NBA Power Rankings: Lakers Slide, Rockets Rise with 5 Weeks to GoMarch 8, 2019
NBA Power Rankings: Lakers Slide, Rockets Rise with 5 Weeks to Go
As the calendar creeps toward March's midpoint, NBA teams are bearing down for the stretch-sprint portion of the 2018-19 marathon.
Since the top teams weren't racing away from the field this week, that allowed for a shakeup in the top three and some multiple-spot leaps in the top 10. There's also a decent amount of movement near the bottom, as some clubs have seemingly embraced the spoiler role more than others.
There were seven three-win teams over the past week, none of whom reside in our top five. There were another four winless clubs, only half of whom land in the bottom third.
Let's try to make sense of everything that happened, then, with a fresh batch of power rankings. Season-long performance, advanced analytics, injury concerns and recent outcomes all combine to form the latest look at the league's hierarchy.
Last week's ranking in parentheses.
30. New York Knicks (28)
After sandwiching three wins in four tries around the All-Star break, the Knicks are Knicking again. Wednesday's 107-96 loss to the Phoenix Suns gave the Bockers their sixth losing streak of at least four games this season.
At least Allonzo Trier is hooping again. After some up-and-down stretches the past couple of months, New York's other, other rookie is hitting another high note with a team-leading 18.0 points on 52.1 percent shooting (52.4 percent from distance) over his last seven outings.
29. Cleveland Cavaliers (27)
Life after LeBron James stinks, but Northeast Ohio should've known by now to brace for that. What it may not have been as certain on was Kevin Love returning to All-Star form.
OK, maybe that's an oversell, but when you're a rebuilder shelling out max coin to an oft-injured 30-year-old, it's at least reassuring to see that player put together post-All-Star averages of 22.0 points and 12.2 rebounds. More promising still is Cleveland's plus-11.3 net rating with Love over that stretch.
28. Phoenix Suns (30)
Only a two-spot bump for a 3-1 week that included a season sweep of the NBA-best Milwaukee Bucks—what gives?
Well, the Suns are still one spot from the cellar with a woeful .227 winning percentage, and their minus-8.7 net rating also slots in 29th overall. In other words, we're not going to erase the previous four-plus months for one week, even if Phoenix should be glad to have a 4-1 stretch keyed by 26.8 points per game from max-money collector Devin Booker.
27. Dallas Mavericks (25)
The Dallas Mavericks can't get out of their own way right now. The highlight of their week was keeping (relatively) competitive against the 37-loss Washington Wizards, the only team not to score a double-digit victory over Dallas during its skid.
Despite opening with a 43-point first stanza and getting a(nother) gem from freshman phenom Luka Doncic (31 points, 11 boards and seven dimes), Dallas fumbled away a potential win by losing the second and fourth frames by a combined 20 points. But, uh, maybe that's part of the plan?
"I think that they're low-key tanking," ESPN's Brian Windhorst said on The Jump. "And, by the way, I don't blame them."
Considering the Mavs have top-five protection on the first-rounder they owe the Atlanta Hawks, maybe a bloated loss column isn't as bad as it seems.
26. Memphis Grizzlies (29)
You can't take the grit out of the Grizzlies. The Beale Street brawlers continued showing their feistiness with a 2-1 week that included wins over the Mavericks and Portland Trail Blazers, plus a four-point loss to the Oklahoma City Thunder on the second night of a back-to-back in a game the Grizzlies led by double-digits in the final five minutes.
Memphis has the Association's least efficient offense, but you never would've known it if you caught Mike Conley's latest gem. The perennially underappreciated point guard needed just 18 field-goal attempts to net a career-high 40 points, hitting 66.7 percent from the field and six of seven outside.
25. Atlanta Hawks (21)
It feels fitting that last Friday—as the NFL world fixated on measurements at the scouting combine—the 6'2", 180-pound Trae Young would set the NBA world on fire.
He logged nearly 56 minutes of a quadruple-overtime loss to the Chicago Bulls, tallying 49 points on 17-of-33 shooting (6-of-13 from deep), 16 assists and eight rebounds along the way. It was the league's first 49-point, 10-assist effort from a freshman since Earl Monroe in 1968.
"You can say what you want to about size, but when you're the most dangerous person on the court, it doesn't matter," Young told Yahoo Sports' Vincent Goodwill. "Size was never a factor growing up. College, I faced the same criticism. In the NBA, same thing."
Young's critics are growing quieter by the second. He's been the eighth-best scorer since the All-Star break (28.5 points per game), and if you're curious how those Stephen Curry comps are coming alone, Young has topped the two-time MVP in points, shooting from all three levels and assists over this stretch.
24. Chicago Bulls (23)
What a week for Zach LaVine. The award-winning aerial artist opened with a 47-point, nine-assist, nine-rebound eruption in that marathon win over the Hawks. Then, he punctuated it with 39 points in Wednesday's one-point win over the Philadelphia 76ers, sealed by his own double-clutch layup in the closing seconds.
But let's be real—there's no better story in basketball right now than near-featured-scorer Robin Lopez. Over his last 11 outings, the 30-year-old is nearly doubling his career output with 17.4 points per game on 61.1 percent shooting. Eat your heart out, Brook!
23. Charlotte Hornets (20)
The Charlotte Hornets—or more specifically, Kemba Walker—needed some type of trade-deadline relief, but it never came. They've been running on fumes ever since.
This is a 3-7 team since the deadline and one that's as uncomfortably reliant on Walker's production as ever. Charlotte got just two 13-plus-point games from a non-Walker starter over the past 1-2 week, which is especially frustrating when a repurposed Jeremy Lamb and a resurgent Frank Kaminsky suddenly seem capable of giving this group a legitimate bench.
22. Washington Wizards (26)
The Eastern Conference is something, isn't it? The Washington Wizards lost nine of their first 11 games this season, have only won eight times away from home all year, haven't had John Wall since December, moved then-highest-paid player Otto Porter Jr. at the trade deadline and still sit just three games back of the eighth seed after a 2-1 week.
"Our goal is to make the playoffs," Bradley Beal told reporters after Wednesday's 132-123 win over the Mavericks. "Until the fat lady sings at the end of the year, we've got to keep pushing forward."
Beal is doing everything he can to make that happen—including jamming on 7'2" Salah Mejri. In six games since the All-Star break, Beal is averaging 32.2 points on 53.8 percent shooting, 6.5 assists and 6.0 rebounds.
21. New Orleans Pelicans (24)
Despite publicizing a plan to reduce his minutes, the New Orleans Pelicans are quickly learning they can't survive without Jrue Holiday. Dating back to the trade deadline—when the Pelicans opted to keep Anthony Davis and ensure an awkward ending to the season—New Orleans' difference with and without Holiday is an enormous 24.4 points per 100 possessions.
Holiday has been more good than great in this stretch (22.3 points and 6.3 assists per game), but it shows how little support there is around him when Davis is only playing half the game (if at all). Still, Holiday can make things happen, like scoring 59 total points between consecutive road wins over the Denver Nuggets and Utah Jazz.
20. Los Angeles Lakers (16)
There's crashing and burning, and then there's whatever the Los Angeles Lakers have been doing for the last month-plus. They've gone 3-10 since the start of February and have the Association's second-worst net rating over that span (minus-9.7).
LeBron James hasn't been himself since injuring his groin on Christmas, and his supporting cast has been decimated by their own bouts with the injury bug. Luke Walton looks like a sitting duck, and playoff elimination feels almost inevitable.
19. Orlando Magic (19)
You won't find a stranger game log than Orlando's post-All-Star stretch. Since the midseason classic, the Magic have picked up victories over the Toronto Raptors, Golden State Warriors and Indiana Pacers. They've also dropped games against the Bulls, Knicks and Cavaliers—three potentially disastrous defeats should Orlando find itself outside the playoff picture.
"This league is about what you do against all the teams," Magic coach Steve Clifford said, per Roy Parry of the Orlando Sentinel. "Every team counts the same."
Consistency has been a constant struggle for Clifford's group, but Nikola Vucevic, the club's lone All-Star, remains an exception. He's harnessed an even higher gear out of the break, averaging 21.0 points on 54.7 percent shooting (46.2 from deep) to go along with 11.7 rebounds and 4.9 assists.
18. Minnesota Timberwolves (19)
Despite already being a two-time All-Star, Karl-Anthony Towns might be on the verge of another leap. While a scary car crash delayed his post-All-Star return, he's playing like he's trying to make up for the lost time. Over the six games since, he's been good for 34.3 points on 59.2 percent shooting (47.5 from range), 14.0 rebounds, 3.7 rebounds and 1.2 blocks a night.
But the Minnesota Timberwolves dropped four of those six games, and they've only scored one road win in their last 10 attempts. Towns might be making a superstar turn, but he can't lock up a playoff spot on his own.
17. Miami Heat (22)
Knowing the M.O. of the Miami Heat, they could make this ranking boost look silly by dropping a home tilt to the Cleveland Cavaliers on Friday night. For now, though, they deserve it for a perfect 3-0 week highlighted by another batch of fourth-quarter heroics from late-game escape artist Dwyane Wade. The 37-year-old had 14 of the team's 29 points in the final frame of Miami's 114-113 win over Atlanta on Monday.
"He's playing his best basketball right now and his confidence is growing," Heat coach Erik Spoelstra said, per Ira Winderman of the South Florida Sun Sentinel. "He also sees what is ahead of us and competitors—they tend to rise to these kind of challenges. I truly believe that is what you're seeing with Dwyane right now."
For better or worse, Wade remains Miami's closer. He's second on the team in fourth-quarter shots and first in clutch situations. He might not be the man in most places, but get him in that No. 3 Heat jersey, and anything feels possible.
16. Sacramento Kings (14)
Postseason appearance or not, this season should go down as a resounding success for the Sacramento Kings. They've seen exponential growth from De'Aaron Fox and Buddy Hield, watched Marvin Bagley III perform like a No. 2 pick and addressed their need for a jumbo forward by adding 6'8" Harrison Barnes.
But a playoff berth would make those strides easier to celebrate, wouldn't it? The team has time to make its move, but a 2-6 skid now has it sitting in a distant ninth seed. If it's possible to play must-win games in early March, the Kings could have several on their upcoming four-game road trip through the East.
15. Brooklyn Nets (15)
The latest deck shuffle from head coach Kenny Atkinson helped the Brooklyn Nets wiggle out of an 0-2 start to salvage a 2-2 week. While playing Dallas and Cleveland surely helped, Brooklyn nevertheless saw promising returns from moving Allen Crabbe and Rodions Kurucs into the opening group while joining Spencer Dinwiddie and Caris LeVert on the second team.
The additions of Crabbe and Kurucs to the first five better spaces the floor for D'Angelo Russell to operate. Meanwhile, the pairing of Dinwiddie and LeVert—both top-25 in drives per game—gives Brooklyn a downhill attacker on either side and an ability to put constant pressure on the defense.
14. Detroit Pistons (17)
So, here's the thing—we'd love to celebrate the Detroit Pistons' torrid play of late. Like, how they're 10-3 with the best offense and efficiency in basketball since the start of February. The problem is team MVP Blake Griffin says there's nothing to celebrate.
"My message to our guys is, like, what have we done? We've had a good stretch. A lot of teams have had good stretches," Griffin said, per Pistons.com's Keith Langlois. "Being in the sixth or seventh seed is absolutely nothing to be proud of. We tricked off two months of basketball."
Fine then, Blake, we'll shift the spotlight from the team to its rapidly maturing man in the middle. Andre Drummond, 25 years old and playing his seventh NBA season, has quite possibly found the key to maximizing his potential. Sure, he's been an All-Star before (twice, actually), but he's never been like this: 20.8 points on 62.1 percent shooting, 15.6 rebounds, 2.2 blocks and 2.1 steals a night in this 13-game surge.
13. Indiana Pacers (11)
It isn't fair to the Indiana Pacers to treat any skid as the one that possibly derails them for good. It's just that when a single-star squad loses said star to season-ending surgery, logic leads you to believe there's only so long it can delay the inevitable.
The Pacers aren't going to miss the playoffs or anything, and they remain in the driver's seat for hosting a first-round series. But with four losses in their last six games and a challenging schedule awaiting them, they're in danger of losing a lot of momentum ahead of what was already going to be a daunting postseason trip.
12. San Antonio Spurs (13)
The San Antonio Spurs are strange. Long the model of NBA consistency, Gregg Popovich's group has been anything but this season. Not even two weeks back, their playoff hopes seemed in jeopardy on the heels of a disastrous 1-7 rodeo road trip. But now, they're riding a four-game winning streak which includes victories over the Pistons, Oklahoma City Thunder and Denver Nuggets.
"It almost seems like we've just been able to flip a switch, which isn't the easiest thing to do," Patty Mills told reporters. "... It's been our defense that has won it for us."
The Spurs had the NBA's worst defense during that dismal trip. They've rocketed up to second since. The old reliables have become the unpredictables, but the Alamo City won't be complaining if this ends with yet another trip to the second season.
11. Portland Trail Blazers (8)
Not even a 51-spot from Damian Lillard could save the Portland Trail Blazers on Thursday night. They dropped a tough overtime loss to an Oklahoma City Thunder team they're now chasing in the standings.
After entering the week on a five-game winning streak, Portland has cooled off with a 1-3 stretch. That's no reason to sound the death knell, but everyone's margin for error is about to rapidly shrink. And as good as the Blazers have been, skeptics will continue to question if Portland's potent backcourt has enough help around it to avoid another first-round flop.
10. Los Angeles Clippers
Last Week: 12
After capping a perfect 3-0 week with a 113-105 win over their Staples Center roommates, the Los Angeles Clippers boosted their playoff hopes by potentially dashing the Lakers'.
Bulldog point guard Patrick Beverley viewed that as the perfect opportunity to send a friendly reminder about a preseason declaration he'd made.
"The Clippers are the best team in L.A.," Beverley said, per The Athletic's Jovan Buha. "Motherf--kers thought I was joking. Thought I was on drugs."
Note to self: Trust Beverley on everything from now on.
The Clippers are tied for the third-best record since the All-Star break (5-2), a feat made even more impressive considering this came after the deadline subtraction of then-leading scorer Tobias Harris.
But with the holdover trio of Danilo Gallinari, Lou Williams and Montrezl Harrell each providing at least 19 points a night and newcomer Landry Shamet cashing everything in sight (3.0 threes per game at a 42.9 percent clip), this offense is more than capable of consistent potency.
9. Philadelphia 76ers
Last Week: 7
Save for the All-Star Game, Philadelphia 76ers center Joel Embiid hasn't suited up in nearly a month due to knee soreness. That's a worrisome timetable for anyone, let alone for a 7-footer with a frightening injury history.
The longer this lasts, the harder it gets to not be concerned. Even a recent Embiid quote presumably meant to be reassuring comes off as uncomfortable in the here and now.
"It's all about long-term preservation and making sure I'm ready not just for the playoffs, but also for the next 15 years," Embiid told reporters.
A kid-glove approach would certainly be justified, assuming that's all this is. But having a healthy Embiid is critical to Philly's standing as an elite.
The Sixers are wobbling a bit, with a 1-2 week making them just .500 over their last six contests. Truth be told, though, that mark could be considerably worse. Considering Philly's net rating goes from plus-8.2 with Embiid all the way down to minus-3.2 without, the Sixers might be pleased to be treading water without their star center.
8. Oklahoma City Thunder
Last Week: 9
Where would the Oklahoma City Thunder be without Paul George?
On second thought, that might be best left unanswered. He entered Thursday night with an almost unfathomable plus-18.9 net efficiency differential. He exited the evening with a game-high plus-19, supplying 32 points, 14 rebounds, six assists and three steals in support of OKC's huge 129-121 overtime road win over Portland.
It's been a rocky road of late for the Thunder, who entered the week having lost five of their previous six games. Even worse, it was tough to pin down a specific problem. Some nights the offense couldn't function due to ongoing shooting woes or troubling turnover totals. Other nights, the defense would fail coach Billy Donovan's team.
Maybe a team led by Russell Westbrook is destined to be a bit erratic. His thousand-miles-a-minute approach is part of what makes him great, but it's also a reason why he's had the most eight-plus-turnover outings since entering the league in 2009 with 51, a total he added to Thursday night.
When George can be a steadying force, though, OKC's stars balance in a way that makes you think no one wants to draw this team come playoff time.
7. Boston Celtics
Last Week: 10
As tumultuous as things have been for the Boston Celtics this season, the prospect of getting Gordon Hayward back close to his past All-Star form always loomed as a potentially major lift.
Now, we're not going to declare anyone "Back!" due to a couple good games, but let's just examine what Hayward did over roughly 24 hours. Tuesday night, he torched the defending champs with 30 points in 28 minutes, hitting 12-of-16 from the field (4-of-6 outside) and snaring seven rebounds. Wednesday night, he made a twisting, fadeaway jumper with less than two seconds left to sink Sacramento.
Considering Hayward has been lagging behind his shadow all season, it's hard not to imagine what this might do to his confidence.
"I'll probably stop talking about working his way back and just call him Gordon and try to help move forward here, because he's obviously played great these two nights, and these are two really good wins, really hard wins," Celtics coach Brad Stevens said, per ESPN's Tim Bontemps.
Hayward has scored 15 or more points 15 times this season; the Celtics are 13-2 in those contests. If Gordon gets his groove back, Boston just might be the powerhouse many expected to see.
6. Utah Jazz
Last Week: 6
The Utah Jazz have mastered the art of the New Year's resolution.
For the second straight season, they're blitzing through the campaign's latter half. Dating back to Jan. 1, Utah is tied for third in winning percentage (.704), ranks second in defensive efficiency (106.4) and has the league's fifth-highest net rating (plus-5.4). Donovan Mitchell, at one time seemingly battling the dreaded sophomore slump, is one of only eight players averaging 25 points and five assists in 2019.
Oh, and this could trend even more extremely in Utah's favor going forward. The Jazz close with the Association's softest remaining schedule, per Tankathon.
"Everything's set up for Mitchell, [Rudy] Gobert, [coach Quin] Snyder, and Co. to steamroller their way through the second week of April and enter the playoffs with home-court advantage, a defense that can put the clamps on anybody, a scorer that can look nigh-on unstoppable, and all the momentum in the world," The Ringer's Dan Devine wrote.
The Jazz have only lost twice since the All-Star break. One was a double-overtime, one-point loss to OKC on a night when Paul George and Russell Westbrook combined for 88 points. The other was a three-point loss to New Orleans in a game the Jazz led by double digits in the fourth quarter.
5. Denver Nuggets
Last Week: 4
Gary Harris looked like he was knocking on the door of stardom early this season, but it's been stop-and-go amid a variety of injuries ever since.
However, he found his form just in time to help the Denver Nuggets avoid disaster Wednesday night. With their 23-point lead on the lowly Lakers trimmed all the way to two in the fourth quarter, Harris delivered back-to-back triples and eventually 11 straight points to help the Nuggets snap a three-game losing skid.
"We don't win this game without him," Nuggets coach Michael Malone said, per Mike Singer of the Denver Post. "Gary never gets fazed. He's very calm, especially when things are getting tight, and you need that. ... He's the one guy in that starting lineup that we've been trying to find a way to get his rhythm back."
Harris has often functioned as a high-level three-and-D wing, but he's had enough 20-plus-point outbursts to make you think his NBA calling is something greater. An aggressive, efficient, healthy Harris could perhaps be the kind of player who expands Denver's dominant duo of Nikola Jokic and Jamal Murray into a full-fledged Big Three.
Despite the ups and downs, Harris is still third on the club with a plus-7.8 net rating differential. Considering how valuable he's been without consistent scoring (or shooting), imagine what trimming the volatility could do for his impact.
4. Golden State Warriors
Last Week: 3
All is not right with the Warriors. They've gone an uncharacteristic 3-5 over their last eight games and are coming off the worst home loss they've ever suffered under Steve Kerr (33 points).
No one seems sure about the culprit. Kerr blamed a lack of anger, while Kevin Durant disagreed. The eye test says DeMarcus Cousins is getting skewered on defense, but Draymond Green says Boogie isn't the problem at that end, and the stat sheet sees no real difference on defense with Cousins or without him.
Perhaps this is the latest fight with complacency, then?
"We expect go out there and compete every day, but if you're not playing for something in particular, what are you really competing for?" Green, per Jeff Faraudo of the Mercury News. "You can use the old cliche line, 'Every time we step on the floor we want to get better.' But we didn't do that last year and we still ran through the playoffs."
Look, Golden State has more talent than anyone, and it's not particularly close. It won three of the last four Finals and lost the other despite building a 3-1 advantage. If it flips the necessary switch come playoff time, no one will care what did or didn't happen during the regular season.
Still, between Durant's uncertain future, the integration of Cousins, an inconsistent second team and some injury issues, the Dubs seem to have more concerns than normal.
3. Houston Rockets
Last Week: 5
Houston, we have a steamroller.
The scorching-hot Rockets pieced together a perfect week by dispatching the Celtics and Toronto Raptors—both on the road—by double digits, pushing their league-best winning streak to six games. Houston is 6-1 since the All-Star break with a plus-6.1 net efficiency rating over that stretch.
And it feels like Mike D'Antoni's wrecking crew is just getting started. To wit, the James Harden-Chris Paul tandem has a solidly unspectacular plus-3.0 net rating coming out of intermission; last season, the pair produced a world-beating plus-13.0 mark over 970 minutes together.
"We're still building," Paul said, per Jonathan Feigen of the Houston Chronicle. "We know we need wins, making this playoff push. But for us, what I always say, it's about the spirit and playing the right way. The spirit's pretty good. Obviously, winning helps. But the way we're moving the ball and playing together, we're building."
The ceiling for this core is still skyscraper-high. Remember, if not for Paul's horrifically timed hamstring strain last May, this could've easily been the West's representative in the NBA Finals.
With both an elite offense (second on the season) and an improving defense (15th since the All-Star break, compared to 25th pre-break), there's still time for this team to become the two-way power that terrorized opponents last season.
2. Toronto Raptors
Last Week: 2
The Toronto Raptors are, objectively speaking, a powerhouse. They sport top-10 efficiency ratings on both offense and defense, plus they own one of the Association's two .700-plus winning percentages.
So why, then, does this group feel weirdly vulnerable? Or at least not as consistently dominant as the data suggests?
Is it the will-he-won't-he uncertainty hanging over Kawhi Leonard's impending free agency? Maybe the 3-3 record coming out of the All-Star break, which includes a pair of double-digit defeats? Is it Leonard's ever-changing availability, or the back ailment Kyle Lowry can never seem to shake? Or what about the erratic play from what was the game's best bench?
It's probably all of the above, though the second-team concerns are among the more alarming given the challenge of solving them. Bench units need good chemistry, and the constantly reshuffling deck has made that impossible to develop.
"One time Marc (Gasol) is in (as a starter), one time Serge (Ibaka) is in there, some guys are hurt, guys are in and out ... some guys are still learning the plays," Danny Green said, per Doug Smith of the Toronto Star. "We had Jodie (Meeks) here and then Jodie's out, Patrick McCaw's in, so many different lineups, so many different faces."
All fingers north of the border should be crossed that Fred VanVleet—a 2018 finalist for Sixth Man of the Year—clears up a lot of these hiccups once he's back from thumb surgery.
1. Milwaukee Bucks
Last Week: 1
The Milwaukee Bucks are good at just about everything: first in win percentage, tops on defense, third at the offensive end. But there's one puzzle they haven't solved: handling the lowly Suns, who completed their season sweep of the Bucks on Monday.
From Milwaukee's perspective, that's like rising up the ranks as a five-star chef but somehow struggling to make boxed mac and cheese. It doesn't make sense. It's also what makes the NBA maddening, awesome, unpredictable...take your pick.
But it doesn't alter the Bucks' position at the mountaintop. (They don't have to worry about a postseason clash with Phoenix, right?) This remains the only club to clinch a playoff berth, a feat accomplished with last Friday's win over the Lakers and assisted in a massive way by 31 points from the newly minted $70 million man, Eric Bledsoe.
"It's a great feeling," Giannis Antetokounmpo said, per ESPN's Malika Andrews. "Great having Bledsoe on the same team for the next four years. He deserves it. He's done everything the team wanted him to do. Unbelievable leader."
This might be the most efficient version of Bledsoe we've seen. He's never shot a higher percentage from the field (49.0) or averaged more assists per turnover (2.59). That helps explain both his top-10 standing in raw plus/minus (plus-445, eighth) and that Powerball-sized boost to his bank account.
Statistics used courtesy of Basketball-Reference.com and NBA.com and current through Thursday, March 7.
Zach Buckley covers the NBA for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter: @ZachBuckleyNBA.