Power Ranking Every NBA Team's Title Hopes Post-All-Star Game

Grant Hughes@@gt_hughesNational NBA Featured ColumnistFebruary 22, 2019

Power Ranking Every NBA Team's Title Hopes Post-All-Star Game

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    With so few games offering new information after the All-Star break, we're doing something a little different with this week's NBA power rankings.

    Instead of focusing solely on regular-season performance like we do in our typical rankings, we're turning our attention to each team's spot in the championship hierarchy. That seems appropriate with only the stretch run sprint separating us from the playoffs in April.

    In some ways, this is simpler than the norm. There's one overarching question: Who's got the best chance to win a title this season? We still have to consider recent play, full-season stats and injuries, but we have to do all that while projecting forward. Will a particular injury or weakness in a team's rotation linger into the playoffs? Will a critical young player iron out a flaw or crumble as the postseason approaches?

    The factors we always use are similar, but now there's more gut and guesswork necessary.

    Much of the analysis will focus on what prevents these top teams from winning a championship. This late in the year, there are really just a handful of serious contenders, and all of them exist below a certain two-time defending powerhouse. It's just easier to isolate obstacles than it is to make some fanciful case for how, say, the Portland Trail Blazers (no shade intended) could somehow win four playoff rounds in succession.

    We'll get back to the usual setup next week, but this will be a good chance to get some big-picture perspective with the playoffs drawing closer by the second.

30-26: Is It Time for the Lottery Yet?

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    30. Phoenix Suns

    The Suns are the only team without a win over the last calendar month, a stretch in which they went 0-11 with a league-worst minus-16.4 net rating. With a victory total less than half that of the Memphis Grizzlies, who rank 14th in the conference, Phoenix could win all of its remaining games and finish with a 33-49 record that wouldn't come close to a playoff berth.

    Barring something spectacularly unforeseen, the Suns will be mathematically eliminated from the playoffs before March 1.

          

    29. New York Knicks

    Quick, name the last team to win a title after a regular season in which it had an 18-game losing streak.

    The Knicks are easily the most promising long-term team in this tier, as they'll have two max-salary slots this summer, plus a 14 percent chance at the top overall pick in the 2019 draft if everything goes as expected. This is one of those rare occasions where the "This is fine" meme is actually unironic. New York wants to be this far from the title conversation; burning it all down is the point.

              

    28. Cleveland Cavaliers

    On pace for the second-worst point differential this century and worst defensive rating in league history, the Cavs will have to turn things around if defense really does win championships. Maybe you're an optimist, but that seems unlikely to us.

             

    27. Memphis Grizzlies

    The Grizzlies are nowhere near the fourth-worst team in the NBA, but they play their games in the West, which means their hypothetical path to a title is tougher. That's true for making the playoffs, too, as the Grizzlies would have to go 23-0 down the stretch to reach 46 wins, a total that might not even get them the eighth seed.

                

    26. Chicago Bulls

    Sure, the Bulls have some intriguing building blocks in Lauri Markkanen and Wendell Carter Jr., but a 14-44 mark through 58 games means neither will play meaningful basketball until October 2019. Even then, the trudge toward respectability will just be beginning.

25-21: Where Making the Playoffs Equals a Miracle

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    25. Dallas Mavericks

    We're still in territory where it feels ridiculous to talk titles (let alone playoffs), with Dallas nowhere near the eighth seed and having traded four starters at the deadline. The Mavs' only concern the rest of the way is Luka Doncic's health and development. There's no win-now incentive here.

           

    24. Atlanta Hawks

    If you'd told the Hawks they'd rank this high in any quality-based assessment of all 30 NBA teams (regular season or otherwise) back in October, you probably would have shocked them. Atlanta is a cut above the East's true dregs, but it's as future-focused as any of them. The only reason they rate above the Mavs is conference strength. The East still offers the easier path to the Finals—not that the Hawks, who'll finish with a win total in the 20s, are even thinking in those terms.

           

    23. New Orleans Pelicans

    The Pelicans are 14th in net rating and only a half-dozen games out of the eighth spot, which is relatively close to contention for this low in the rankings. That said, the idea of New Orleans summoning the commitment necessary to make a late-season run, let alone come together in a playoff series, is beyond reality with the Anthony Davis situation being what it is.

    Either he plays and the team further fractures, or he doesn't and New Orleans has too little talent to compete. It's a lose-lose.

           

    22. Minnesota Timberwolves

    Returns to health for Robert Covington, Tyus Jones, Derrick Rose and Jeff Teague bolster a Wolves club that sits four games back of a playoff spot. Minnesota has quietly gone .500 over its last 20 games, so it won't take much to up that win percentage down the stretch and finish with a win total in the mid-40s.

    That'll likely earn a first-round elimination with a 20th-ranked defense preventing hope of further advancement. Ideally, Karl-Anthony Towns can use a hypothetical playoff series to rehabilitate his big-game reputation after last year's disappearance.

           

    21. Washington Wizards

    The Wizards trail the Magic by two-and-a-half games in the standings, but the gap feels much larger than that. Losers in seven of their last 10, the Wizards are stumbling to the finish of a rough year.

    Bradley Beal has more star power than anyone on the next four teams, which would give the Wizards a fighting chance to win a first-round game or two. But these guys aren't making the playoffs—even in the East.

20-16: Just Happy to Be Playing in Late April

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    20. Orlando Magic

    The Magic have won seven of their last 10 and have more momentum than any of the East's bottom three playoff seeds. If nothing else, a postseason trip could provide valuable experience to Jonathan Isaac and Aaron Gordon, while perhaps also testing Nikola Vucevic in high-stakes situations ahead of his free agency.

    There's value in a Magic playoff appearance, but there's no hope of a series win if they get there.

           

    19. Miami Heat

    There aren't many active coaches with more postseason experience than Erik Spoelstra, and you could talk yourself into a bright-lights Josh Richardson breakout producing a playoff victory or two before the Heat ultimately bow out against one of the East's top seeds. Unfortunately, Spoelstra's know-how won't matter much if Miami's scoring slide continues.

    The Heat are 25th in offense since Jan. 1 and don't have the shot creation to beat top defenses over the final two months of the regular season. Miami is in line to miss the playoffs for the third time in the last five years.

           

    18. Detroit Pistons

    Andre Drummond has picked up his play over the last few weeks, and Blake Griffin's All-Star production gives Detroit some hope of wearing down a first-round foe. But even if Reggie Jackson (who's finally looked like a starting-caliber point guard in February) keeps it up, the Pistons are short on wings and almost assured of a first-round matchup with either Kawhi Leonard or Giannis Antetokounmpo.

    That's not ideal.

            

    17. Charlotte Hornets

    Kemba Walker could take over a series if everything broke right and the Hornets drew the Bucks and their permissive three-point defense in the first round. Remember, he danced around picks as Brook Lopez dropped into the lane and uncorked 41 points (on 7-of-13 shooting from deep) way back on opening night.

    He also hung totals of 60 and 43 on Philly and Boston in back-to-back games in November.

    Still, Charlotte is far from a playoff lock, and you never want to get too enthused about the title chances of a team with a negative net rating.

           

    16. Los Angeles Clippers

    The Clips traded away their best player in Tobias Harris at the deadline and are three games under .500 since peaking at 24-16 in early January. That's not the profile of a postseason threat.

    L.A. spent the season accumulating picks, cheap prospects and cap space, which tells you where its priorities are. Hint: They have little association with the 2019 playoffs.

15-11: Probably Won't Get Swept in the First Round

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    15. Sacramento Kings

    If the Kings make the dance, it'll be enough. This franchise hasn't tasted playoff basketball since a 27-year-old Mike Bibby got them there in 2005-06. Every member of that team has been out of the league for years.

    If Sacramento were to reach the postseason as the eighth seed, it'd mean instant death against Golden State in the first all-NorCal playoff series ever. But if the Kings scrap their way to sixth or seventh in the West, which is possible, you could talk yourself into their frenetic pace catching someone unaware and producing a first-round upset.

             

    14. Brooklyn Nets

    If the current standings hold, Brooklyn is in line for a toss-up meeting with the Pacers in the first round. Any slippage from either of those two teams will result in the Nets kicking off the postseason against one of the East's beasts.

    Much like the Rockets in the West (minus the benefit of having James Harden, which is kind of a big deal), Brooklyn's three-centric approach introduces high variance to the proceedings. If D'Angelo Russell's pull-up threes fall, and if Joe Harris' refusal to miss persists, and if Spencer Dinwiddie's thumb heals up enough for him to bust switches late in games, there's a chance for a series win—but only if the standings produce the right opponent.

           

    13. Indiana Pacers

    If it feels like a slap in the face to slot a 38-20 team with the league's second-best defense this low, please lay out the argument for how Indiana will eliminate at least two of Milwaukee, Philadelphia, Toronto and Boston before going on to knock out the Warriors in the Finals.

    Indy's recent run has been inspiring, but it's still just 6-5 since Victor Oladipo's season-ending injury. Without him, it's hard to imagine a starless, balanced attack threatening the East's best in a series. It'd be a fantastic story if the Pacers won a round, but a sober look at their future features, best-case scenario, a narrow escape against a team like Brooklyn before a swift dismissal in the second round.

           

    12. San Antonio Spurs

    The Spurs succeed with seemingly inferior talent during the regular season because they're more disciplined, professional and committed to executing Gregg Popovich's schemes than the opposition. They beat the opponents they're expected to beat, as evidenced by their 20-10 mark against sub-.500 teams.

    They won't see any of those clubs in the postseason—if they make it. So although their quirky, mid-range offense might prove difficult to game-plan against (most opponents spend the year hoping to permit those shots), defensive inadequacies and the evaporation of their nightly edge in execution make for a very low ceiling.

            

    11. Utah Jazz

    In a couple of upcoming cases, we'll build the contender argument around an awesome defense. That logic applies to the Jazz, who've been second on that end since Jan. 1. If only we could trust Utah's offense in a playoff series.

    Excise their annual slow start, and the Jazz are still only 14th in scoring efficiency since the calendar flipped to 2019. On the year, the Jazz are 19th. That's just not good enough, and we saw last season that Donovan Mitchell couldn't provide enough efficient scoring (volume was no problem) to get Utah past the second round. Considering his effective field-goal percentage is actually down from his rookie season, it's difficult to see Utah matching that achievement in 2019.

    Slow Mitchell down, and Utah won't get enough secondary creation to survive in a first-round series. There's also an excellent chance Utah sees the Warriors in a No. 1-vs.-No. 8 matchup. That's not promising.

10. Portland Trail Blazers

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    The Blazers, fourth in net rating since Jan. 1, are perhaps the league leaders in "being slept on," and Damian Lillard's track record as a big-game player is impossible to ignore. There aren't many guys better equipped to engineer a series-swinging fourth-quarter comeback than him.

    Even fewer have a four-minute video chronicling their greatest game-winners.

    But...don't we sort of know what Portland's ceiling is? Is there any reason to believe the 2018-19 version, principally the same as last year's team, is improved enough to expect a different result? Sure, Anthony Davis' Pelicans were a problematic matchup, but that upset was the result of problems that persist.

    Can Moe Harkless stay healthy and hit shots? Can Jusuf Nurkic defend in space? Can anyone prop up second units when Lillard or CJ McCollum rests?

    Rodney Hood and Enes Kanter can help during the regular season, but they aren't putting these guys over the top in a postseason series.

    Making the playoffs for five straight years is an achievement, and Portland will make it six this spring. Dangerous as Dame is, it's difficult to imagine this bunch advancing past the second round for the first time since 2000.

9. Denver Nuggets

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    Denver's regular-season resume makes this position seem insulting.

    The Nuggets own the league's third-best offensive rating and have played respectably on D overall. They rank second in the brutal West and have a massive home-court advantage (and a league-best 25-4 mark at home) which, if the standings hold, they'll get to leverage in every round up to the conference finals.

    But Denver is 23rd on D since Jan. 1, and we have yet to see how Nikola Jokic and a young core respond to the demands of playoff basketball. Maybe it's a cliche, but teams that eventually win championships tend to reach that final level through a process of progressive failure: a first-round out one year, followed by a series win the next...until, eventually, there's a trophy somewhere down the line.

    Nothing says the Nuggets are forbidden from skipping steps, and it'll help that they'll reach the playoffs with a relatively favorable first-round matchup that should give them a real shot to advance. But it's a sucker's game to be on untested youth in its first go 'round.

    The Nuggets are very good now, and they should get even better in the coming years. A team led by guys in their early 20s shouldn't view this ninth-best ranking as an affront.

8. Los Angeles Lakers

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    The Lakers aren't even betting favorites to make the playoffs. But: LeBron.

    Half the team was on the trade block earlier this month, and the fallout has included some conspicuously lackluster efforts. But: LeBron.

    Head coach Luke Walton's job security has been in doubt for months. But: LeBron.

    LeBron seems unlikely to finish among the top five in MVP voting for the first time since 2004-05, he's already missed more games this season than in any other of his career and his defensive commitment has slipped yet another notch. But: LeBron.

    If anyone deserves the benefit of the doubt, if anyone can overcome all of the legitimate and alarming red flags, it's James. And it should be noted that although the Cavs were never seriously in danger of missing the playoffs last year, there's a strong case to be made that these Lakers—inexperienced and drama-plagued as they may be—still give him a better supporting cast than the one he dragged to the 2018 Finals.

    He's lifted heavier loads before.

    If the road to a title goes through the Warriors, the only guy to ever obstruct their progress has to be reckoned with. If the Lakers get into the postseason, James is capable of anything.

7. Boston Celtics

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    We've reached the first team in our rankings that wouldn't stun the world by winning a ring in June.

    The Celtics' frustrating season—composed of listless, break-even stretches that give way to weeks-long winning streaks—makes it hard to know which team will show up when the games truly matter. Strangely, Boston's championship hopes hinge on preseason narratives representing reality more accurately than what we've watched over the last several months.

    The thinking in October went like this: Gordon Hayward (who's looked better of late) was supposed to round into form and Kyrie Irving would stay healthy for the duration. The youth that got so much experience in last year's run should be ready to perform well in support of established stars. Al Horford would keep bothering every elite big man in the league, and Marcus Smart's development as a shooter would make him less of an offensive liability in crunch time.

    Maybe that theoretically dominant team is in there somewhere, waiting to coalesce, shake off its joyless demeanor and ride a fearsome defense to a ring. Or maybe the Celtics are just hanging onto their contender status by a thread, and maybe that thread will snap.

    Weight those possible outcomes equally, and you have the reasoning behind this No. 7 ranking.

6. Oklahoma City Thunder

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    Paul George has become all things to all people in his best season ever. He gives OKC an on-ball creator in the pick-and-roll, a deadly spot-up threat, an unsurpassed wing defender and everything else in between. His brilliance, if it holds through the playoffs, gives the Thunder a real chance against anyone.

    If he's anything less than superhuman, though, Oklahoma City's other flaws will almost certainly cap its ceiling at the conference finals.

    The Thunder are as good on defense as anyone. With extreme athleticism at every position and Steven Adams as the granitic presence in the middle, the Thunder rank third in defensive efficiency and first in opponent turnover percentage. If the intensity of the playoffs brings out an even more rabid and predatory mindset in these guys, their disruptive potential is off the charts.

    Russell Westbrook's scoring inefficiency will be an issue, though. He's a lost cause from deep at 24.9 percent, and he may even be a late-game liability at the foul line, where he's hitting an unacceptable 65.6 percent. Oddly, opponents looking for options to ignore on D might be best served leaving the guy who happens to be averaging a triple-double.

    If Terrance Ferguson (38.3 percent) and Jerami Grant (37.3 percent) continue to hit threes at their regular-season clips, it'll help. But the Thunder will still have to overcome a general dearth of shooting to make a serious run.

5. Houston Rockets

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    In several ways that matter, these Rockets aren't those Rockets. This year's edition is shorter on switchable wings, Chris Paul has lost a step, and a defense that ranked seventh in 2017-18 is now 25th. That last difference is most likely to prove fatal against the Warriors who, it should be noted, are the main reason no other West team ranks higher than fifth here.

    There's another distinction, though. James Harden isn't the same as he was a year ago. He's better.

    Harden is unsolvable on offense. He wants to take shots most defenses would happily concede, and those who bother contesting his step-back threes run the risk of fouling him. Any defender close enough to truly bother Harden's deep jumpers is already cooked; one quick step (and one dismissive slap away of any attempted hand check) gets Harden's shoulder past the opponent and triggers a decision tree in which all options favor Houston.

    Harden can finish, draw contact or sling passes to the corner, effectively creating an efficient offense all on his own.

    Obviously, there will be concerns about his stamina and response to adversity until he answers them on the big stage, but if playoff success has anything to do with having the most dangerous player on the floor, Houston can go into any series with confidence.

    Nobody is likely to beat the Warriors, but the Rockets have the rare advantage of knowing they probably should have done it last year. That, along with Harden's historic scoring, puts anything in play.

4. Toronto Raptors

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    Marc Gasol looks like a cure for what ails the Raptors—not that Toronto is suffering much, as evidenced by its 43-16 record before the All-Star break. His presence seems to have pepped up an occasionally stagnant offense, lending credence to the old "passing is contagious" axiom.

    In his three games since coming aboard, he's only logged five assists himself. But the 64 combined assists Toronto logged in wins over the Nets and Wizards on Feb. 11 and 13 were its best two-game total of the season. In addition to improving the flow of the second-unit offense, Gasol also stands out as one of the better options against Joel Embiid in a potential playoff matchup with the Sixers.

    Kawhi Leonard's stamina remains in question. He won't have to play any back-to-backs in the postseason, but there's still no telling how he might hold up over a deep playoff run. Add to that Kyle Lowry's strangely inconsistent and injury-hit campaign, and there are areas of concern.

    Nonetheless, the Raps will enter any series with an overflowing supply of wing defenders—a must for any serious contender. Leonard may be holding back during a regular season that has seemingly seen him slip on that end, and both Pascal Siakam and OG Anunoby will hold their own against anyone.

    A sense of impermanence has naturally attached to a team employing Leonard, who still feels like a safe bet to leave in free agency. Perhaps that points to a playoff disappointment, but there's also a chance the Raptors view this, collectively, as a sort of last ride before several key figures head their separate ways.

    As is the case for every team in our top four, you have to squint hard to find any definite, fate-sealing flaws with the versatile, talent-rich Raptors.

3. Philadelphia 76ers

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    The Sixers have more to prove down the stretch of the regular season than most contenders, but the early returns on their revamped starting five are encouraging.

    Ben Simmons, JJ Redick, Jimmy Butler, Tobias Harris and Joel Embiid have outscored opponents by 24.6 points per 100 possessions—a rate too enormous to sustain, but one that points to immense potential. Redick and Harris are suspect defenders, but Simmons and Butler can guard four positions apiece (and Simmons can hang with just about any undersized center), and Embiid is a matchup nightmare for everyone but Al Horford.

    On offense, the matchup problems these guys create are practically uncrackable. Put anyone under 6'10" on Simmons, and he'll crush him on the block. Use a like-sized defender, and Simmons will dust him in transition.

    Lose touch with Redick on a handoff and, whap!, he's already buried a three. Guard him too closely, and Embiid rolls to the rim with a head of steam, basically assured of a dunk or a foul or both. That Harris and Butler feel like luxuries says everything about Philly's embarrassment of riches.

    Opponents can hope the Sixers' lack of depth sinks them, but that may not matter as much in the postseason, when starters ramp up their minute totals.

2. Milwaukee Bucks

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    It's not hard to nitpick with these Bucks.

    They have fewer stars than the Sixers and less recent postseason success than the cores in Toronto and Boston. Milwaukee hasn't made it past the first round in Giannis Antetokounmpo's time with the team (or since 2000-01, for that matter), and a defensive scheme that allows the highest opponent three-point frequency theoretically introduces a high level of variance into any playoff series. Milwaukee could run into a team on a hot streak and get bounced.

    But Giannis is GIANNIS now, and he's part of a Mike Budenholzer scheme that accentuates all of his positives. Surround the biggest, rangiest, hardest-driving dunk machine with shooters, and it's almost impossible to prevent high-percentage looks. Plus, Milwaukee's defense is the best in the league. Though it's possible an opponent could catch fire in a seven-game series, nobody has shown the ability to get to the basket or the foul line against the Bucks this season. That means two avenues of high-percentage scoring are basically off limits.

    In a way, the Bucks play the simplest brand of basketball in the league. They attack the rim on offense, generating point-blank shots, threes or free throws—depending on which poison the opposing defense picks. On the other end, they dare teams to beat them with contested threes. Maybe that makes them easier to game-plan against, but if that were true, wouldn't someone have figured out how to keep the Bucks from running up the best record and top net rating this year?

    Poke all the holes you want. At some point, you have to acknowledge the Bucks' two-way excellence, led by a driven, ascending star who could easily win MVP.

1. Golden State Warriors

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    The Warriors have spent some but not all of this season atop our regular power rankings, and whenever an episode of lackadaisical play produces a losing streak or an intra-team blowup causes them to fall from the No. 1 position, it feels like we have to embrace a fiction.

    We know the Dubs are the best team in the league in all the ways that matter. They have more top-end talent than anyone. They have more playoff experience than anyone. They have a level, a gear, no on else has.

    Whenever they look vulnerable (and this will sound simplistic), they only look vulnerable. Deep down, we all know they're the most complete outfit in the NBA—one understandably prone to the occasional lapses in focus and effort. Those stumbles have been uncommon lately, as the Warriors own the NBA's best net rating since Jan. 1.

    If you're fixated on a defensive rating that ranks 15th in the league, don't be. With Draymond Green on the court, Golden State holds opponents to 104.9 points per 100 possessions, which would rank third overall. They'll defend as well as anyone when it matters. We've seen it before. And, unlike any of the other teams in consideration, we've seen the Warriors win rings.

    Three times.

    In the last four years.

    There are four fearsome teams in the East and handful of tough foes waiting in the West, but there's no case for any of them being bigger title threats than Golden State.

           

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