NBA Power Rankings: Are the Lakers Even a Top-15 Team?

Grant Hughes@@gt_hughesNational NBA Featured ColumnistMarch 1, 2019

NBA Power Rankings: Are the Lakers Even a Top-15 Team?

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    February is a wrap, which means we've hit the true fourth quarter of the 2018-19 NBA season.

    Most teams have around 20 games left to make playoff runs, establish postseason seeding, complete a tank job and, of course, move up or down our power rankings.

    This week, the consistently dominant Milwaukee Bucks capitalized on several top-10 teams' slippage to reclaim the No. 1 spot, while a supposed preseason powerhouse in Boston fell to its lowest ranking all season. If that weren't enough upheaval, the New York Knicks won a basketball game. More than once!

    Rankings consider win-loss record, advanced metrics, health and recent play to create a snapshot of the league's current power structure.

30-26

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    Pre-All-Star rankings in parentheses.

    30. Phoenix Suns (29)

    The Suns' 17-game losing streak came to a merciful conclusion when they beat the Heat by a final score of 124-121 on Monday, but with so many of the bottom five trending upward lately, there was really no other option at No. 30.

    Phoenix is a league-worst 3-21 in 2019 and has the distinction of being the first team mathematically eliminated from playoff contention.

                 

    29. Memphis Grizzlies (27)

    The Grizzlies have lost five of their last six, but they jumped the Lakers behind 30 points from Mike Conley on Monday, and only one of their five most recent defeats came by more than six points. These guys are still scrapping—at least partially because they want to convey their top-eight-protected pick to the Celtics this season, ahead of a draft that doesn't look especially deep.

    With just one game left on its schedule against a clear pushover (hi, Suns!), that could be a tall order.

                 

    28. New York Knicks (30)

    After dropping 18 straight, the Knicks have won three of their last five games. Go figure.

    Mitchell Robinson continues to post gaudy stat lines, the most impressive of which was a 17-point, 14-rebound, six-block, three-steal effort in Tuesday's 108-103 win against Orlando. That performance made him the third rookie since 1973-74 to post those totals in a game. Ralph Sampson and David Robinson are the other two.

           

    27. Cleveland Cavaliers (28)

    The Cavs have been respectable of late, and Kevin Love put up 32 points and 12 boards in Saturday's 112-107 win against Memphis. But when you scroll back through Cleveland's successes in its recent 4-2 run, you realize they all came against fellow bottom-feeders: New York twice, Phoenix and Memphis.

    That's nothing to write home about, but it's definitely enough for a bump when you're this low in the rankings.

                 

    26. Washington Wizards (25)

    Bobby Portis has played more center since joining the Wizards, and the results have been encouraging. Fueled mostly by strong offensive numbers, Washington has outscored opponents by 5.5 points per 100 possessions with Portis at the 5.

    Bradley Beal was one of two players to average 30 points and six assists in February, joining Giannis Antetokounmpo, but his strong stretch didn't facilitate much winning. Washington went 3-7 for the month and is basically entrenched as the East's No. 11 team.

25-21

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    25. Dallas Mavericks (24)

    Luka Doncic posted a triple-double with 28 points on just 12 field-goal attempts in Monday's 121-112 loss to the Clippers, but he was fixated on his nine turnovers.

    "I was terrible," he told Tim MacMahon of ESPN. "That was all my fault. I had a lot of turnovers. That can't happen again for sure."

    Dallas has lost five of its last six games, but with Doncic's self-imposed high standards and the Dirk Nowitzki farewell tour now featuring in-game tributes from opposing coaches, it'll be easy to enjoy the closing run of a non-playoff season.

            

    24. New Orleans Pelicans (22)

    Anthony Davis and the Pelicans are stuck with each other for the rest of the season, and it's going to be awkward (at best) every step of the way.

    New Orleans engineered a furious comeback against the Sixers on Monday, ultimately falling short in the 111-110 loss. But the run illustrated how the Pels have become two different teams. With Davis sitting for good after logging 21 minutes, Jrue Holiday led a connected, committed bunch to a near-upset. The level of intensity that group showed simply hasn't been there with AD on the floor. Though the on-off numbers since the break show the Pelicans (1-3 this week) aren't much better statistically without Davis playing, there's an undeniable tonal shift when he's not involved.

         

    23. Chicago Bulls (26)

    Zach LaVine (42) and Lauri Markkanen (35) both posted career-high scoring totals during Saturday's 126-116 home win over the reeling Celtics, giving Chicago its first three-game winning streak of the season.

    The Bulls had the worst offensive rating in the league (by over two points per 100 possessions) on Jan. 31. In February, they posted the third-best offensive efficiency in the NBA. Chicago has a long way to go, but Otto Porter has looked good in an expanded role, and the young talent seems to be getting comfortable on the offensive end. That's the kind of hope-generation you want at the end of a lottery-bound season.

                 

    22. Miami Heat (20)

    Dwyane Wade's 25 points and too-good-to-be-true game-winning three against Golden State on Wednesday are good evidence that the basketball gods love a happy ending. As Wade giddily leapt to the scorer's table in celebration, mobbed by his teammates after that banked-in prayer was answered, even the Warriors had to smirk.

    This is how farewell tours are supposed to go.

    Not to be forgotten, Goran Dragic finally showed some zip in his third game since Dec. 10. He hung 27 points on the Dubs, including 20 in the second quarter alone. Miami has lost four of five and remains outside the playoff picture, but at least there have been some pockets of joy mixed in with the losing.

           

    21. Atlanta Hawks (23)

    It had been trending this way all month, but Trae Young's arrival as the long-range-bombing, dime-slinging Stephen Curry impersonator felt complete in Atlanta's 119-111 loss to the Rockets on Monday. Young pumped in a career-high 36 points in that one, hitting eight threes from beyond 27 feet. Then, he uncorked another 36 points to lead the Hawks to a 131-123 overtime win against Minnesota on Wednesday.

    Atlanta is 2-2 since the break, and Young is consistently displaying the kind of defense-warping range the Hawks have been hoping for. 

20-16

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    20. Charlotte Hornets (16)

    Human dunk machine Miles Bridges is Charlotte's new starter at small forward, replacing Jeremy Lamb in a post-All-Star break revamp of the first unit. Lamb is still seeing more minutes overall, and his scoring chops should bolster a second unit that could use some extra buckets.

    The Hornets are just 2-7 in their last nine, thanks largely to a defensive collapse that now has them outside the top 20 in points allowed per 100 possessions. Of course, since they play in the East, they're still slated to make the playoffs.  

              

    19. Minnesota Timberwolves (17)

    Karl-Anthony Towns missed the first game of his career after a scary car crash but looked as productive as ever upon his return, piling up 34 points, 21 rebounds, five assists and two blocks in Monday's 112-105 win over the Kings. His encore included 37 points and 18 boards in Wednesday's overtime loss to the Hawks, followed by 42 points and 17 rebounds on Thursday in a loss at Indiana.

    Though the Wolves are now four-and-a-half games out of a playoff spot after losing three of their last four, there's always hope when you've got the most complete offensive big man in the league. And getting a top-notch perimeter defender back in Robert Covington, whose return is imminent, can't hurt, either.

           

    18. Orlando Magic (21)

    Tuesday's loss to the Knicks, courtesy of a blown 16-point lead, could have haunted Orlando for the rest of the year. With a chance to move into a tie for eighth in the East, the Magic's collapse felt like a massive missed opportunity.

    "It's a terrible loss," Evan Fournier told reporters afterward. "Terrible. There's no other way to say it."

    Don't get too down on Orlando. It went 2-2 this week, but its wins came against Toronto and Golden State. The latter included a gem from Aaron Gordon, who put up 22 points and 15 boards to beat the Warriors on Thursday.

    Believe it or not, the Magic went 8-3 with the top net rating in the league for the month of February. Oh, and that eighth spot in the East? They wound up moving into it after downing Golden State.

                

    17. Detroit Pistons (19)

    Something's different about Andre Drummond over the last several weeks. He's had plenty of productive statistical runs in his career, but his attentiveness, effort, positioning (all the key missing elements that have limited him) are peaking as Detroit solidifies its postseason spot.

    "During this stretch he's been a monster," Blake Griffin told Vince Ellis of the Detroit Free Press after Drummond registered 26 points and 16 boards in the Pistons' 113-109 win over Indiana on Monday. "He's imposed his will—not only on offense and defense—but the in-between stuff, the 50-50 balls, intimidating people from going to the rim. He's been locked in."

    The Pistons have won seven of their last nine games and produced the sixth-best net rating in the league during February.

                

    16. Los Angeles Lakers (18)

    When the Lakers took down the Rockets by a final of 111-106 in their first game after the All-Star break, it seemed like a playoff surge was inevitable.

    But then L.A. dropped contests to New Orleans and Memphis as LeBron James called out his team for a lack of urgency—all while turning in some of the most alarming low-effort defensive sequences we've ever seen from him.

    Brandon Ingram strung together three games in which he scored 27 points or more, though, and James looked commanding with 33 points in Wednesday's rematch win against the Pelicans. The Lakers have cornered the market on volatility.

15-11

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    15. Brooklyn Nets (14)

    D'Angelo Russell scored 14 points in the final 3:24 to help the Nets escape with a 117-115 win over the Hornets on Saturday, staving off Charlotte's comeback from a 19-point deficit and finishing with a career-high-tying 40.

    Brooklyn's victory gave it a 2-1 advantage over Charlotte in the season series, providing the Nets a major boost in their quest to retain the East's sixth seed. The Nets have won three of their last five games, but Wednesday's loss to the Wizards left them with a 4-6 mark in February.

           

    14. Sacramento Kings (13)

    The Kings are taking turns with the breakout narrative. De'Aaron Fox kicked things off, followed by Buddy Hield. Now, it's Marvin Bagley III's turn.

    The No. 2 pick led the Kings in minutes for each of their first three games after the break but suffered a worrisome knee sprain in the third quarter of Wednesday's gut-punch overtime loss to the Bucks. With February averages of 17.5 points and 9.4 rebounds, Bagley has become indispensable to the Kings' playoff push. The quicker he gets back, the better.

    The Kings remain over .500 despite losing four of their last five and owning the No. 22 net rating in the league.

           

    13. San Antonio Spurs (12)

    The Spurs were on the road for what seemed like forever, and the results suggested they forgot to pack a defense.

    San Antonio went 1-7 on its rodeo trip, a slog that bridged the All-Star break and lasted from Feb. 4-25. In that span, the Spurs posted a league-worst 122.1 defensive rating that cast their playoff hopes into serious doubt. No team will be happier to see the calendar flip to March.

    Home cooking did the Spurs right, apparently, as they took down the rolling Pistons by a final of 105-93 on Wednesday.

           

    12. L.A. Clippers (15)

    The Clippers want to make the playoffs, and they're in fine position to do it with the Lakers and Spurs (especially the Spurs) hitting the skids lately. Though L.A. is just 3-2 in its last five games, the Kings, Lakers and Wolves failed to make up ground in February.

    With Lou Williams increasing his scoring average for the fifth straight month and Montrezl Harrell posting two 30-point games in his last four outings, it's clear that although the Clips added youth and assets at the deadline, their more experienced mainstays will decide the team's fate.

           

    11. Indiana Pacers (9)

    Every time the Pacers stumble, which they did this week, losing to Detroit and Dallas, it's tempting to disregard their season-long excellence on defense and effective offense-by-committee approach. The allure of the easy narrative—that they're surviving on smoke and mirrors without Victor Oladipo—is always there, just waiting for verification.

    Indiana has generally recovered from its rough patches, though, even without its best player. So there will be no precipitous drop this week. Just a small one. The Pacers have earned some benefit of the doubt.

    Indy fans ruthlessly zinging opposing players (and I mean seriously cutting to the core with some real "the truth hurts" hazing) will never get old.

10. Boston Celtics

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    Last Week: 6

    All's not well in Boston, as the Celtics dropped their first four games coming out of the break. Saturday's 126-116 loss to Chicago might seem like the low point, but the rollover job the Celtics pulled in Tuesday's 118-95 blowout loss to the Raptors was the truly alarming result.

    Kyrie Irving looked listless in Toronto, shooting 3-of-10 from the field after a 37-point outing against the Bulls. What's more, Boston's defense continued it's scary slide. Though the Celtics are still fifth in defensive efficiency overall, they ranked in the league's bottom half in February.

    "We're just not on the same page and that hurts," Marcus Smart told Jay King of The Athletic. "When you're not on the same page and one guy's doing another thing, a few guys, it makes it hard—and it's everybody. Nobody is together."

    Boston went 5-6 in February, is below .500 on the road for the season and is in danger of drawing a first-round matchup with the Sixers, putting a quick playoff elimination in play. That'd be a far different fate than most expected when the Celtics looked like a preseason superpower.

9. Oklahoma City Thunder

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    Last Week: 4

    Paul George enters new evidence into his case for MVP at least once a week these days, and his 13 clutch points in OKC's 148-147 double-overtime win against the Jazz last Friday may have been his best submission yet. He even put a fine point on the performance with a rafter-scraping, game-winning floater over the outstretched arm of Rudy Gobert.

    It's difficult to overstate the cinematic majesty of that shot, which arced high enough to raise fears about the ball burning up on re-entry into the atmosphere.

    Not to be forgotten, Russell Westbrook complemented George's 45 points against the Jazz with 43 of his own.

    OKC couldn't get past the Kings on the second night of that Utah-Sacramento back-to-back (because it's basically impossible to win the second leg of one of those after a double-OT night in the first), but the defeat Denver handed it on Tuesday was the bigger issue. It gave the Nuggets the season tiebreaker and severely damaged the Thunder's chances of finishing second in the West.

    With George sidelined because of a sore shoulder, Oklahoma City suffered a third straight loss, falling 108-104 to the Sixers.

8. Portland Trail Blazers

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    Last Week: 11

    Jusuf Nurkic was the victor in his feud with Ben Simmons, and Portland won four straight road games coming out of the break. With its overall winning streak at five (a season high) and an offense that has climbed to fifth in the league, the Blazers have never looked tougher. 

    Though added depth (in the forms of Enes Kanter and Rodney Hood) has led to some lineup juggling as head coach Terry Stotts keeps the rotation fluid, the Blazers coach should probably avoid overthinking things down the stretch.

    The Blazers' usual starting five—Damian Lillard, CJ McCollum, Moe Harkless, Al-Farouq Aminu and Nurkic—have the third-highest net rating in the league among units that have shared at least 500 minutes of court time.

    Don't look now, but Portland's fast post-break start has it right on Oklahoma City's heels in the race for the West's No. 3 seed.

7. Philadelphia 76ers

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    Last Week: 5

    There is no such thing as a minor Joel Embiid injury.

    That's partly because he's so vital to the Sixers' shot at a deep playoff run, but it'd be dishonest to say his early-career health issues aren't also a factor. When you've seen a guy miss entire seasons, extra concern is warranted.

    He's missed all four games since the break and won't be re-evaluated until Saturday, according to Serena Winters of NBC Sports Philadelphia.

    Philly is also without Boban Marjanovic, shelved with his own right knee injury, which means Jonah Bolden and recently recalled Justin Patton will man the 5 for a while. Here's hoping the Sixers experiment with Ben Simmons at center a bit more, just to see how that might work ahead of the playoffs.

    Down their best player, the Sixers still managed to go 3-1 this week. Embiid's absence is a big deal, but that record prevents Philadelphia from losing too much ground.

6. Utah Jazz

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    Last Week: 7

    Wednesday's win, which featured a comeback from a 17-point first-quarter deficit, gave Utah a 2-0 edge in the season series against the Clippers. With a 2-1 advantage on San Antonio already locked in, the Jazz are quietly securing their playoff status.

    Nothing's certain yet, though. Ricky Rubio's hamstring acted up again in the win over the Clips, but Raul Neto handled his increased role admirably. Neto couldn't go against the Nuggets the next night, which meant Utah had to unwrap Grayson Allen for a few ineffective minutes.

    Fortunately, Joe Ingles dimed up Rudy Gobert repeatedly in the pick-and-roll as the Jazz pulled off the rare feat of winning in Denver on the second night of a back-to-back set. Under the circumstances, the 111-104 triumph on Thursday was among the most impressive victories logged by any team this season.

    With a top-five defense on the year and a surprising top-10 performance on offense in February, the Jazz could cruise through a soft remaining schedule to surpass 50 wins.

5. Houston Rockets

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    Last Week: 10

    James Harden's sore neck kept him out of Saturday's 118-112 win over the Warriors, and his streak of 30-point games ended on Monday against the Hawks. Oddly, those two developments could count as positives for the Rockets.

    That's because Chris Paul put up 20 points, eight assists and six boards in the Atlanta win, looking much more like the star-level guard he was a year ago. And any win that proves Houston can survive without Harden controlling the offense—especially against a powerful (if mostly disengaged) opponent like Golden State—is a welcome sign.

    Houston also started Paul, Harden, Eric Gordon, P.J. Tucker and Clint Capela together for the first time in over two months last Thursday against the Lakers. A one-man show for most of the season, the Rockets, who've now won four straight games, might be turning back into an actual team.

    Of course, it's always nice to know Harden can reprise his takeover role whenever necessary. He blasted the Heat for 58 points, keying a 35-20 fourth-quarter advantage for Houston in Thursday's 121-118 comeback win.

4. Denver Nuggets

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    Last Week: 8

    Tuesday's win against Oklahoma City, fueled by a closing 24-12 run, gave Denver five straight wins over OKC. With less than six weeks left in the season, the Nuggets, winners five of their last six, have all but locked down a top-two seed in the West. 

    Considering that 121-112 win over the Thunder marked the first time Denver's anticipated starting five—Jamal Murray, Gary Harris, Will Barton, Paul Millsap and Nikola Jokic—shared the floor since October 20, there's reason to believe a No. 1 seed is possible.

    The Nuggets' defense stabilized in February, and Millsap looking better than he has all year is a key factor. Denver defends at a rate that would tie for second in the league whenever he's on the floor. For a roster with virtually zero playoff experience, his demeanor, experience and willingness to contribute on the margins makes all the difference. Though he managed just 12 points and 10 boards in that massive OKC win, his timely work on the offensive glass and defensive savvy swung the game.

    Jokic is the star, and Denver is still defined by its scoring punch. But Millsap determines this team's ceiling—which is looking higher than ever these days.

3. Golden State Warriors

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    Last Week: 1

    Though early returns were promising, DeMarcus Cousins has looked much more like a player coming off a devastating injury lately. With little lift around the basket and a three-point shot that quit falling in February, Boogie's production has dipped considerably.

    Any questions about him closing meaningful games for the Warriors appear to have been answered. The Hamptons Five, with Andre Iguodala taking Cousins' starting spot, has a top-five net rating among units that have logged at least 100 minutes this season. Swap Cousins into that group for Iguodala, and the Warriors have actually been outscored during those stretches.

    This should go without saying, but it's really hard to be part of a net-negative unit that also includes Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson, Kevin Durant and Draymond Green.

    That's not to say Cousins is without his uses. Alongside Shaun Livingston, Thompson, Iguodala and Green, Cousins has been part of a highly potent group against second units, primarily at the start of second quarters. The Warriors should continue to utilize Cousins against backups whenever possible. That's where he can still dominate.

    Golden State has succumbed to those familiar bouts of lethargy once again, turning the ball over too often, falling way behind against the Heat in the first half on Wednesday and trailing by double digits in nine of its last 12 overall. The loss to a Harden-less Houston was a bad look, and getting swept in a back-to-back against Miami and Orlando might have been worse. The sky isn't quite falling, as the Warriors finished February with a 7-4 record.

    But there's no way the Dubs deserve to stay at No. 1 with a 2-3 mark since the break.

2. Toronto Raptors

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    Last Week: 3

    All year, the Raptors have embodied this strange duality where they appear dominant while still somehow seeming vulnerable. They've won eight of their last nine games and trail only Milwaukee in the East standings, yet the disconnected stretches and occasionally clunky offense persist. See: Sunday's 113-98 home loss to Orlando.

    And that's to say nothing of Kawhi Leonard's regular unavailability and Kyle Lowry's sporadic bouts with back trouble that turn him into a completely different (and far less effective) player.

    The offense functions differently with Leonard than it does without him, Marc Gasol introduces a new wrinkle to the second unit, and there's a vibe of impermanence tied to Leonard's impending free agency. At times, everything just feels a little...off.

    But then you watch the Raps leverage all of their different and sometimes incongruous pieces to great effect, which they did in dismantling the Celtics by 23 points on Tuesday, and you realize that maybe Toronto's general funkiness is what makes it dangerous.

    How do you game-plan for an opponent that assumes so many different looks, that deploys such a variety of weapons? I guess all you can really count on, as an opponent, is that the Raptors pack a mean punch. It's just impossible to be sure where it'll come from.

1. Milwaukee Bucks

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    Last Week: 2

    Giannis Antetokounmpo may well be the league's MVP, but we laud his accomplishments—statistical and superhuman—in this space every week.

    We don't spend enough time highlighting Brook Lopez, who bombs in 28-footers on offense and plays an integral role on Milwaukee's league-best defense.

    "It's hard to put into words how important Brook is to us defensively," Milwaukee coach Mike Budenholzer told Eric Nehm of The Athletic. "The confidence he gives our perimeter guys, just the whole team, you can just feel it in timeouts. You can feel it when we’re prepping and getting ready."

    Lopez is on pace to be the first player to average at least two made threes and two blocks per game, and his 13-point, five-swat effort was vital to Milwaukee beating the Bulls on Monday with Antetokounmpo out of the lineup. He shuts down the lane in the Bucks' drop coverage against the pick-and-roll, and he opens everything up on the other end.

    With the Bucks (12-1 in their last 13 games) surging toward the postseason in possession of the league's best record and net rating, you'd be hard-pressed to find a role player making a bigger difference than Lopez anywhere in the NBA.

                 

    Stats courtesy of NBA.com, Cleaning the Glass and Basketball Reference unless otherwise noted. Accurate through games played Thursday, Feb. 28.