NBA Power Rankings: Steph Curry, Warriors Look Unstoppable Entering Playoffs

Grant Hughes@@gt_hughesNational NBA Featured ColumnistApril 5, 2019

NBA Power Rankings: Steph Curry, Warriors Look Unstoppable Entering Playoffs

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    Last year, the Golden State Warriors dragged themselves to the regular-season finish line, stumbling half-dazed to a 4-6 record in their final 10 games. By retaking the top spot in this week's edition of NBA power rankings, Stephen Curry and the Dubs are closing things out a bit better.

    Golden State is one of five top-10 teams to move around this week, proving that even with only one more rankings session to go, plenty remains unsettled.

    There will be a lot less emphasis on recent play for several squads, which happens when playoff positions solidify and load management becomes a top priority ahead of the postseason.

    That's fine. We've got a large enough sample of data from the past six months to inform our rankings, which are still based on record, advanced metrics and health.

30-26

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    Last week's rankings in parentheses.

            

    30. New York Knicks (30)

    The Knicks beat the Bulls on Monday, registering just their second win in the last month. But they also enjoyed a greater victory: Everyone now seems sure Kevin Durant is going to New York.

    Bleacher Report's Howard Beck got an overwhelming consensus from rival executives that Durant is bound for the Knicks, and Ric Bucher said on Fox Sports Radio: "From everything I've heard, it's done. ... Yes, he's leaving [Golden State]."

    That'll ease the pain of another week in the cellar.

                           

    29. Cleveland Cavaliers (28)

    The Cavs have quietly put distance between themselves and the rest of the league in an inauspicious way. Despite having more wins than the Knicks and Suns, they're last in net rating by nearly a full point per 100 possessions.

    Collin Sexton's second-half improvement remains an encouraging sign, but by at least one measure, Cleveland will finish the season as the NBA's worst team.

                           

    28. Phoenix Suns (29)

    Devin Booker averaged 52.3 points during a three-game stretch that concluded this past week. Phoenix lost all those games because that's what Phoenix does. The juxtaposition of so many points alongside those defeats produced the predictable "Booker is a chucker" takes.

    That debate probably won't get any more fuel this year, as Booker suffered an ugly left ankle sprain in Wednesday's loss to the Utah Jazz.

    If Booker's season is done, we should note its historic quality. Only five players in league history can match his averages of at least 26 points per game while posting a true shooting percentage of 58 percent or better at age 22 or younger: Kevin Durant, Michael Jordan, Shaquille O'Neal, Bob McAdoo and Amar'e Stoudemire.

                      

    27. New Orleans Pelicans (26)

    Losses to the Lakers and Hornets produced an 0-2 week for the beleaguered Pelicans, who've won just twice since that shocking three-game winning streak at the beginning of March.

    Julius Randle logged 34 points and 11 boards during Wednesday's loss to Charlotte, and he's in line to finish the season as one of just eight players with averages of at least 21 points, eight rebounds and three assists. The other seven were All-Stars.

                 

    26. Chicago Bulls (27)

    Walt Lemon Jr. is a prime example of how these perfunctory April games between lottery teams can still matter. The undrafted journeyman from Chicago scored a game-high 24 points and hit two free throws with 1.8 seconds left to give the Bulls a 115-114 win over the Washington Wizards on Wednesday.

    "It means a lot," Lemon told K.C. Johnson of the Chicago Tribune. "Nobody really expected me to be here. The fact the Bulls gave me an opportunity, let alone a chance to win an NBA game, I can't ask for more. I'm truly grateful and humbled."

    It was Chicago's first victory since March 20—one produced by several unknown contributors. The Bulls devoted nearly 190 minutes to undrafted players in the win.

25-21

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    25. Washington Wizards (23)

    The Wizards got a career-high 24 points from rookie Troy Brown Jr. in Sunday's 95-90 win over the Denver Nuggets, the team's only victory this week.

    The No. 15 pick of the 2018 draft has shown flashes of scoring touch since he got into the rotation, averaging 22.4 minutes per game and shooting 38.9 percent from long range in March.

    Washington notably moved on from team president Ernie Grunfeld, ending a tenure that began in 2003. A disappointing season necessitated the change, but Grunfeld did draft Bradley Beal, who definitely does not suck.

                     

    24. Los Angeles Lakers (24)

    You don't usually hear LeBron James' name in the same sentence as "absolute failure," but Isiah Thomas paired the two on ESPN's Get Up! this week when talking about the Lakers' season.

    The Lakers are assured of a sixth straight playoff absence, which is astounding considering the franchise had missed the postseason just five times total in the 65 seasons before this drought began in 2013-14.

    If there's been an absolute failure here, it's probably the misplaced faith in an extinct Lakers mystique over the last half-decade.

            

    23. Dallas Mavericks (25)

    Back-to-back wins over the Thunder and Sixers this week suggest the Mavericks might not fully understand this whole tanking thing. Or, maybe the Mavs would rather convey their top-five-protected pick to Atlanta this year than next.

    Either way, it's strange to see the Mavericks stringing together wins, which hadn't happened since February 2 and 6. If you had Trey Burke and Justin Jackson as the leading scorers in those two improbable successes, you're a prophet.

                    

    22. Memphis Grizzlies (20)

    Jonas Valanciunas gave the Grizzlies (1-2 in three road games this week) something to think about before a sprained right ankle, suffered in Sunday's loss to the Clippers, ended his season.

    Stellar work in the post and on the glass gave him averages of 19.9 points and 10.7 rebounds in 27.7 minutes per game as a Grizzly. If Memphis wants a conventional center alongside Jaren Jackson Jr. next year, the team has one in front of it.

    If Valanciunas declines his $17.1 million option for 2019-20, he would be worth retaining on a longer deal—but only if Memphis can work out an average annual value around $10 million. Valanciunas was excellent for the Grizzlies, but he's still an old-school 5. Those guys just aren't worth as much anymore.

               

    21. Minnesota Timberwolves (22)

    The Wolves took down the Warriors and Mavs this week while hanging tough in losses to the Blazers and Sixers. Rookie Josh Okogie put up 21 points on just 11 shots in Friday's overtime win against Golden State, and his incremental growth since he became a full-time starter in January counts as a positive in an otherwise disappointing Minnesota season.

    With a remaining schedule populated entirely by playoff-bound opponents, the Wolves may not add to their 35 wins.

20-16

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    20. Charlotte Hornets (19)

    Kemba Walker scored 47 of the 53 points produced by Charlotte's starters in Monday's 111-102 loss at Utah. According to ESPN Stats & Info, no single starter has accounted for a higher percentage of the first unit's total points in a game since 1970-71, which is as far as the data reaches.

    Then he scored 21 of his 32 points in the fourth quarter of Wednesday's 115-109 win over New Orleans.

    Those are microcosms of Charlotte's situation, and it's also a decent justification for paying Walker the max in free agency. This roster just isn't capable of competing without him.

    The Hornets have dropped three of their last four games.

                    

    19. Sacramento Kings (18)

    Player efficiency rating is an imperfect stat that tends to favor big men, but it still has to mean something that Marvin Bagley III led all rookies in PER during March. For the month, he posted averages of 18.5 points and 8.2 rebounds with a 54.5/44.4/70.5 shooting split in 26.2 minutes per game.

    The Kings were 7-9 in March and finally dropped from playoff contention, but it says something when one of the more disappointing months on the calendar would have been a high point just a year ago. In 2017-18, Sacramento didn't win more than six games in any month.

                     

    18. Brooklyn Nets (17)

    Caris LeVert is rounding into form when the Nets need him most, as the guard logged his first 20-point game Monday (24, to be exact) since he returned from a dislocated foot Feb. 8.

    LeVert's strong effort didn't prevent the 131-121 loss to the Bucks, but with Brooklyn scrambling to retain its playoff spot down the stretch, another scoring threat can't hurt.

    Brooklyn downed the Celtics on Saturday, but that was the only winning result in its last five games.

    Wednesday's 10-point loss to Toronto was notable for the Nets' heavy use of zone defense, and it'll be interesting to see how liberally they break out that strategy if they hang on to a playoff spot.

                       

    17. Atlanta Hawks (21)

    This week, Trae Young became the first rookie since Oscar Robertson to amass 1,400 points and 600 assists.

    As impressive as Young's second-half statistical run has been, his knack for putting himself in position to make winning plays tracks just as strongly with his potential for superstardom.

    When a tipped pass in the final seconds of Sunday's game against Milwaukee made its way into his hands, it seemed a foregone conclusion Young would deftly guide home the game-winning midair putback at the buzzer. That's the sort of thing that just happens with players as captivating as Young—even when they're 4-of-18 from the field at the time.

    Atlanta has won five of its last seven games, with four of the victories coming against playoff teams.

                         

    16. Detroit Pistons (16)

    As Blake Griffin nursed a sore knee from the sidelines, Detroit managed to beat the Blazers at home on Saturday. But back-to-back losses against Indiana followed, dropping the Pistons to 1-5 in games Griffin has missed.

    If this knee issue lingers into the playoffs, consider the Pistons cooked—if they even get there. Detroit is just one game ahead of the Heat, who occupy the No. 9 spot in the East.

15-11

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    15. Miami Heat (15)

    Two straight losses to the Celtics closed Miami's week, and Josh Richardson left Wednesday's defeat with a groin injury after he played just 16 minutes. He hadn't played since March 26 and was in a walking boot as recently as this past Saturday. Perhaps Richardson tried to return from one injury before he was fully healed and suffered another.

    Now, his season is likely over, according to ESPN's Adrian Wojnarowski.

    That desperation is understandable. The Heat are 38-40 and sit a half-game behind the Magic and Nets for one of the two final playoff spots. Orlando also holds the tiebreaker against Miami.

           

    14. Orlando Magic (14)

    Jonathan Isaac is the easy defensive standout to spot; it's tough to miss the 6'10" forward materializing in passing lanes and instantaneously rotating into proper help position. But Orlando's defense-fueled push back into the playoff race has another source: backup center Khem Birch.

    Though his reserve role limits the volume of his contributions, Birch ranks fifth in field-goal percentage allowed inside six feet (among players with at least 40 games played and 2.5 shots defended per contest).

    The Magic went 2-1 this week, moving back into eighth in the East. If they keep that position, it will be because they have developed one of the best defenses in the league, ranking second in the NBA since Feb. 1.

                   

    13. Indiana Pacers (13)

    The Tyreke Evans signing sure has been a bust, hasn't it? The 29-year-old is averaging career lows in just about everything that matters, including points, rebounds, assists and true shooting percentage.

    Indiana bested Detroit twice to salvage a 2-2 week, but it is just 9-12 since the All-Star break. Friday's tilt with Boston will go a long way toward determining which of those two teams, tied at 47-32, winds up with home-court advantage in the first round.

                           

    12. Oklahoma City Thunder (12)

    It takes more than one factor to produce a skid like the Thunder have been on since the All-Star break, a stretch during which they've gone just 8-13. But the task of sorting out this mess should start with a focus on abysmal first-quarter play.

    Since the break, OKC has been outscored in the opening frame by 15.9 points per 100 possessions—the second-worst margin in the league.

    Oh, and Russell Westbrook became just the second player in NBA history to post at least 20 points, 20 rebounds and 20 assists in a game, producing those totals during OKC's only win this week, a 119-103 defeat of the Lakers on Tuesday.

                     

    11. San Antonio Spurs (9)

    When the Houston Rockets beat the Kings 119-108 on Saturday, it assured the Spurs of a 22nd consecutive playoff appearance.

    Twenty-two postseason trips. In a row. Twenty! Two!

    San Antonio's consistent success is historic, as its streak tied the record long held exclusively by the Syracuse Nationals/Philadelphia 76ers, who reached the postseason every year from 1950 to 1971.

    It's been a weird season for the Spurs, who had the league's best offense for December, a 1-7 stretch in February that seemed catastrophic and a subsequent 9-0 run from Feb. 27 to March 18 during which they produced the league's second-best defensive rating. Cram all that together, and you wind up with the same outcome from the last 21 seasons: a playoff berth.

    San Antonio only went 1-2 this week, though. With the Celtics trending up, the Spurs had to slide.

10. Boston Celtics

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    Last Week: 11

    Al Horford's second career triple-double underscored his value to the Boston Celtics, leading to a 110-105 home win over Miami on Monday. But if you needed a reminder of the veteran center's import to Boston's success, you haven't been paying attention.

    Since the All-Star break, Horford's on/off impact has been, by far, the most significant of any Celtics player. With Horford on the court, Boston's net rating would rank second in the league if sustained for a full season. When he's off, the Celtics produce a net rating that would rank well below the Cavs' league-worst figure.

    Boston has looked better lately, notching two wins against Miami and one against Indiana this week. Jaylen Brown's sore back is a concern, but Gordon Hayward (25 points against Miami on Wednesday) is showing renewed confidence, and Kyrie Irving seems content. For the moment, at least.

    The Celtics have won four of their last five games and on Wednesday got 20-point performances from Horford, Irving and Hayward in the same contest for the first time this year.

9. Portland Trail Blazers

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    Last Week: 10

    Portland is 11-2 in its last 13 games and has lost just one home contest (in overtime against the Thunder) in the last two months. Since Feb. 1, nobody's offensive rating has been higher.

    Even without Jusuf Nurkic and CJ McCollum, the Blazers went 3-1 on a recent road trip through the East. With so much of Portland's top-end talent missing, the team's continued run has an unsustainable feel. But the Blazers are winning, and with McCollum's return date from a knee injury still uncertain (but looking possible before the playoffs), they'll have to keep doing it with help from unlikely sources.

    Examples: Rodney Hood led Portland with 21 points in Monday's 132-122 win against Minnesota, and Enes Kanter (still allergic to defense) has been a reliable source of scoring and rebounding. He's on a run of three straight games with at least 20 points and 10 boards. Let's not forget Evan Turner, who recorded a pair of triple-doubles this week.

    It seemed unlikely when Nurkic joined McCollum on the shelf with a leg injury, but the Blazers are looking like a good bet to retain home-court advantage in their first-round series.

8. Los Angeles Clippers

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    Last Week: 8

    It's a little dangerous to fixate on individual performances this late in the year, but Danilo Gallinari's 27-point, 15-rebound, five-assist effort against the Grizzlies on Sunday was legitimate enough to warrant mention.

    It was the first game with those three-category totals in Gallo's career, and Memphis is still trying to win games to convey its top-eight protected pick in the 2019 draft. This wasn't the typical late-season stat-stuffing effort.

    Gallinari is in line to finish with career highs in points and rebounds per game while also setting a new personal best in true shooting percentage. Just as importantly, he's stayed healthy. This will be the first time since 2012-13 that Gallo has taken the floor in at least 65 games.

    The Clips took down the Cavs and Grizzlies before they fell to the Rockets at home Wednesday, but they still have the West's second-best record since March 1. 

    Their priority must be overtaking the Jazz for that fifth spot in the West, which would allow L.A. to duck the Rockets (and draw the banged-up Blazers) in the first round.

7. Philadelphia 76ers

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    Last Week: 7

    Maybe someday in the distant future, we won't all freak out when Joel Embiid misses time. Even though his absence from Philadelphia's three-game road trip this week was part of load management, it's easy to reach for the panic button anyway. The knee tendinitis that cost him eight games after the All-Star break and his early-career history of lost seasons still loom large.

    Even if Embiid is just getting a break, there's some downside to his sitting. The 76ers' new starting five has only played 10 games together this year. The results have been fantastic, as Ben Simmons, JJ Redick, Jimmy Butler, Tobias Harris and Embiid are 8-2 with a plus-17.6 net rating. But a few more reps together couldn't hurt ahead of the playoffs.

    Locked into the East's No. 3 seed, the Sixers have little incentive to push their key players over this closing stretch. And if time off rejuvenates Embiid, then all the better.

    Philly will go as far as its dominant center can carry it.

6. Denver Nuggets

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    Last Week: 4

    The Denver Nuggets are just 2-4 in their last six games against Western Conference playoff teams, but at least they washed off the stink of Tuesday's decisive loss to the Warriors with a slump-busting offensive effort in Wednesday's 113-85 win over the Spurs.

    Still, combined with Denver's lack of postseason experience, its recent struggles against top competition doesn't augur well for a deep playoff run. Excluding that get-right game against the Spurs, Denver's offense had curiously stalled since the break, ranking an astounding 25th from Feb. 22 to April 2.

    On the plus side, the Nuggets will have home-court advantage through the first two rounds, where their conference-best 32-7 mark should make them favorites. 

    Denver went 2-2 this week but is just 3-4 since its six-game winning streak ended March 22. 

5. Toronto Raptors

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    Last Week: 6

    The Toronto Raptors have won five straight, with their last four victories coming by double digits, and Fred VanVleet's production since he returned from a thumb injury on March 17 has been integral to that success. He averaged 14.4 points and 6.1 assists on 60.1 percent true shooting in eight March games—easily his best monthly figures of the year.

    Despite Toronto's middling 13-7 record since the All-Star break, the team's plus-5.7 net rating ranks third in the league overall. The Raptors have picked it up defensively, and it also seems clear that Marc Gasol's presence is affecting the offense in a positive way.

    The Raptors' percentage of assisted baskets ranks third in the NBA since his first game with the team Feb. 9. Before Gasol showed up, Toronto ranked 22nd in that statistic. Looks like passing really is contagious.

4. Utah Jazz

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    Last Week: 5

    The Utah Jazz are feasting on a delectable closing schedule, running up an 11-1 record over their last dozen games. They've faced just one opponent slated for a playoff trip in that span.

    "It's hard in this league to win, so we don't care who we're playing," Ricky Rubio told reporters after he scored 20 points and handed out 13 assists in Monday's 111-102 win over Charlotte. "It's more about us playing the level we want to play, and we're reaching that."

    Donovan Mitchell produced a 56.9 true shooting percentage in March, his most efficient month of the season, and Rudy Gobert refuses to stop double-doubling. He surpassed Karl Malone's franchise record with his 63rd point-rebound double-double of the season on Wednesday in Phoenix.

    The quality of opponent is obviously a factor in Utah's sprint to the finish, but this team has been dominant for a while. Only the Bucks have a higher net rating since Jan. 1.

3. Houston Rockets

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    Last Week: 3

    Houston's defense has been dialed in since the All-Star break, ranking second only to the suffocating Jazz. For a team that raised its ceiling with dramatically improved defense last year, it's encouraging to see the Rockets shoring up that side of the floor with the playoffs so close.

    James Harden registered his fifth career 50-point triple-double and extended his own NBA record, and we've become desensitized to his nightly statistical nonsense. You watch a guy reset the parameters of individual offense for several months, and you lose a sense of what used to be normal.

    Also strange: When playing with zero days' rest, Harden averages more minutes and points per game than he does on one or two days' rest, while also shooting it better from the field, from three and from the foul line. It's a bizarre inversion of norms that makes it feel as though fatigue is actually his fuel.

    This should not be possible, but like so much of Harden's statistically baffling season, it's happening.

    Houston has won four straight and should take its final three games seriously so as not to slip below the West's No. 3 spot. Finishing second or third would mean avoiding the Golden State Warriors until the conference finals.

2. Milwaukee Bucks

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    Last Week: 1

    Giannis Antetokounmpo's troublesome right ankle kept him out of Sunday's 136-135 overtime loss to the Hawks, but he returned to post 28 points and 11 boards in Monday's 131-121 road win over Brooklyn.

    Eric Bledsoe led the Bucks with 29 points in that one, and his terrific season has probably gone unacknowledged in this space for too long. He's one of six players who are averaging at least 19 points, six assists and five rebounds per 36 minutes with a true shooting percentage north of 57 percent. James Harden, Kyrie Irving, LeBron James, Nikola Jokic and Antetokounmpo are the others.

    Just as important, Bledsoe's ability to chase ball-handlers through screens is what allows center Brook Lopez to drop into rim-protecting space in the Bucks' pick-and-roll defense.

    The Bucks are in no danger of losing their grip on the East's top seed, but they have reason to be concerned about their playoff fate. Khris Middleton, Tony Snell, Ersan Ilyasova, Malcolm Brogdon, Nikola Mirotic, Pau Gasol and Donte DiVincenzo have all gone down for stretches over the past few weeks, with last four names missing significant time. Even Antetokounmpo is struggling with that right ankle.

    Milwaukee is the only team that ranks in the top three in both offensive and defensive efficiency, and the only other teams to earn that distinction since 1996-97 won titles, according to research from NBA.com's John Schuhmann. But if the team that produced those rankings isn't healthy enough to take the floor in the postseason, that historical precedent may not mean much.

1. Golden State Warriors

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    Last Week: 2

    Stephen Curry drilled 11 treys in Friday's controversial loss to the Wolves, giving him an NBA-record eight career games with at least that many triples. There have been just 16 such games overall. As is the case with James Harden, we sometimes forget just how great a paradigm-shifter Curry is.

    That 131-130 overtime loss was the Warriors' only stumble in a week that included a 47-point dissection of the Hornets and another message-sending blowout against the Nuggets on Tuesday. Golden State flipped the switch on Denver, running up a 30-point second-half lead behind playoff-level defensive intensity and unstoppable offensive execution.

    The Warriors punked Denver despite 24 turnovers, most of which were unforced errors.

    Thanks to that bludgeoning of the Nuggets, Golden State is comfortably ensconced as the West's top seed.

    With the Bucks working through injuries and the defending champs ramping up their focus level, it was time for a new No. 1.

                      

    Stats courtesy of NBA.com, Cleaning the Glass and Basketball Reference unless otherwise noted. Accurate through games played Thursday, April 4.