NBA Power Rankings: Giannis, Milwaukee Bucks Hold Strong with 1 Month to Go

Grant Hughes@@gt_hughesNational NBA Featured ColumnistMarch 15, 2019

NBA Power Rankings: Giannis, Milwaukee Bucks Hold Strong with 1 Month to Go

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    Gary Dineen/Getty Images

    Halfway through March, we're still dealing with the unexpected when formulating the latest edition of NBA power rankings.

    Teams with win totals in the teens are knocking off defending champions on the road, the playoff order feels settled until surprising winning and losing streaks turn everything upside down, and squads previously consigned to the middle of the pack are shoving their way back into the top 10.

    The lesson: There's no such thing as stability in a league this unpredictable.

    The second lesson: The San Antonio Spurs cannot die.

    As always, rankings consider full-season performance, recent play, advanced metrics and health.

30-26

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    Glenn James/Getty Images

    Last week's rankings in parentheses.

                

    30. New York Knicks (30)

    The Knicks have lost seven straight, but at least everyone involved in the tankfest is getting a chance to shine. New York has had a different leading scorer in each of its last six games. The list includes Noah Vonleh, Allonzo Trier, DeAndre Jordan, Dennis Smith Jr., Damyean Dotson and Emmanuel Mudiay.

    In other positive, tampering-adjacent news, owner James Dolan is very confident his team's free-agency plans will work out.

    They'd better.

                              

    29. Cleveland Cavaliers (29)

    Cleveland logged its largest margin of victory this season when it took down the Raptors by 25 points Monday. Collin Sexton scored 28 points in that one—part of a three-game stretch from March 8 to March 12 in which he averaged 27 per contest on 58.2 percent shooting. Even more encouragingly, he drilled 11 of his 19 three-point tries during that hot streak.

    If he can come anywhere close to that level of scoring efficiency on increased volume going forward, Sexton's ceiling will rise significantly.

                 

    28. Chicago Bulls (24)

    Tuesday's loss to the Lakers officially eliminated the Bulls from the playoffs, but there's a lot to like about the team's outlook. A respectable 6-6 over the last month, Chicago will head into the offseason with a core of Zach LaVine, Otto Porter Jr., Lauri Markkanen and Wendell Carter Jr., plus a good shot at the top pick and upward of $19 million in cap space.

    Still, the Bulls are 1-5 in their last six games and will proceed cautiously with LaVine's injured knee. If we don't see much of him for the rest of the year, it won't be a surprise.

                      

    27. Dallas Mavericks (27)

    "Honestly, I wasn't 100 percent, but I want to play," Luka Doncic told ESPN's Tim MacMahon after he posted 12 points on 5-of-18 shooting (including a shocking 1-of-9 effort from the foul line) in Tuesday's loss to the Spurs.

    That's a laudable mindset for a young player, but the Mavs have no incentive to push him with zero playoff hope and lottery odds that need improving. Of course, robbing the public of performances like Thursday's, in which Doncic crammed home what was game-winning dunk against the Nuggets until Nikola Jokic's buzzer-beater one-upped it, would be cruel.

    Dallas is 1-12 in its last 13 games, but Doncic means there'll always be a reason to watch.

                                        

    26. Phoenix Suns (28)

    Welp! You can't leave the Suns ranked in the bottom three when they've got a winning record in March and shocking victories over the Bucks and Warriors less than a week apart.

    Devin Booker pasted the Warriors for 37 points and 11 assists in Sunday's 115-111 stunner, and Deandre Ayton is stringing decent defensive stretches together more often as the season winds down.

    Organizational dysfunction remains the prevailing narrative, but the blossoming talent is undeniable. Before anyone gets too excited, keep in mind Phoenix is still a 16-win team.

25-21

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    25. New Orleans Pelicans (21)

    Frank Jackson had a pair of 20-point performances this week, and Elfrid Payton posted back-to-back triple-doubles against the Hawks and Bucks. But New Orleans has still lost four straight. With Jrue Holiday's abdominal strain set to be re-evaluated early next week, it feels like the Pelicans will shut him down for the season.

    Unless you're into the charade of watching Anthony Davis log three perfunctory six-minute stretches a night, you can tune this team out.

                    

    24. Memphis Grizzlies (26)

    Winners in three of their last four, the Grizzlies have a real chance at keeping the top-eight protected pick they owe to the Celtics.

    Mike Conley is fresh off the first Western Conference Player of the Week Award of his career and posted a career-high 40 points in a 120-111 win over the Blazers on March 5. Meanwhile, Joakim Noah's return to relevance remains one of the season's most surprisingly pleasant stories.

                             

    23. Atlanta Hawks (25)

    Trae Young notched his first career triple-double and John Collins piled up 33 points and 19 boards in Saturday's 114-112 loss to the Nets, continuing Atlanta's trend of hopeful signs in defeat.

    The Hawks finished a 2-1 week with wins over New Orleans and Memphis, pumping in 132 points against a Grizz defense that's ranked in the top three since Feb. 1. Atlanta, behind Young's leap, Collins' interior finishing and Kevin Huerter's sniping, has posted the league's third-highest offensive rating since the All-Star break.

                     

    22. Los Angeles Lakers (20)

    Since downing the Rockets on Feb. 21 in what felt like a post-All-Star "OK, we're serious now" declaration, the Lakers are 2-8, with the wins coming against Chicago and New Orleans.

    LeBron James will be on a minutes restriction, Brandon Ingram is out for the year following a worrisome diagnosis of deep venous thrombosis in his arm, Lonzo Ball is also officially shut down and, basically, our pets' heads are falling off.

                 

    21. Charlotte Hornets (23)

    Kemba Walker hung 40 on the Rockets, but Charlotte still fell 118-106 on Monday, dropping to a season-worst seven games under .500.

    Cody Zeller, Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, Marvin Williams and Nicolas Batum all missed the Houston defeat with injury, yet all's not lost. Charlotte is still somehow within striking distance of the East's eighth spot, and a critical head-to-head meeting with the Heat in Miami looms on Sunday.

20-16

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    20. Washington Wizards (22)

    Quietly 4-2 in their last six, the Wizards are undefeated at home in four March contests.

    Bradley Beal scored 21 of his 27 points in the second half of Monday's 121-115 win over the Kings, and Jabari Parker continued his improved play since a deadline trade, turning in several key fourth-quarter buckets during Wednesday's 100-90 victory against the Magic.

    The Wizards need almost everything to break right if they're going to make up the 3.5 games that separate them from the eighth spot. If they fall short, they can take solace in delivering major blows to each of their last two victims' playoff hopes.

            

    19. Orlando Magic (19)

    When in pursuit of a playoff spot, it's inadvisable to drop consecutive games to Memphis and Washington. But that's what the Magic did this week, despite the best efforts of Nikola Vucevic, who posted 26 points and 10 rebounds against the Grizzlies, followed by 20 points and 14 boards versus the Wizards.

    Orlando went into the All-Star break as one of the league's hottest teams, but it's just 5-6 since.

                    

    18. Minnesota Timberwolves (18)

    James Harden will lead the league in scoring by a mile, but Karl-Anthony Towns has put up more points per game than anyone else since the All-Star break—bearded lefties included.

    KAT's production won't earn Minnesota a playoff spot, but at least rookie Keita Bates-Diop will get a chance to play a bit down the stretch of another lottery season. He came into this rankings session with 35 points on the year and proceeded to put up 30 combined points in wins over Washington and New York this week.

    The Wolves went 2-2 this week.

            

    17. Sacramento Kings (16)

    The Kings needed all of De'Aaron Fox's 30 points to survive on the road against the Knicks on Saturday, but that 102-94 win and another defeat of the Knicks in Sacramento on March 4 represent two of the their three wins since the All-Star break.

    Their 3-8 mark over the last month dashed hopes of the franchise's first playoff trip since 2006.

    At least Marvin Bagley III is back from a knee injury. He and Harry Giles III should see ample time together down the stretch, as they figure to be the Kings' frontcourt of the future.

                    

    16. Miami Heat (17)

    The Heat held a recently formidable Pistons team to just 25 second-half points Wednesday to secure a comfortable 108-74 win, the team's fifth in its last six games.

    During Miami's last half-dozen contests, it owns a plus-10.1 net rating fueled by remarkably balanced scoring. Nine players—Josh Richardson, Kelly Olynyk, Dwyane Wade, Bam Adebayo, Hassan Whiteside, Dion Waiters, Goran Dragic and Rodney McGruder—are averaging between 9.2 and 14.2 points per game during the 5-1 stretch.

    Though the lack of a star has long been Miami's weakness, we're seeing the benefits of having several quality players as the team shores up its No. 8 seed.

15-11

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    15. Indiana Pacers (13)

    The Pacers are 2-2 in their last four games and have beaten just a single opponent currently in playoff position since Feb. 7.

    The committee approach, with Bojan Bogdanovic admirably handling a high-usage role in Victor Oladipo's stead, has been a nice story. But Indy faces a punishing road trip that will pit the Pacers against Denver, Portland, Golden State and the Clippers starting Saturday.

    When it's over, expect to see Indiana sliding down to the fifth seed in the East.

                  

    14. Brooklyn Nets (15)

    Brooklyn capitalized on a favorable slate to win four of its last five games. The first three victories came against Dallas, Cleveland and Atlanta. And while Monday's 103-75 blowout success against Detroit looks impressive, the Pistons were playing their third game in four nights.

    The Nets face the league's toughest remaining schedule, based on opponent winning percentage. So we'll soon see how real this recent stretch was.

               

    13. Detroit Pistons (14)

    The Basketball Writers' Adam Spinella outlined the ways in which Wayne Ellington is unlocking new dimensions in Detroit's attack.

    Turns out having the poor man's version of JJ Redick who sprints around screens, plays an expert handoff game and rises to fire without regard for a defender's proximity works pretty well when Blake Griffin is handling the ball.

    Who would have guessed?

    The Pistons blow the doors off opponents whenever Ellington shares the floor with Griffin, Andre Drummond, Reggie Jackson and Luke Kennard, though the overall offense is still subject to stalling. See: 25 second-half points in Wednesday's ugly loss to the Heat.

    Even after that 34-point whooping, Detroit still owns a top-five net rating since Feb. 1 and has likely locked down its playoff spot.

                     

    12. Portland Trail Blazers (9)

    CJ McCollum shook off a 0-of-7 start to post a 23-point fourth quarter, outscoring the Clippers on his own during the period to produce Tuesday's 125-104 win.

    The victory gave the Blazers a much-needed 2-0 week after last ranking session's disappointing 1-3 mark. Even with the overall mediocrity of the last two weeks, Portland still ranks second in the West in net rating since Feb. 1.

    Rodney Hood's nagging hip soreness kept him out of action against the Clips, but he should be available for Friday's meeting with New Orleans. Since coming over from the Cavs on Feb. 8, he has averaged 7.8 points in 21.3 minutes, but the Blazers are a ridiculous 14.3 points per 100 possessions better without him on the floor.

    Maybe they should be extra cautious in bringing him back.

                              

    11. Utah Jazz (6)

    This is a steep drop for the Jazz, who are 3-3 in their last six games. But the Clips and Spurs have been far steadier of late, and Utah's most recent trio of wins came against lottery-bound pushovers: New Orleans, Phoenix and Minnesota.

    Monday's 98-89 loss to the Thunder exposed the Jazz's lack of shot-creators when their point guard depth is depleted by injury, a key factor in their 18th-ranked offense.

    More than anything, several teams ranked below Utah last week either got key pieces back, logged big wins or were generally hotter. Fortunately for Utah's seeding hopes, it owns the league's easiest remaining schedule.

10. Oklahoma City Thunder

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    Last Week: 8

    The Thunder are under .500 over the last calendar month, and their defense, once elite, has ranked outside the top 10 since Jan. 1. That's a significant chunk of the season, and if Oklahoma City's play on that end is merely average, it doesn't have enough offense to be considered a serious contender any longer.

    Still, OKC is all but cemented into a the middle-of-the-West playoff pack. It'll be difficult for it to climb as high as second but equally tough to fall below fifth. Wednesday's 108-96 win against Brooklyn, which included a comeback from a deficit that grew as high as 17, showcased Russell Westbrook's value as a facilitator. Ten of his 11 assists came after halftime as OKC surged ahead.

    Also worth noting: Westbrook's three-point shooting remains abysmal on the season, but he's actually increased his accuracy rate in each successive month. At this rate, he'll be knocking down threes at a 40 percent clip in April.

9. LA Clippers

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    Last Week: 10

    The Los Angeles Clippers won five straight to reach a season-high 10 games over .500 before they fell in Portland on Tuesday. With a plus-7.4 net rating in March, these guys keep postponing the fade so many expect.

    With Landry Shamet (46.9 percent from deep since joining the team Feb. 6) scorching from the outside and newly minted all-time leading bench scorer Lou Williams dropping 40-spots whenever he feels like it, that long-awaited slide out of relevance may not be coming.

    Los Angeles is walking the delicate line between winning now and setting itself up to win later, and it may have dealt the crushing blow to the Lakers' playoff hopes with that March 4 victory against its Staples Center co-tenants.

    Not a bad transition year for the Clippers.

8. San Antonio Spurs

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    Last Week: 12

    Does anyone know how to set up an auto-correct function so that any time the words "Spurs" and "dead" appear near each other, the sentence immediately gets erased and replaced by "San Antonio has been in trouble before, but it always finds a way out. Just have faith."?

    Because in the wake of a six-game winning streak that included victories over the Pistons, Thunder, Nuggets and Bucks, the Spurs have once again risen from the grave.

    A 1-7 road trip in February feels like ancient history now that Derrick White is back and in good form. He's averaging 14.6 points, 6.2 assists and 4.8 rebounds on 51.7 percent shooting in March, all while sparking San Antonio's previously defunct defense.

    Someday we'll learn to quit writing this team off.

7. Philadelphia 76ers

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    Last Week: 9

    Joel Embiid's absence and return underscored his singular value to the Sixers.

    In eight games without him following the All-Star break, the Sixers went just 4-4 and saw their defense surrender 107.0 points per 100 possessions. That's not a disastrous figure, but Philly allows only 102.2 whenever Embiid is on the court.

    No surprise, then, that the Sixers promptly knocked off the Pacers and Cavs in Embiid's first two games back, holding them to 89 and 99 total points, respectively.

    Among the East's top four teams, only the Raptors have an easier remaining schedule. As long as Embiid stays on the floor, the Sixers should be the favorite to lock down the conference's third seed.

6. Boston Celtics

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    Last Week: 7

    A 140-115 loss to the Clippers prevented Boston from logging a clean 4-0 sweep on its California road trip, but the Celtics have still won four of their last five games after getting right on a cross-country flight.

    Al Horford feels good about his game lately, and the Celtics owe their stalwart and (finally) healthy veteran plenty for their improved play.

    "It's fair to say I'm playing my best basketball of the year, probably since I've been in Boston, to be honest," Horford told reporters after the Celtics beat the Lakers on Saturday. "I'm at a really good point in my career right now. Just the way coach is using me, and I can bring to the team, I'm at my best right now."

    We've seen the Celtics climb out of one hole before digging a fresh one several times in this topsy-turvy season, so this latest stretch of improved play still warrants suspicion. Nonetheless, Boston's chances of climbing as high as third in the East look far better than they did just a few days ago. 

5. Denver Nuggets

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    Last Week: 5

    Isaiah Thomas, ineffective in spot duty since returning from offseason hip surgery, is out of Denver's rotation. While that's a bummer for IT, the move was a long time coming.

    Monte Morris, Malik Beasley, Jamal Murray and Gary Harris are all too productive to lose minutes to Thomas—and Will Barton, even if he's struggled to find consistency, also needs time to find his feel as a playmaker ahead of the postseason.

    The Nuggets recovered from last Friday's drubbing at Golden State to beat the Wolves and Mavs. The latter came on Jokic's extremely on-brand, awkward, purely swished game-winning bucket at the buzzer. Though, sure, the 30 points from Murray in the win against the Wolves were nice, too.

    Denver has failed to capitalize on one of the Warriors' roughest patches of their half-decade dynasty, posting a 10-7 mark since Feb. 1. If the Nuggets could have put together a run over the last few weeks, they might have found themselves with a multigame lead for the West's top seed.

    With the Rockets running hot, Denver had better be careful, as slippage could be costly. It shouldn't take a semi-desperate, leaning flip shot to beat the Mavs at home. A top-four finish in the conference is no longer certain.

4. Toronto Raptors

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    Last Week: 2

    The Raptors have hit a few bumps in March, going 4-3 through their first seven games of the month, low-lit by Monday's 25-point loss to the hapless Cavs.

    Toronto is still closer to first than third in the East, though, and if one of this season's top priorities was keeping Kawhi Leonard happy, mission accomplished.

    "We've been doing a great job of making sure that nothing flares up or gets out of control," Leonard said of his load management this year, per Josh Lewenberg of TSN Sports. "It's just been great. I'm just happy that I'm able to play... It's amazing. I feel good and we have something to look forward to."

    Serge Ibaka's fisticuffs-fueled suspension should give Toronto a longer look at what Marc Gasol can provide in a larger role. That could help set playoff rotations, though head coach Nick Nurse may have the right idea by playing the matchup game with his pair of starting-caliber centers.

3. Houston Rockets

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    Last Week: 3

    Wednesday's 106-104 loss to the Warriors ended a nine-game winning streak that vaulted the Rockets into the upper reaches of our rankings. The defeat was Houston's first against Golden State this year, and the competitiveness of the contest set up some compelling dynamics for the playoff rematch we'd all like to see.

    Houston is certainly hotter, despite the loss, and its 3-1 record against the Dubs this year should give it confidence. But are the Warriors sitting back now, knowing they can take the Rockets down again if they have to?

    Most importantly, the streak that died against Golden State wasn't the product of an offense-only team—which was a fair way to describe the Rockets for most of the season. Since the All-Star break, they rank seventh in defensive efficiency.

    Houston's legitimacy as a title threat depends on it coming close to the level it hit on defense last year. Lately, it looks like that's a possibility. 

2. Golden State Warriors

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    Last Week: 4

    You can evaluate the Warriors using whatever information you want.

    Are they the team with the 5-6 record over the last month? Are they the team that smoked the Nuggets by 17 last Friday to shut down any concerns about their grip on the West's top seed? What about that galling 115-111 loss to the Suns at home, which came just 48 hours after the bludgeoning of the Nuggets?

    Oh, and what to make of Golden State's spirited, message-sending 106-104 victory in Houston over the scorching Rockets on Wednesday?

    We're giving extreme weight to that last one, in no small part because it aligns with the well-established idea that the Warriors are better than everyone when they want to be. They took down Houston, previously a winner in nine straight, without Kevin Durant and by leaning on DeMarcus Cousins in the post—a new wrinkle Houston had little reason to be wary of ahead of time.

    Cousins' 27 points, eight rebounds and seven assists were part of his most complete effort with Golden State, and they underscored the absurd luxury his presence represents. When one of the greatest scorers of all time is out with an ankle injury, the Warriors can dump the rock into an All-Star big man (who usually occupies fourth-option status) against the hottest team in the league...and win.

    The Dubs don't deserve a spot above the Bucks, whose full-season resume is unimpeachably superior. But at the same time, every week we don't list the Warriors first feels like we're fooling ourselves.

1. Milwaukee Bucks

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    Last Week: 1

    The Bucks have looked mortal in March, going 4-3 with their first back-to-back losses of the year (at Utah and Phoenix), but lapses are allowed when you've still got a two-and-a-half-game cushion on the Raptors for the East's top spot and a death grip on the NBA's No. 1 net rating.

    Though its stopping power remains the league's best overall, Milwaukee is in the middle of the pack in defensive efficiency this month. Though there's little reason to worry about the Bucks holding up on that end in the postseason, there are enough positive signs on offense to make up the difference in the unlikely event those struggles persist.

    The sample only spans 291 possessions, but with Nikola Mirotic and Brook Lopez sharing the floor, the Bucks crush opponents by a gaudy 25.1 points per 100 possessions. Good luck finding a 4-5 combo that strikes more fear into opponents from the perimeter.

    And, ho hum, Giannis Antetokounmpo has made at least half his shots from the field in 19 straight games and is on pace to be the second player in NBA history to average at least 27 points on 17 or fewer shot attempts per game. Charles Barkley, who pulled it off in 1987-88, is the only other member of that club.

           

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