utah—before Tuesday's 108-107 road win over Memphis sent the Spurs into the break on a more positive note. Then again, one-point victories over bottom-feeding rebuilders can't raise the spirits much.

    If San Antonio is going to stay afloat down the stretch, its defense must improve. The Spurs posted a league-worst 124.9 defensive rating over their last five games before the break. Derrick White can't return from heel soreness soon enough.

                   

    11. Portland Trail Blazers (10)

    The Blazers produced a remarkable eight-point possession in a testy win over the Warriors, who were missing three rotation players Wednesday. The next time your team is down by seven with one second left, just remember anything's possible.

    Enes Kanter is aboard after the Knicks waived him, but it's hard to believe he'll change the Blazers' fate much. Fortunately, Portland (2-1 this week) is still rock solid. It has just one double-digit loss since December.

10. Houston Rockets

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    Last Week: 8

    Clint Capela led the Houston Rockets in scoring on Nov. 30, which was the last time anyone other than James Harden registered a team-high in points. But Harden's not just out there chucking in search of buckets. Of the eight individual seasons in which a player has averaged at least 36 points per game, his true shooting percentage ranks first by a mile.

    His incredible year is as much about efficiency as it is volume. Yes, the three-point line explains a lot of this. It didn't exist for Wilt Chamberlain or Elgin Baylor (not that either would have utilized it much if it had), and Michael Jordan attempted just 66 treys when he averaged 37.1 points per game in 1986-87.

    But when you post one of the eight greatest scoring rates of all time and do it with an efficiency that not only tops the other seven but also blows away the overall league average in scoring efficiency, you're doing something special.

    Harden's historic achievement is unassailable, but Houston has struggled a bit lately. The Rockets fell to the Wolves on Wednesday 121-111, despite Harden's 42 points. They were just 1-2 this week.

9. Indiana Pacers

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    Last Week: 12

    The Indiana Pacers' four consecutive losses in the immediate aftermath of Victor Oladipo's season-ending quad injury felt predictable. The 6-1 record they've amassed since should knock you flat.

    Indy has rallied behind its defense, which ranks third in the league since Oladipo went down Jan. 23. Though not exactly facing a murderers' row of offensive opponents, Indiana held the Lakers, Clippers, Cavs and Hornets under 100 points in succession from Feb. 5 to Feb. 11.  

    Bojan Bogdanovic has taken care of things on the other end, posting team-high point totals in five of Indiana's last seven games, while Cory Joseph and Domantas Sabonis have been dismantling second units.

    It's still fair to be skeptical about whether the Pacers can make much postseason noise without their best player, but you can't deny their resiliency. Remarkably, Indiana goes into the break with the No. 5 net rating and fourth-most wins in the NBA.

8. Denver Nuggets

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    Last Week: 7

    On Wednesday against Sacramento, the team with which he began his career, Isaiah Thomas played in an NBA game for the first time in 11 months. If that doesn't make you smile, well...you'd probably better download the update for your emotional software because you, sir or madam, are a cyborg.

    Thomas, who scored eight points in 13 minutes against the Kings on Wednesday, can make a difference in Denver if he's anywhere close to his old self. The Denver Nuggets have been without Gary Harris in 25 games this year, and Jamal Murray is only 10 days removed from his own six-game absence. Monte Morris and Malik Beasley have been fantastic in larger roles, but when they're soaking up first-unit minutes, there's a scoring void on the bench.

    Thomas, you'll recall, can get a bucket or two.

    The Nuggets won two of their three games this week (with Wednesday's coming courtesy of a Nikola Jokic tip-in with three-tenths of a second left) and appear to be on firmer footing with their 1-3 road trip from Feb. 2 to Feb. 8 receding in the rearview. Third in offense on the year but still just 23rd on D since Jan. 1, Denver clearly has its strengths and weaknesses.

    On balance, though, the Nuggets reach the All-Star break with the second seed in the West and on pace for a mid-50s win total.

7. Utah Jazz

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    Last Week: 9

    On Dec. 17, the Utah Jazz were 14-17 with a negative point differential. In light of preseason expectations, that early resume had them looking like one of the league's biggest disappointments.

    Since then, only the Warriors and Bucks have had higher net ratings. And yes, it does seem like Utah puts on a quiet run like this every year. Maybe head coach Quin Snyder could trick his team into thinking the season tips off in August so the Jazz would hit their stride a little earlier and avoid these sluggish starts.

    Remarkably, Utah hasn't lost to a lottery-bound team since it fell to the Magic on Dec. 15, and that was at altitude in Mexico City, if you want to assign an asterisk. The Jazz take care of business against opponents they should beat.

    Donovan Mitchell heads into the February hiatus with the second-lowest true shooting percentage among players with a usage rate over 30 percent this season. Only Russell Westbrook has been a less efficient high-volume scorer. Part of what makes the Jazz such a dangerous team is the elite role-filling of Joe Ingles and Royce O'Neale on the wing, but it'd be helpful if someone else could reliably create shots to ease the burden on Mitchell.

6. Boston Celtics

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    Last Week: 3

    Sooooo...the Boston Celtics might not be hitting the break in the fashion they'd prefer.

    They were booed off their home floor after they gagged away a 28-point lead against the Clippers on Saturday. It wasn't pretty. Add to that Kyrie Irving's knee strain, the fact that Jayson Tatum possibly has no problem being the face of a different franchise and Marcus Morris' comments on the team's lacking joy and playing like "a bunch of individuals" instead of a collective unit, and you've some rough stuff to ruminate on during the coming downtime.

    On one positive note, the Celtics turned in a terrific defensive effort to beat the 76ers in Philadelphia without Irving on Tuesday, and Gordon Hayward is shooting better than 50 percent from deep in February. For a team that gets to the foul line at a bottom-five clip, perimeter accuracy like that is especially important.

    On another, Tatum gave Ben Simmons the business.

    Though recent signs have been troubling, don't overlook the fact that Boston is still a top-10 team in both offensive and defensive efficiency and ranks third in net rating. If those are the results of the unhappy, inconsistent Celtics, imagine what some post-break harmony could produce.

5. Philadelphia 76ers

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    Last Week: 5

    The Philadelphia 76ers' new starting five will be a problem for opponents.

    We're obviously trafficking in small samples, but since it added Tobias Harris to the pre-existing core of Ben Simmons, JJ Redick, Jimmy Butler and Joel Embiid, Philly is 3-1, and its first unit has a plus-24.6 net rating, which, incredibly, tops the plus-21.0 last year's starters posted to lead the league among groups with at least 500 minutes of shared court time.

    They were even a plus-2.2 in Tuesday's loss to the Celtics. If the Sixers can stagger their stars and/or get reliable production from Jonathon Simmons, Mike Scott, T.J. McConnell, James Ennis III and Boban Marjanovic, you could make a case they'll be the best team in the East the rest of the way.

    Finally, big news! Dared to shoot all game by LeBron James—who routinely gave him 15-plus feet of disrespectful cushion—Simmons cracked. He took a genuine three-point shot in Sunday's 143-120 blowout of the Lakers. It was the first non-heave attempt of his career, and he missed it, but at least he gave it a try. That's progress.

4. Oklahoma City Thunder

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    Last Week: 6

    It's telling when Russell Westbrook can break one of Wilt Chamberlain's records by logging 10 straight triple-doubles (he's up to 11), and it only counts as the second-best performance on his own team. Paul George also logged a triple-double in Monday's 120-11 win over Portland, but he scored 47 points in the process and made it two straight games with at least 45 points and 10 boards. If your MVP ballot doesn't have George in the top five, you're doing it wrong.

    PG owns this season's highest individual on-off differential, according to Cleaning the Glass' metrics, which exclude garbage time.

    The Thunder erased a 26-point deficit to down the Rockets on Saturday, preserving a remarkable streak. They haven't lost to a West team currently in playoff position since they fell in overtime to the Spurs way back on Jan. 10.

    OKC has won 11 of its last 13 games and has surpassed the Nuggets in net rating, leaving the Warriors as the only West team ahead of them by that statistic.

3. Toronto Raptors

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    Last Week: 4

    Winners of six straight and three in a row since the trade deadline, the revamped Toronto Raptors are the only team within striking distance of the top-seeded Bucks in the East.

    Marc Gasol came off the bench in his debut against the Knicks on Saturday and then responded to a standing ovation in his home unveiling with 16 points and six boards on 7-of-9 shooting to help beat the Nets on Monday. No surprise: An unselfish, multiskilled center with three-point range and some of the stoutest post defense in the game has been helpful.

    As long as he's fine with his newly diminished role, things will continue to work smoothly.

    Jeremy Lin, who has quietly been the league's most prolific low-minute scorer, will replace much of Fred VanVleet's production now that he's officially aboard following a buyout from the Hawks. VanVleet's defensive intensity will be missed as he recovers from a thumb injury. Remember, Delon Wright ended up in Memphis as part of the Gasol trade, so Lin should step into a significant second-unit role and could even close games when Toronto goes small.

    We'll have to keep an eye on Kawhi Leonard, though. A sore knee kept him out of action against the Wizards on Wednesday, and before that, he laid an 11-point, 4-of-15 egg against the Knicks on Saturday. Post-deadline additions matter a lot less if Toronto's best player isn't in the lineup. Of course, if Pascal Siakam is going to put up 44-point nights like he did against Washington on Wednesday, we'll have to walk back that skepticism.

2. Milwaukee Bucks

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    Last Week: 2

    Red Alert! Giannis Antetokounmpo might be eliminating his lone weakness. The Milwaukee Bucks' superstar forward and All-Star captain has improved his three-point accuracy in every month this year, and in February, he's all the way up to 37.5 percent. Milwaukee is 14-1 in the last 15 games with Antetokounmpo in the lineup.

    Please seek shelter. This is not a drill.

    As if Antetokounmpo weren't already displaying enough growth on the floor, he also basically hacked the interview process by holding a baby throughout his Monday postgame session. You try formulating a hard-hitting question with a lil' bundled-up cherub smirking wide-eyed back at you. The Bucks are playing all the angles.

    With the best record, stingiest defense and top net rating in the league, Milwaukee continues to dominate. Every time we deny the Bucks the No. 1 spot, it feels like an affront to both statistics and the very concept of a meritocracy. It's just that there's another team with a higher gear—one that has actually bested the Bucks in winning percentage, offensive efficiency, rebound rate, effective field-goal percentage and net rating since Jan. 1.

    Try to guess which one...

1. Golden State Warriors

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    Last Week: 1

    The Golden State Warriors are the feral cats of the NBA, toying with their prey, batting it around for a while, even giving it the illusion escape is possible...before devouring it.

    Their comeback win against the Suns on Friday was the 24th time in the last three seasons they've finished with a double-digit win after trailing by at least 10 points, according to ESPN Stats & Info. Nobody else has more than 12 such victories in that same span.

    Whether you're up by 10 or down by 10, the Dubs have you right where they want you. That's got to be unsettling for the other 29 teams.

    So, too, must be Kevin Durant's assertion Golden State can still improve, even though it hit the break on a 16-2 run.

    "We've been struggling even though we've been winning," Durant told reporters after Tuesday's 115-108 win over Utah. "We got some injury breaks in this run. But I also like how we fought through a lot of different things in this run. We shot the ball well from the three-point line. I think we moved the basketball really well throughout this run, but we need to play better."

    Technically, the Warriors could get better. But with their grip on the West's top seed gradually tightening and no shortage of fiery intensity when the moment calls for it, they may not have to. They're tops in winning percentage and net rating since Jan. 1.

                   

    Stats courtesy of NBA.com, Cleaning the Glass and Basketball Reference unless otherwise noted. Accurate through games played Thursday, Feb. 14.