NBA Power Rankings: The Golden State Warriors Are Losing Their Grip
The playoff field is thinning, which lends clarity to the top end of our latest NBA power rankings.
The Milwaukee Bucks basically extended their season-long dominance with a four-game sweep of epic proportions, James Harden remained generally unstoppable, and those plucky Los Angeles Clippers refused to bow out against a maddeningly inconsistent Golden State Warriors team that might have literally been asleep on the floor for long stretches of Wednesday's Game 5 loss.
Like last week, most of the lottery teams won't move much unless they make meaningful additions to the roster, front office or coaching staff. Firing a coach merely creates an opportunity for a rankings rise or fall, but we won't pass judgment until vacancies are filled.
As always, these rankings are designed to order all 30 teams by current strength. Recent play matters more than ever, because in theory, we're seeing everyone's best effort. The playoffs tend to reveal teams' true colors.
That's great news for the Bucks, but it's a bit more concerning for Golden State.
Last week's ranking in parentheses.
30. New York Knicks (30)
Knicks head coach David Fizdale is obviously biased; he doesn't want to endure another season like the one he just completed. So it behooves him to be a good salesman for his team's future. That motivation doesn't make him wrong when he talks up New York's offseason prospects.
"We've got the most cap space," Fizdale said on ESPN's The Jump. "We have seven picks over five years, which means whoever we do get we can continue to build around them. I think that's a great position to be in. We did all that in the course of a year. And we laid down our culture, so I'm really excited about we're at."
Unfortunately for the Knicks' ranking, which remains unchanged, all those assets—the cap space, the picks and the culture—aren't presently affecting the roster. When the personnel improves, the Knicks will vault up this list.
29. Cleveland Cavaliers (29)
Based on the types of coaches they're pursuing, the Cavaliers appear headed for a measured, deliberate rebuild.
ESPN's Adrian Wojnarowski reported Cleveland will interview a pair of Portland Trail Blazers assistants for its vacant head coaching position: Nate Tibbetts and David Vanterpool. Both are viewed as development-minded coaches, according to Fear the Sword's Chris Manning, and both interviewed for top jobs last offseason: Tibbetts with the Atlanta Hawks and Vanterpool with the Orlando Magic and Charlotte Hornets.
That's good! Quick fixes are risky, and with recent success stories like the Brooklyn Nets and Atlanta Hawks, patience is enjoying a renaissance. Stay the course, Cavs.
28. Phoenix Suns (28)
When Suns GM James Jones announced the firing of Igor Kokoskov and his staff, as first reported by Shams Charania of The Athletic, he assured that Devin Booker would play for his fifth head coach in five seasons.
It's reasonable to doubt Booker's defensive commitment, and maybe we'll never be sure his numbers really matter as long as he plays for a lottery team. But the annual restarts in Phoenix can't be helping his development. If anything, we might consider giving Booker more credit for the growth he's shown to this point. When a team's priorities, schemes, verbiage and personnel change every summer, the lone constant should probably get a pass.
27. Washington Wizards (26)
I know we said there wouldn't be much movement in the lottery section of the rankings unless teams made significant changes, but in the process of re-examining everyone's offseason outlook, it feels like we undersold the gravity of Washington's situation.
NBC Sports Washington's Chase Hughes (no relation) laid out the cringe-inducing specifics:
"The Wizards also only have six players currently under contract for next season and that includes Wall, who will probably miss at least 50 games. That also includes Jabari Parker, whose $20 million team option is highly likely to be declined, and Ian Mahinmi, who can't really be counted on for a rotation spot given how things went last year."
Throw in Troy Brown Jr., Dwight Howard and Bradley Beal, and that's it. That's the entire bunch. And Washington owes those six guys roughly $109 million in 2019-20.
The books are cleaner after next season, but these aren't long-term power rankings. At the moment, the Wizards' outlook is uncommonly bleak.
26. Chicago Bulls (27)
Things are pretty quiet on the Bulls front lately. The Sporting News' Sean Deveney mentioned Chicago as a team that would have interest in Jrue Holiday's trade candidacy, but it's hard to know what the New Orleans Pelicans will do with their star guard until they sort out the Anthony Davis situation.
The Bulls should head into 2019-20 banking on the organic growth of a young roster, but the point guard situation needs attention. Holiday is a long shot, but Chicago should pursue an upgrade over Kris Dunn however it can.
25. Los Angeles Lakers (25)
Jason Kidd interviewed for the Lakers' head coaching gig this week, according to Dave McMenamin of ESPN.
It's encouraging that the search (which has also included interviews with Monty Williams and Tyronn Lue) has expanded outside the bounds of the Lakers family, but it's also telling that Kurt Rambis joined GM Rob Pelinka in the interview process. Rambis' influence suggests owner Jeanie Buss is still most comfortable with familiar faces, which hasn't served the franchise well in recent seasons.
Also: Kidd, 183-190 as a coach, is probably now best-known as the guy who prevented the Milwaukee Bucks from becoming a superpower. He's the Mark Jackson to Mike Budenholzer's Steve Kerr, which pops off the resume page in all the wrong ways.
24. Memphis Grizzlies (24)
Say this for the Grizzlies: They're building in the correct order, starting with a deep and experienced front office that will—eventually—decide on an organizational philosophy before hiring a head coach.
Memphis' next head coach will be its fifth in seven years, and there are far more appealing openings elsewhere in the league. So if the search lasts too long, it might be more indicative of Memphis' undesirability as a destination than front office patience. On the other hand, it's nice to see a franchise with a history of abrupt changes taking its time.
23. New Orleans Pelicans (23)
Executive VP of basketball operations David Griffin said on ESPN's The Jump he has "very good optimism" about his Pelicans' chances of keeping Anthony Davis.
Not just regular optimism, mind you. Very good optimism.
If AD stays, we'd all better reconsider the power of positive thinking. But even if Griffin knows in his heart Davis is gone, this is the right message to send out into the world. Teams' trade packages will only get better if they think New Orleans isn't over a barrel to deal Davis.
22. Dallas Mavericks (22)
The Mavs could have as many as nine free agents this summer if Dwight Powell declines his player option, which means next season's roster could look very different in ways beyond Dirk Nowitzki's absence.
Aside from the obvious importance of reaching a sensible deal with restricted free agent Kristaps Porzingis, Dallas should prioritize retaining center Maxi Kleber. The 27-year-old German was a capable defender in switching schemes and was one of only four players to hit 35 percent of his threes while posting a block rate of at least 4.4 percent. Brook Lopez, Myles Turner and Jaren Jackson Jr. were the others.
That's a skill combo worth keeping around.
21. Charlotte Hornets (20)
Other than Malik Monk, Miles Bridges, Dwayne Bacon and maybe Devonte' Graham, do the Hornets have anyone under contract for 2019-20 you'd expect to improve next year? You could twist yourself into knots trying to make a case for Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, who's still just 25. But it's hard to project growth for a guy entering his eighth season.
Maybe Nicolas Batum gets a dead cat bounce in 2019-20?
The dearth of potential improvers is alarming, and none of the limited supply on hand have star-level ceilings. This gives the Hornets yet another reason to go all out in their efforts to retain Kemba Walker. Maxing Walker out will be a gamble with the decline phase of his career coming, but there's just nothing else keeping Charlotte competitive.
20. Minnesota Timberwolves (21)
The Athletic's Jon Krawczynski reports the Wolves will interview four candidates for their president of basketball operations vacancy over the next two weeks: Chauncey Billups, Gersson Rosas, Calvin Booth and Trajan Langdon.
Whoever lands the job will have to figure out what to do with Andrew Wiggins, who regressed in the first season of a five-year, $147.7 million extension, posting career lows in true shooting percentage and box plus-minus. On a positive note, the Wolves were only 10 games under .500, despite Jimmy Butler's early-season sabotage, and they posted a plus-3.9 net rating in the 568 minutes Robert Covington and Karl-Anthony Towns shared the floor.
Quietly, Minnesota is a solid low-pressure, high-upside situation for a new top executive.
19. Atlanta Hawks (19)
It's hard to know how much it will ultimately matter for the Hawks' future, but head coach Lloyd Pierce just keeps bulking up his list of connections to important figures and movements in the basketball world.
He played with Steve Nash at Santa Clara, coached LeBron James in Cleveland, helped guide Stephen Curry's early progress in Golden State, was the de facto defensive coordinator during Philadelphia's Process and is now a member of the USA Men's National Team coaching staff under Gregg Popovich.
If the Hawks decide to speed up their rebuild through free agency, Pierce's wide-ranging links to key NBA figures (and the coaching acumen he's shown to earn it) can't hurt.
18. Sacramento Kings (16)
The Athletic's Sam Amick reports the Kings are continuing to involve head coach Luke Walton in the process of hiring new members of his staff, despite the recent lawsuit accusing Walton of sexual battery. The suit was first reported by TMZ. There are real-world stakes, alleged victims and consequences with this suit, so it feels petty to focus on basketball.
All the same, these recent allegations obviously complicate what seemed like a home run hire, and there are strong cases to be made that the Kings should move on from Walton.
17. Miami Heat (17)
Barring some shocking housecleaning that'd surely cost draft assets to pull off, the Heat aren't going to have any cap space this summer. But if they hold tight for a year and clear enough room to chase two max-salary free agents in 2020, which is Pat Riley's plan, the Heat will have a young supporting cast ready and waiting.
Justise Winslow, Josh Richardson and Bam Adebayo all took steps forward this past season, and all figure to get even better next year.
"(Winslow's) improvement, as is Josh's improvement and Bam's, the last 19 or 20 games, I think is indicative of a nice, little core of young players that will be good on the eyes of some possible free agents who want to come here," Riley told Shandel Richardson of The Athletic. "That's all a part of being an attractive place."
The Miami Heat: 17th in our rankings, but first in general attractiveness...in 2020.
16. Detroit Pistons (18)
Blake Griffin did what he could on a bum knee, but the Pistons never had a chance against the Milwaukee Bucks in the first round. Unceremoniously swept, Detroit was outscored by a total of 95 points over four games.
Their move up may feel strange, but upon reflection, it felt a little cruel to slot a team that made the playoffs below two that didn't last week.
Amid the hubbub over Next Question-gate, Griffin's softer touch with the media stood out. He shook hands with reporters after the Pistons' elimination and then issued a thankful note to fans on social media. If you can't win against the Bucks, you might as well log a couple of victories in the PR world.
Unsurprisingly, Griffin had that cranky knee scoped Wednesday.
15. Indiana Pacers (15)
On to sweep victim No. 2.
The Pacers just didn't have enough scoring punch to give the Celtics a series. They tied with Orlando for last in postseason offensive rating and didn't get themselves any extra looks by finishing with the worst offensive rebound percentage among playoff teams.
No Pacer who attempted at least seven shots per game converted at a better rate than Tyreke Evans (43.8 percent), who shook off a career-worst regular season to become an unlikely offensive star. Despite playing the eighth-most playoff minutes on the team, Evans scored more total points than everyone but Bojan Bogdanovic.
This would have been a competitive first-round series if Victor Oladipo had been healthy, as Indiana defended extremely well. Boston posted the lowest offensive rating of any team to advance into the second round.
14. Orlando Magic (12)
The Magic avoided a first-round sweep, but only because they shot the lights out and got a D.J. Augustin game-winner in Game 1.
Even with that anomalous victory on file, Orlando got outscored by 15.7 points per 100 possessions, the worst margin among postseason entrants (non-Pistons division).
The Magic ran into a deep, dangerous, title-worthy Raptors team, so there's no shame in bowing out quickly. If Orlando figures out how to produce league-average offense alongside an already stellar defense next year, it should improve on its performance.
13. Brooklyn Nets (13)
It may not ease the sting, but at least Brooklyn can view its five-game ouster as a positive step in a larger process.
"We understand where we are," head coach Kenny Atkinson told Michael Scotto of The Athletic. "Yes, we're pleased with improving and being a better team from last year, and making the playoffs, but we understand the level where the Sixers are—that's a long ways away."
The Nets got a breakout performance from Caris LeVert, who averaged 21.0 points, 4.6 rebounds and 3.0 assists with a 57.5 effective field-goal percentage. For much of the series, he was Brooklyn's best player.
D'Angelo Russell, a restricted free agent, wants to stick with the Nets. But with LeVert on the rise and Spencer Dinwiddie under contract at a bargain rate, Brooklyn can approach Russell's free agency with leverage that goes beyond its matching rights on any offer sheet Russell signs.
12. Oklahoma City Thunder (14)
Russell Westbrook shot 36 percent from the field, antagonized the media on a national stage and talked enough mess to irritate Damian Lillard. In the end, that trifecta produced Oklahoma City's third straight first-round exit—this one in just five games at the hands of a Portland Trail Blazers team playing without starting center Jusuf Nurkic.
If Paul George's shoulder hadn't been barking, and if the Thunder had a single reliable shooter among its role players, maybe things would have been different. But Westbrook is the franchise cornerstone, its purported superstar. And now this makes three consecutive postseasons in which he's shot under 40 percent from the field and failed to channel his intensity into winning play.
He's got to wear this one.
For ranking purposes, we bumped OKC up two spots because it took one game from the Blazers and came within a Lillard dagger of forcing overtime in another. The Magic and Nets lost more decisively.
11. Utah Jazz (9)
It seems like the Jazz overthought this one.
After holding the Rockets to a 99.0 offensive rating during the regular season, the lowest of any team to play Houston at least three times, Utah sold out in copying the Milwaukee Bucks' aggressive scheme for defending James Harden.
Harden diced up the Jazz early in the first round, accepting the open path into the lane Utah allowed and then either finding uncovered shooters in the corners or hitting Clint Capela for lobs. By the time the Jazz relaxed with the gimmicks and tightened up their help rotations in Game 3, it was too late.
That said, the Jazz didn't lose this series on defense. They lost it because they couldn't hit a shot to save their lives. Utah got plenty of good looks. It averaged 11.4 corner three attempts for the series, most among playoff teams, but converted only 21 percent of them. That accuracy rate, as you'd expect, ranks dead last in the postseason.
Utah hit just 23.6 percent of its threes when no defender was within six feet, and Donovan Mitchell couldn't buy a bucket from anywhere.
Ricky Rubio played well in Wednesday's decisive Game 5 loss, but when he air-balled an uncontested three from the left wing that could have given Utah the lead with 1:09 left in the fourth quarter, it was a perfect microcosm of the series.
So if you catch people lamenting Utah's defensive failings against Houston, kindly point them toward the real reason this series ended in just five games.
10. San Antonio Spurs
Last Week: 7
If the Spurs could have defused Jamal Murray's fourth-quarter explosion in Game 2, we might already be analyzing matchups between San Antonio and Portland for the second round. But Murray did detonate, preventing San Antonio from taking the first two contests in Denver.
San Antonio recovered from that disappointment to win Game 3 at home behind a breakout 36-point night from Derrick White, seizing a 2-1 lead—which it promptly relinquished with a 117-103 loss in Game 4. Of course, the Spurs refused to die after they dropped Games 4 and 5 by double digits, securing a Game 6 win Thursday night.
Even if San Antonio can't measure up to the tall task of winning another game in Denver, where the Nuggets posted the regular season's best home record, it has already done more than should be reasonably expected of a No. 7 seed.
And win or lose, the Spurs can take something vital away from their first-round performance. White looked like a star more than once, and the thought of teaming him with a healthy Dejounte Murray all but ensures that the league's best defensive backcourt will be in San Antonio next year.
9. Los Angeles Clippers
Last Week: 10
The Los Angeles Clippers' postseason will be remembered for more than that record-setting 31-point comeback against the Warriors in Game 2 last week, after another win in Oakland in Game 5.
L.A. took it to Golden State on Wednesday night, claiming a 129-121 victory behind 33 points from Lou Williams and 24 from Montrezl Harrell. Those two have punished the Dubs all series. If the Warriors failed by looking ahead to a potential second-round meeting with the Houston Rockets, the Clippers succeeded by staying in the moment.
Golden State has had long stretches of dominance during the series, which you'd expect from a top seed. But the Clippers' resilience has been striking. A Warriors series win still feels like a certainty, but there's a good chance that if Golden State fails to win its third straight title, we'll look back on this matchup as the one that should have set off alarm bells.
Both the Warriors and Clippers could look very different next year, and that's a shame. This is the kind of renewed rivalry the league needs.
8. Denver Nuggets
Last Week: 11
The Nuggets needed Jamal Murray's fourth-quarter heroics to avoid what would have been a devastating loss in Game 2 last week, and they seemed to steady themselves after that close call, taking a 3-2 series lead, which was highlighted by a Game 4 win in San Antonio.
That victory was a bigger deal than it seemed, as Denver hadn't won a road game against the Spurs since 2012.
As you'd expect from a team led by so many playoff newbies, though, the Nuggets haven't played well consistently.
You could see signs of Denver's overall superiority during Game 5, when it held a lead that grew to 30 points late in the contest. Defensively, the Nuggets also flexed in that Tuesday win, holding the Spurs to just 90 points and an effective field-goal rate of 45 percent.
But the young Nuggets couldn't slam the door, falling 120-103 in Game 6 on Thursday.
Gary Harris has been a quiet star, head coach Mike Malone wisely turned to Torrey Craig as the starting small forward over Will Barton in Game 4, and Nikola Jokic has produced across the board, comfortably leading Denver in points, rebounds and assists. His 43 points on Thursday were a franchise playoff record.
The Nuggets haven't exactly put concerns about their inexperience to bed, but they can still advance if they put things together at home in Game 7.
7. Philadelphia 76ers
Last Week: 8
We didn't get much new information from the Philadelphia 76ers' 4-1 elimination of the Nets.
Among the regular-season angles confirmed against Brooklyn:
- Joel Embiid's presence on the floor coincided with dominant Philadelphia play (see: plus-24.0 net rating in 97 minutes—versus a minus-0.4 when Embiid sat).
- Ben Simmons' lack of a jumper makes him far less dangerous in the half court.
- The Sixers' lack of a quality defender against ball-handling guards is still a problem.
- JJ Redick remains a target for every opponent's pick-and-roll.
See? Nothing groundbreaking there.
The Sixers will see a locked-in Raptors team in the second round—one outfitted with a plethora of wing defenders to throw at Simmons and much better options—Marc Gasol and Serge Ibaka—with which to bother Embiid.
More important than anything else, though, the Sixers have to hope Embiid, who appears out of shape and limited by that sore left knee, is healthy enough to compete at peak levels. Toronto isn't Brooklyn; Embiid will have to be at his best.
6. Boston Celtics
Last Week: 6
Not all sweeps are the same, so Boston doesn't move up after sending the overmatched Pacers home in four games.
Indy didn't have the firepower to score against a sturdy Celtics defense, but it comported itself admirably on the other end. From Boston's perspective, there were still positive signs on offense. Kyrie Irving lived up to his reputation as an elite shot-maker, and he was frequently the Celtics' only source of reliable scoring. Boston should also be encouraged that Jayson Tatum shot lights-out, hitting over half his shots from the field and from three-point range.
This is now two years in a row where his playoff numbers look better than the ones he produced in the regular season. There are worse reputations to have than "dude who steps up when games matter more."
Indiana couldn't push a Boston team that struggled with consistency and chemistry all year.
The Bucks will.
5. Portland Trail Blazers
Last Week: 5
For those of you in the "well, actually" crowd claiming Damian Lillard's 37-foot sweep-clinching bomb might not have actually come from quite that deep, I have a question: How’s it feel to not like fun things?
You know what I think? I think Dame's dagger came from even farther out. I think he hit it from, oh, let's say 95 feet. That's correct: He shot it from out of bounds on the opposite baseline. It took the ball 30 seconds to travel that distance, the whole thing happened in slow motion and a choir of angels sang hymns while the ball arced majestically, bathed in a celestial glow.
That's how it all felt, anyway.
Lillard's performance, capped by his game-winner on a 50-point night in Tuesday's Game 5 win, has to stand out as the postseason's best story. Sure, the Thunder were deeply flawed and led by a primary ball-handler who not only couldn't hit a jumper but also antagonized Lillard to his own team's detriment. But the Blazers just dismissed an OKC squad many expected would upset the West's No. 3 seed—and they did it without starting center Jusuf Nurkic.
Maybe this was a perfect storm. Maybe Lillard won't play this well again without Westbrook egging him on. Maybe the Thunder were just caught in a terrible matchup.
Or maybe Lillard and the Blazers are better than anyone thought.
4. Golden State Warriors
Last Week: 3
Thanks to a defensive no-show in Wednesday's 129-121 Game 5 loss to the Clippers, the Warriors will now have to push through (at least) a sixth game in the first round. As a result, it feels more logical than ever to wonder how healthy the defending champs really are. Not physically, of course, but in the metaphorical sense.
At some point, we have to start viewing the Warriors' frequent failings in focus and effort as more signal than noise. For the last half-decade, we've excused bouts of defensive inattention and careless offensive play as fatigue, as symptoms of boredom.
Those underlying causes may be legitimate, but symptoms that linger this long have to be considered the result of a disease. And diseases, if left untreated, tend to get worse.
There's no questioning Golden State's talent. Kevin Durant drops 45 points whenever he wants to. Stephen Curry is still the universe's greatest shooter. Klay Thompson and Draymond Green are A-list role players, guys who can control games on both ends.
But after watching the Warriors blow that 31-point lead last week, and after seeing them fail again to defend against the eighth-seeded Clippers' second unit, it sure seems like Golden State is feeling the effects of a serious ailment.
The Clippers are the softest opponent the Warriors will face as they pursue their third straight title, so the Dubs had better find a cure fast.
3. Toronto Raptors
Last Week: 4
Only the Bucks' first-round net rating was better than Toronto's plus-15.7, and though the Raptors needed five games to finish off the Magic, the series was never in doubt.
Positive signs abounded as Toronto warmed up against a solid Orlando defense. Kawhi Leonard imposed his will against all comers, averaging 27.8 points on a 55.6/53.8/89.3 shooting split, while Pascal Siakam notched two double-doubles, logged three games with at least 24 points and hit at least half his shots in all five contests.
Marc Gasol handled Nikola Vucevic well, helping limit the All-Star to 11.2 points per game on 36.2 percent shooting. That augurs well for Gasol's impending duties guarding Joel Embiid in the second round.
At this point, if you're uncertain about the Raptors as legitimate title threats, you're basing it on history—history that doesn't include Leonard, Gasol or this version of Siakam. If Kyle Lowry goes 0-of-7 against the Sixers in Game 1, let's all agree not to panic this time.
These Raptors aren't those Raptors.
2. Houston Rockets
Last Week: 1
If Donovan Mitchell hadn't shot under 40 percent in four of his five games against Houston, missing potentially series-altering looks more than once in big moments, it's possible the Rockets would be heading to Salt Lake City for Game 6.
But Houston deserves at least some of the credit for holding Mitchell down in a 4-1 series win, and there's really no question that Utah's resume was strongest among eliminated teams. The Jazz tied for the second-best record and had the third-best net rating in the league after Jan. 1. When you're comparing teams over relatively small playoff samples, strength of opponent is a factor.
James Harden had a down series by his standards, shooting just 37.4 percent from the field and 35.0 percent from three while turning it over 5.6 times per game and getting to the line less often than he did during the regular season. But he still triggered everything that worked well for the Rockets, and he held up physically through five games of intense defensive focus.
It felt like Eric Gordon hit every big three he attempted, finishing the series with a sparkling 48.6 percent conversion rate from deep, and Clint Capela should look better in the second round as he gets further removed from a pair of respiratory illnesses that limited him against Utah.
The Rockets weren't perfect by any stretch, but they vanquished a tough opponent in five games. And the league looks no closer to a true answer for Harden's offensive brilliance.
1. Milwaukee Bucks
Last Week: 2
With most of the first-round dust settled, we had to move Milwaukee back into the top spot. Although they faced the postseason's weakest opponent, the Bucks get points for turning in the ultimate "take care of business" effort.
They pulverized Detroit by 23.8 points per game, and as a result of those blowout margins, Giannis Antetokounmpo only had to log 28.3 minutes per contest, 4.5 under his regular-season average.
The Warriors are having way too much trouble with the Clippers, the Rockets struggled to score after Utah settled its defense, and the Raptors lost a game. Lined up that way, there's really no credible argument to slot anyone above the dominant Bucks.
Through one round of the playoffs, Milwaukee has done nothing but bolster the case it built through 82 regular-season games. It still looks like the league's best team.