NBA Power Rankings: LA Lakers Staying Afloat, Clippers Quietly Streaking
The top of the NBA power rankings has experienced quite the shake-up this week. A couple of Western Conference teams made a run into the top three while some of the Eastern Conference power teams took some bad losses.
It is “standings watch” in the NBA as teams go into the home stretch of the season. Each game takes on a whole new level of importance when jockeying for playoff or play-in tournament positioning. How far back and ahead teams are in the standings will be a topic of conversation as well as the importance of the season series since that is the first tiebreaker.
The criteria for the power rankings are based on how teams played last week, who they beat and where their season is heading after the week.
30. Houston Rockets
Last Week’s Rankings: 29th
After missing the previous four games, John Wall came back with a vengeance with a 31-point, seven-assist performance to help the Rockets in a win over the Mavericks. That win snapped a five-game losing streak for Houston. Unfortunately, Wall missed the following game, which resulted in a loss.
It has been an injury-riddled season for the Rockets. Wall has missed 19 games, and Eric Gordon is out with a groin strain and has played just 27 games this year. Only Jae’Sean Tate has played every game for Houston.
Christian Wood missed several games with a high ankle sprain and has not been the same since he returned. In the 13 games he has played, his three-point percentage has been just 30.2 percent.
With so many games lost to injuries, it is not a surprise that the Rockets have one of the worst records in the NBA.
29. Minnesota Timberwolves
Last Week’s Rankings: 28th
It was a big week for the Wolves, as they got D’Angelo Russell (knee surgery) back from a 26-game absence. Minnesota picked up a win in his first game back with him dropping 25 points against the Kings.
For the week Russell averaged 23.8 points on 47.7 percent shooting and 41.4 percent from three while giving out 5.0 assists. With the playoffs out of the picture, it will be most important for the Wolves to get some chemistry to develop between Russell, Karl-Anthony Towns and Anthony Edwards.
Off the court, Minnesota made some news. It appears the team is close to being sold to a group headed by Alex Rodriguez and Marc Lore.
28. Cleveland Cavaliers
Last Week’s Rankings: 30th
Cleveland started the week by snapping its five-game losing streak with wins over San Antonio and Oklahoma City by an average of 25.5 points. Over the week, Darius Garland stepped up his game, averaging 25.7 points and 6.7 assists while shooting 53.7 percent from the field and 45.8 percent from three.
However, the week ended with several guys out with injuries against the Pelicans. Collin Sexton was out with a groin strain, Garland with an ankle injury and Larry Nance Jr. with a non-COVID illness.
Kevin Love and Matthew Dellavedova had flashback games in the loss to New Orleans. Love connected on five threes on his way to 19 points, and Dellavedova handed out 10 assists.
With two wins for the week, Cleveland climbed out of the power rankings basement.
27. Orlando Magic
Last Week’s Rankings: 27th
The Magic have fallen into a five-game losing streak, with the defeats coming by an average of 22.6 points per game. They are in full tank mode. They are a game-and-a-half away from being one of the bottom three to improve their odds for the No. 1 pick this year.
Orlando is also able to get an up-close view at Wendall Carter Jr. In his eight games as a member of the Magic, he is averaging 13.3 points, 8.4 rebounds and 1.3 blocks while shooting 55.4 percent from the field. There is plenty of raw potential for Steve Clifford to work with.
Orlando is on a fact-finding mission the rest of season to figure out who is going to be a part of its future.
26. Oklahoma City Thunder
Last Week’s Rankings: 23rd
The Thunder have gone 1-9 in their last 10 games and have lost their last six. The games have not been close. Oklahoma City still has a lot of losing to do to get into the bottom three for the best lottery odds.
Despite all the losses, two Thunder rookies have stood out over the 10 games. Theo Maledon and Aleksej Pokusevski have been Oklahoma City’s top scorers over that stretch. Maledon has averaged 15.8 points and 4.7 rebounds a game. Pokusevski has put up 13.8 points and shot 38.2 percent from three.
Unfortunately, Pokusevski had to leave the Thunder’s game against the Sixers with arm soreness. Hopefully, he will not miss too much time so as not to stunt the developmental gains he made over the last few weeks.
25. Washington Wizards
Last Week’s Rankings: 26th
Last week was the start of a six-game road trip for the Wizards. Four games into the trip, Washington has gone 2-2, including a nice win over Golden State. The Wizards only got two games from Bradley Beal, who is dealing with a variety of injuries, which forced him to miss their loss to the Suns.
Without Beal in the lineup, Washington averaged just 103.5 points last week. It lost a heartbreaker at the buzzer to the Raptors on a Gary Trent Jr. game-winner. Against Phoenix, the Wizards only had three scorers in double figures as they lost by 28.
24. Detroit Pistons
Last Week’s Rankings: 25th
Detroit had a challenging week with a five-game, seven-day West Coast road trip. It did snag two wins in blowout fashion over Oklahoma City and Sacramento but got killed against the stiffer competition before finishing the trip with a close loss to the Los Angeles Clippers.
Jerami Grant made his first return to Denver with a 29-point performance in a loss. Then he sat out the rest of the trip with a knee injury.
The Pistons may be without their best player and not winning many games this year, but they are continuing to fight. Josh Jackson and Saddiq Bey put up 26 and 25 points, respectively, against the Clippers in a game the Pistons led heading into the fourth quarter. However, Detroit’s downfall was on defense as Los Angeles shot 62.5 percent from the field.
23. Toronto Raptors
Last Week’s Rankings: 24th
It was a very busy week for the Raptors with five games in seven days. It did not help matters that DeAndre’ Bembry and Fred VanVleet were both suspended a game for an altercation that happened in their loss to the Lakers. Add that to the list of Toronto players who missed games last week.
Chris Boucher had a big week, dropping 18.2 points, 9.6 rebounds and 2.4 blocks, including a 38-point, 19-rebound outburst against the Bulls. It was a good sign as he had run into a wall, and the team is going to need him to sustain this level of play.
The playoff hopes for the Raptors drift further away with each loss, and the Chicago loss specifically hurts, as that is the team they are chasing for the final play-in spot. They need to take advantage of their upcoming five-game homestand to make up some ground.
22. Sacramento Kings
Last Week’s Rankings: 22nd
All of the gains the Kings made in their five-game winning streak have gone out the window and then some with their current six-game losing streak. Only one of those losses was a close game; the rest were by double digits.
Even though De’Aaron Fox is leading the Kings in scoring during the losing streak, he has not been as efficient as he normally is. He is shooting 41.9 percent from the field, a stark drop from his 47.8 percent for the season.
Even though Sacramento is not completely out of the play-in picture, it will have an uphill climb considering how bad its defense has been. The Kings have been dead last in defensive rating nearly the whole season.
21. New Orleans Pelicans
Last Week’s Rankings: 21st
The Pelicans got Zion Williamson back after he missed three games. He nearly dropped a triple-double in New Orleans’ big win over Philadelphia. Williamson fell just two assists short of his first career triple-double. He put up 37 points, 15 rebounds and eight assists. Williamson followed that with a 38-point, nine-rebound performance against the Cavs.
Shooting was a big issue for the Pelicans last week, as they connected on 26.1 percent of their threes. Over the week, no one shot better than 33.3 percent from three with at least one attempt per game. New Orleans is not as dependent on the three-point shot as other teams, but 26.1 percent will not net it a lot of wins.
The Pelicans finished the week by pulling out a win against the Cavs to go 2-2 last week. They are still within striking distance to sneak into the play-in tournament, but the margin of error is very thin.
20. San Antonio Spurs
Last Week’s Rankings: 17th
San Antonio is barely holding onto its spot in the play-in tournament after going on a five-game losing streak. Shooting has been a real problem during this run for the Spurs. Derrick White has shot just 30.4 percent while Patty Mills has connected on just 29.4 percent from downtown.
San Antonio will finish its five-game road trip heading East with games against the Magic and Raptors. After snapping their losing streak against the Mavs, the Spurs can make up some ground against those teams this week.
19. Chicago Bulls
Last Week’s Rankings: 20th
After beating Brooklyn, Chicago tacked on two more wins to go on a three-game winning streak. An encouraging sign is how well the pairing of Nikola Vucevic and Zach LaVine played. The tandem has combined for 53.0 points per outing during the last five games with Vucevic grabbing 10.2 rebounds and LaVine dishing out 7.0 dimes.
Besides the two top stars balling, the Bulls got some great play from Tomas Satoransky, who averaged 7.4 assists during this five-game run. They had six players average double figures, as they scored 115 points per game overall.
Unfortunately, they ended the week on a two-game losing streak. Even with LaVine dropping 50 points against the Hawks, they just were not able to keep up.
18. Indiana Pacers
Last Week’s Rankings: 19th
With injuries beginning to stack up, the Pacers could be in real trouble in their attempt to secure a top-six seed. Domantas Sabonis, Malcolm Brogdon and Myles Turner were in and out of the lineup last week. The injuries did not stop them from ripping off a three-game winning streak.
Caris LeVert carried the load all week. He put up 20.8 points and shot 53.0 percent from the field. His game against the Grizzlies was by far his best as a Pacer. He scored 34 points and went 14-of-20 from the field.
This winning streak keeps Indiana’s hopes of making the playoffs without having to go through the play-in tournament alive, but the upcoming schedule will make it hard. The Pacers will face off with the Clippers before hitting the road for a three-game road trip.
17. Golden State Warriors
Last Week’s Rankings: 18th
The Warriors started the week with a big win over the Bucks behind a 41-point Stephen Curry explosion. Golden State went 2-1 for the week with Curry going completely nuclear, averaging 37.0 points while connecting on 48.6 percent of his threes.
The bad news for the Warriors is that James Wiseman had to exit their win against the Rockets with a knee injury. After an MRI, Shams Charania of The Athletic and Stadium reported that he tore the meniscus in his right knee. That might be the end of Wiseman’s rookie season.
The timing of the injury is pretty tough for Golden State. The Warriors will start a five-game road trip next week that includes big games against the Celtics and Sixers with only Kevon Looney on the roster as a center.
16. Memphis Grizzlies
Last Week’s Rankings:16th
The Grizzlies are trying to break into the playoffs and have jumped into the eighth seed after the last week. Memphis exploded offensively, averaging 127.3 points during the run while shooting 41.2 percent from three.
Jonas Valanciunas led the Grizzlies in scoring with 23.3 points and 14.3 rebounds last week. In their loss to Indiana, he had 34 points and 22 rebounds. Dillon Brooks continued his hot scoring run with 20.3 points on 48.0 three-point shooting.
Memphis is squarely in the play-in race but needs to bank some wins. The end of this week is the start of a seven-game road trip for Grizzlies that could make or break them.
15. New York Knicks
Last Week’s Rankings: 15th
The Knicks lost their first two games of the week but finished it off winning two straight. All four games went down to the final minute, with the losses against the Nets and Celtics both by just two points.
It took overtime for the Knicks to put away the Grizzlies, and then they survived a late onslaught by the Raptors. All of these games are growing opportunities for many of New York’s young guys.
One area of optimism for the Knicks has to be the play of second-year guard RJ Barrett over the last eight games. He has been New York’s second-leading scorer at 17.9 points and has hit 58.3 percent of his threes, averaging 4.5 attempts. After all the struggles last season, it is a good sign that he has acclimated to Tom Thibodeau’s system.
14. Charlotte Hornets
Last Week’s Rankings: 13th
Despite all the injuries, the Hornets went 2-1 last week. They nearly went 3-0, but Terry Rozier missed a shot down the stretch against Atlanta that would have put them ahead.
Part of the reason they’ve stayed afloat has been Miles Bridges' sensational play. He averaged 21.7 points and shot 40.9 percent from three last week. Terry Rozier continued his solid form, putting up 18.3 points.
On Sunday, the injury bug bit again, as P.J. Washington had to leave their loss to Atlanta with a ankle sprain. An extended absence would be the last thing Charlotte needs.
13. Portland Trail Blazers
Last Week’s Rankings: 9th
It was a rough week for the team in the Pacific Northwest. The Blazers went 1-3 and they were not even close in their defeats, losing by an average of 15 points. Their hold on the sixth seed is slipping with Dallas now just 1 ½ games behind.
The Blazers struggled with their shot from deep last week, shooting just 32.4 from three. They went as their star went as Damian Lillard had an off week not just from three but from the field, shooting just 33.8 percent. Teams have continued to constantly throw double-teams at him while daring other Blazers to beat them.
Portland will need to find ways to get its supporting cast going. More importantly, the Blazers need to figure out how to get Lillard cleaner looks against aggressive defenses.
12. Boston Celtics
Last Week’s Rankings: 14th
The Celtics were very sloppy with the ball last week, as they averaged 18.5 turnovers per game. Despite that, Boston went 3-1, moving ever so close to the sixth seed.
A big reason the Celtics were able to overcome their sloppiness was that Jayson Tatum went off offensively. He averaged 31.5 points with 48.8/38.9/96.6 shooting splits. This also included Tatum going for a career-high 53 points in Boston’s overtime win over the Wolves.
The week ended with a great come-from-behind win in Denver to start Boston’s three-game West Coast swing. The Celtics went on a 31-3 run in the second half to secure their biggest win of the year.
11. Atlanta Hawks
Last Week’s Rankings: 12th
The Hawks were on fire from three in their game against New Orleans. They went 20-of-31, including a perfect 11-of-11 in the third quarter. They finished the week shooting 43.2 percent from three. Bogdan Bogdanovic is in a groove right now, hitting at least three threes in seven of the Hawks' last eight games.
It has been 20 games since Nate McMillan took over the Hawks. They have gone 15-5 under him. They are averaging 113.9 points a game, shooting 39.8 percent from three. That has coincided with a good run of health, as Bogdanovic played all 20 games, Trae Young played 18 and Danilo Gallinari played 17.
With the coaching change and good health, the Hawks have vaulted into the race for home court in the playoffs.
10. Dallas Mavericks
Last Week’s Rankings: 8th
The Mavericks’ loss to the Rockets dropped them a few spots, but they were able to stay in the top 10 of the rankings for winning six of their last eight games. They are just 1.5 games behind the Blazers to work their way out of the play-in tournament.
As potent as the Mavs offense is, it has been their defense that has been carrying them. They have a defensive rating of 105.2 over the last eight games. Kristaps Porzingis has been stellar as the backbone of the defense, averaging 1.8 blocks in that span.
With Luka Doncic at the helm, the Mavs offense can explode at a moment’s notice. But if the defense comes together, then Dallas has a chance to do some big things in the playoffs.
9. Miami Heat
Last Week’s Rankings: 11th
Victor Oladipo was just beginning to find his groove with the Heat until he suffered a knee injury against the Lakers. Miami announced he would not accompany the team on its four-game West Coast trip.
A big key for Miami has been the shooting streaks of Tyler Herro. When he has it going, it gives the Heat an extra boost and makes it difficult to cover all their shooters. When he struggles, defenses can shrink the court.
The Heat have gone 6-1 over the last seven games and started their West Coast swing with a big win over the Blazers. Next up for them will be matchups against the Suns and Nuggets. Wins against those squads could significantly boost the confidence of the Heat.
8. Los Angeles Lakers
Last Week’s Rankings: 10th
Staying afloat is the name of the game for the Lakers while they wait for LeBron James and Anthony Davis to come back from their injuries. Los Angeles is on a seven-game road trip (granted one of the games was against the Clippers in LA) and is 3-2 so far on it.
To add to the degree of difficulty of this trip, the Lakers lost Kyle Kuzma to a calf strain before the Miami game. Then Wes Matthews was a late scratch before their game against Brooklyn. The Lakers went 19-34 from three en route to a 25-point win over the Nets.
So far, the Lakers have gone 5-6 without their star tandem, and there is hope they may be returning soon. ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski reported that Davis could return to the court in the next 10 to 14 days and that James is expected to be about three weeks away.
7. Milwaukee Bucks
Last Week’s Rankings: 4th
The Bucks went on a three-game losing streak and have been without Giannis Antetokounmpo for the last five games. Milwaukee’s third loss was not a surprise as Jrue Holiday, Khris Middleton, Donte DiVincenzo and Brook Lopez all sat out.
This recent run has the Bucks losing ground on both the Nets and Sixers. But they have banked enough wins that they are not in a position to fall lower than third. There may be some panic setting in among fans, but the Bucks are in a good position to take their time with Antetokounmpo’s return.
With all those losses, though, they dropped out of the top five of the rankings.
6. Philadelphia 76ers
Last Week’s Rankings: 6th
Philadelphia is three games into a four-game road trip, going 2-1 last week. The good news is Joel Embiid played in all three games, including a back-to-back set to end the week. But he is still rounding into shape, especially from deep, as he shot just 10 percent from three.
The Sixers are in a neck-and-neck race with the Nets for the top seed in the Eastern Conference. Having a lackluster effort, as they did in their game against the Pelicans, can cost them the chance at having home court for the first three rounds of the playoffs.
This week will bring a challenging set of games, as Philly concludes its road trip in Dallas, then faces off with Brooklyn and then ends the week with the Clippers. The Sixers will need everyone to sharpen up to go 3-0.
5. Utah Jazz
Last Week’s Rankings: 1st
For just the third time this season, the Jazz lost two games in a row. They dropped games against Dallas and Phoenix before rebounding against Portland and Sacramento. A bigger concern is the poor three-point-shooting run the team is on.
Last week, the Jazz shot 29.4 percent from three with four guys shooting below 30 percent (minimum three attempts). In particular, Jordan Clarkson has been struggling with his shot since the All-Star break. He is shooting 30.1 percent from three since the break, down from 37.0 percent before it.
Even though the Jazz ended the week with two big wins, the two losses are why they gave up the top seat in the rankings.
4. Brooklyn Nets
Last Week’s Rankings: 2nd
Brooklyn got Kevin Durant back last week, and he has not missed a beat, even on a minutes restriction. In his two-game return, he averaged 19.5 points on 59.1 percent shooting from the field and 50.0 percent from three to go with seven rebounds and five assists.
So far this season, the Nets’ Big Three has only played 186 minutes together. James Harden tried to come back from his hamstring strain early in the week only to aggravate it. He will be re-evaluated toward the end of this week, so the world will have to wait a bit longer.
The Nets would have regained their spot on top of the rankings had they not gotten blown out by the Lakers at home. Even without James Harden and Kyrie Irving getting ejected in the third quarter, that was a bad loss.
3. Denver Nuggets
Last Week’s Rankings: 5th
The Nuggets were poised to be the No. 1 team in this week’s rankings, but giving up a 31-3 run on Sunday to have their eight-game winning streak snapped kept them from the top two. Jamal Murray has missed the past four games with knee soreness, including the Boston loss to end the week.
During the winning streak, Denver had the best offensive rating and third-best net rating in the league. Nikola Jokic nearly averaged a triple-double with 22.9 points, 10.0 assists and 9.0 rebounds. He has become the MVP front-runner with the team climbing up the standings.
Even though the Nuggets gave the Boston game away, having an eight-game winning streak was enough to get them in the top three of the rankings.
2. Phoenix Suns
Last Week’s Rankings: 3rd
Phoenix had a big slate of games last week, facing the Jazz and Clippers. The Suns went to overtime with Utah and pulled out a win. Then their seven-game winning streak was snapped against the Clippers. They rebounded with a win over the Wizards to finish the week 3-1.
Having Chris Paul can be a big advantage in clutch situations, and it showed last week. He averaged 18.5 points, with 6.8 coming in the fourth quarter. Having a steady and experienced clutch player like Paul will pay off in the playoffs.
Deandre Ayton accepted the challenge of taking on Rudy Gobert in the Suns’ matchup against the Jazz. Ayton finished with 18 points, 12 rebounds and three blocks. If this is the type of play they get from Ayton come playoff time, it will raise their ceiling.
1. Los Angeles Clippers
Last Week’s Rankings: 7th
The Clippers have quietly strung together a five-game winning streak, winning by an average of 13.8 points while shooting 48.5 percent from three and scoring 121.4 points per game. Their game against the Pistons was not pretty, but with Kawhi Leonard sitting out for rest, the Clippers were able to hold for the win.
The Clippers' top players have lived up to their star billing. Paul George led the way this week, scoring 29.3 points and shooting an eye-popping 59.3 percent from three. Leonard scored 26.5 points while grabbing eight boards and handing out seven assists.
LA’s win over Phoenix carries major weight as it gave the Clippers the season series and with it the tiebreaker should that come into play at the end of the regular season.
The schedule gets challenging for LA, though, as seven of the Clippers’ next 10 games will be on the road.