The “Dog Days” of the regular season: DGS NBA Power Rankings
Another wild week has gone by in the NBA. Who are some of the hottest teams in the league right now? Who should be looking towards the lottery? Read on and find out!
- Golden State Warriors (36-9) (Last week’s ranking: 1) – Cold water in the showers at Quicken Loans arena isn’t going to stop the Warriors, who have won three games in a row and also swept the season series against the Cavs. The Dubs have won 13 straight road games and have padded their conference lead to 4.5 games over the Rockets, who have struggled mightily without James Harden in the lineup. It doesn’t matter who is on the floor for the Warriors. The team comes to play every single night, and it’s not just the stars. Jordan Bell looks like he will be a part of the future in Oakland, and Nick Young appears to be completely rejuvenated. As of the publishing of these rankings, Golden State remains the only team in the NBA with single-digit losses with nine.
- Houston Rockets (30-12) (Last week’s ranking: 2) – Monday’s loss to the Clippers in Los Angeles was the boiling point for the Rockets, who allegedly barged into the Clippers’ locker room after the game in an attempt to confront Blake Griffin and Austin Rivers. It was a sour homecoming for Rockets point guard Chris Paul, who was booed every time he touched the basketball. He was also involved in the locker room confrontation that took place after the game, along with James Harden, Trevor Ariza and Gerald Green. Clippers staff members and security ushered the Rockets’ players from the room before things could escalate any further, but the NBA will look into the incident and suspensions could be brought down hard on Houston, who is expecting Harden back this week after a seven-game absence due to a hamstring injury.
- Boston Celtics (34-10) (Last week’s ranking: 3) – The Celtics are riding high. They have entrenched themselves atop the East. They have a four-game lead over the Raptors and seven-and-a-half game lead over the Cavaliers. The schedule has not been the toughest in the league but it does not figure to get much tougher in the second half. They have already played and dispatched many of the top teams in the league and have only played two more home than road games. At this point, they seem like a good bet to have home-court advantage in the Eastern Conference. To top it off, Gordon Hayward has ditched the brace and has Celtics fans thinking his return might come this regular season.
- Cleveland Cavaliers (26-17) (Last week’s ranking: 4) – A demoralizing week for the Cavaliers ended with a loss to the Golden State Warriors. Isaiah Thomas was overmatched and out of sync in the game. In the arena, hope turned to dread when IT shot the ball. Jae Crowder is below 40 percent from the field and shooting around 30 percent from three. If those two players cannot improve their play, there will be much bigger consequences than losing the trade. The players on the team are allegedly growing upset while Irving thrives in Boston. The trade seemed like a success but if Irving ends up being the final piece of a Boston dynasty that ends LeBron James’ second reign as Cleveland monarch then it will become another in a list of Cleveland sports disappointments.
- Toronto Raptors (29-13) (Last week’s ranking: 5) – The Raptors need to prove it in April, May, and June rather than January. That said, they are showing their claws as they continue to dominate. They have the best point differential in the Eastern Conference. Moreover, the difference in point differential between them and the rival Cavaliers is larger than the gap between the Cavs and the Eastern Conference cellar dwelling Orlando Magic. DeMar DeRozan is set to be an all-star in the most recent round of voting but Kyle Lowry might get left off. That speaks to the level of Raptor fatigue that has struck the NBA this season. Toronto will have to prove itself in order for this to garner the respect they deserve. What else is new?
- Minnesota Timberwolves (29-16) (Last week’s ranking: 7) – Winners of five straight, the Timberwolves are the one team capitalizing on James Harden’s hamstring injury. They head into Tuesday’s games tied with the Spurs for third place in the West, and they seamlessly integrated Jeff Teague back into their lineup after a seven-game absence. Minnesota has not been this many games over .500 since Kevin Garnett’s initial stint with the team. They are clicking on all cylinders and should not make any drastic moves at the trade deadline. Rumors surfaced last week that the Clippers offered Blake Griffin to the Timberwolves in exchange for Karl Anthony Towns. If I’m Minnesota, that is a blockbuster trade I am staying far away from. If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.
- San Antonio Spurs (29-16) (Last week’s ranking: 6) – It’s been a rough stretch lately for the Spurs, who appear to be in a midseason swoon. Kawhi Leonard was diagnosed with a partial tear in his left shoulder last week, but he has ultimately decided to play through it. He did not play during Monday’s loss to the lowly Hawks. Manu Ginobili also exited the game during the first quarter with a thigh contusion. The one brightspot this season for San Antonio has been the play of LaMarcus Aldridge, who notched his 18th double-double of the season against Atlanta. He now has as many double-doubles this season as he did all of last year. With James Harden sidelined in Houston, the Spurs have not been able to make up any ground in the Western Conference standings. They are currently tied with Minnesota for third place, over three games back of Houston to second.
- Oklahoma City Thunder (24-20) (Last week’s ranking: 8) – The Thunder look to be in a nice, little groove now. They are currently four games over .500 and are beginning to gain some separation from the logjam of teams at the bottom of the Western Conference playoff picture. Only one and a half games are currently separating the fifth and ninth place teams in the West, but the Thunder are looking like a good bet to continue playing basketball in May. Russell Westbrook was ejected from Monday’s win over the Kings just one assist shy of his 15th triple-double of the season, drawing the ire of Carmelo Anthony. The relationship between players and NBA officials should be an interesting one moving forward as more players have come out and publicly criticized the referees on several occasions.
- Washington Wizards (25-19) (Last week’s ranking: 9) – Don’t look now but the Wizards could be on a collision course for Round Two with the Celtics. After getting bounced by Boston a year ago, revenge will be on their minds. For now though, Washington needs to focus on keeping themselves in the playoffs. Right now, the Wizards sit a precarious three games above the Philadelphia 76ers who sit in ninth place. While it certainly feels like the Wizards have the talent to crash the Eastern Conference finals, they need to be wary that they take the season a game at a time. If they end up playing one of the top three teams in the first round, it will make it a tough journey for John Wall and company.
- Milwaukee Bucks (23-20) (Last week’s ranking: 10) – Giannis Antetokounmpo should be the MVP. No one has done more for his team this season. Giannis has carried the Bucks on both ends of the floor. He is the team’s best scorer, creator, defender, and rebounder. The Bucks already look like the team everyone will dread facing in the first round of the playoffs if they sit in the lower half of the bracket. In fact, things are getting so easy for him that he is now throwing his passes backwards and between his legs. The next step in his evolution might mean playing more center. So far, Coach Jason Kidd has only played one lineup without a traditional big man for more than 20 minutes and that unit was flammable defensively. When Jabari Parker comes back, he might not have much choice but to experiment so he can get his five best players on the floor.
- Denver Nuggets (22-21) (Last week’s ranking: 12) – Much like the Spurs, the Nuggets are also laboring through the middle of the regular season. Losers of four of their past five games, the Nuggets currently find themselves hanging onto the eighth seed in the Western Conference by a thread over the surging Clippers. Veteran leader Richard Jefferson is attempting to keep the locker room positive, but it’s evident the team is missing star forward Paul Millsap, who has been sidelined since November with a wrist injury. This week, the Nuggets play pivotal games against both the Clippers and Trail Blazers. These three teams look like they will be jockeying for the final two playoff spots in the West, so it would be best for the Nuggets to not take these games lightly.
- Miami Heat (25-18) (Last week’s ranking: 15) – Speaking of great coaching performances, Erik Spolestra has been nothing short of spectacular. There is some trouble brewing on the horizon with talented young center Hassan Whiteside but otherwise, everything has been as perfect as a winter Miami day. It is hard not to notice that all of this success has come while Justise Winslow was out. That mirrors last season where the Heat seemed to come alive once they were able to play lineups without a non shooter. With Bam Adebayo on the roster, it almost feels inevitable that Winslow or Whiteside is going to need to head elsewhere. Could the Heat become active as the trade deadline approaches?
- Indiana Pacers (24-20) (Last week’s ranking: 14) – A name that needs to get some extra buzz for coach of the year is Indiana’s Nate McMillan. Victor Oladipo is clearly the story of the season for Indiana and their most important player but McMillan has done a wonderful job of getting everyone to play together. There are some disparate personalities in this group but McMillan has called upon his experience dealing with some of those in Portland and helped make Lance Stephenson a useful player again. Likewise, Darren Collison is thriving while the Pacers have veterans like Al Jefferson who are providing great minutes in a reduced role. Should the Pacers end up making the playoffs, Oladipo deserves the lion’s share of credit for transforming himself into a star but McMillan should not be far behind for having the ability to give Dipo the reigns and keep everything else in line.
- Los Angeles Clippers (22-21) (Last week’s ranking: 19) – Break up the Clippers! They are currently on a five-game winning streak and have charged back into the playoff picture out West. Blake Griffin is playing like a man possessed, especially after rumors surfaced that the Clippers were looking to flip him to the Timberwolves for Karl Anthony Towns. They did a great job spoiling Chris Paul’s L.A. homecoming, and appear to have shaken off the bad play that plagued them throughout the month of November. They will be duking it out with the Nuggets and Trail Blazers for the final two playoff seeds in the West, but as of right now the Clippers have momentum on their side. Look for them to continue their hot streak with games against the Nuggets, Jazz and Timberwolves this week.
- New Orleans Pelicans (22-20) (Last week’s ranking: 16) – The Pelicans have been playing some solid basketball as of late. Anthony Davis poured in 48 points and grabbed 17 rebounds as the Pelicans came back from a 19-point third quarter deficit to stun the Knicks in overtime on Sunday night. This week, New Orleans hits the road to take on the Celtics, before playing winnable games against the Hawks and Grizzlies. With Davis and DeMarcus Cousins playing at such a high level, it would not surprise me one bit if the Pelicans take over the fifth seed in the West by this time next week.
- Detroit Pistons (22-20) (Last week’s ranking: 11) – The Pistons have really missed Reggie Jackson and their free fall has put them at jeopardy of missing the playoffs entirely. His absence has highlighted their lack of playmakers. Andre Drummond is their only theoretical superstar and he is far from the average. His offense comes largely from put backs and rim runs. In short, when Jackson is not there, the Pistons have trouble getting good looks. Since Jackson went out, their defense has been solid (seventh in the NBA) while their offense has been horrific (26th in the NBA). Jackson has a lot to do with that but so does the lack of starpower around him and Drummond. Much has been made about their strong bench play thus far and it often seems like each player is a cog in the machine just as with San Antonio. The problem for the Pistons has been that Jackson and Drummond are the fuel for the machine so when one of them disappears, the other players lack the ability to do the specific things those two players excel at. Will Stan Van Gundy stand pat or will Stan the GM look to get help for Stan the coach as the trade deadline approaches?
- Portland Trail Blazers (22-21) (Last week’s ranking: 13) – The Trail Blazers are another team struggling as we enter the “dog days” of the NBA regular season. They have lost three in a row, and are currently on the outside looking in of the Western Conference playoff picture. They should benefit from a soft schedule this week. With games against the Suns, Pacers, Mavericks and Nuggets this week, Portland should be able to get back in the win column with relative ease. There are several questions about Portland’s depth at this point in time. We know what both Damian Lillard and C.J. McCollum bring to the table, but who else on this roster will step up and contribute on a nightly basis? Expect general manager Neil Olshey to be very active in the weeks leading up to the trade deadline.
- Philadelphia 76ers (20-20) (Last week’s ranking: 17) – Jason and I mentioned it on the podcast but the 76ers are predictable. They are just as good as Joel Embiid can take them. When Embiid is out, the Sixers can appear more like a lottery team. When he plays, they can beat anyone in the league as they demonstrated again on Tuesday by taking it to the Raptors. The key to sustainable success is going to be a solid third banana. The question is whether the Sixers need to trade for, sign, or develop that player. Markelle Fultz seemed like the guy for the job but he continues to work his way back in a perplexing saga. Until they get one more piece, the 76ers will sit towards the lower half of the Eastern Conference playoff race.
- New York Knicks (20-24) (Last week’s ranking: 18) – The Knicks are falling fast. They are now looking up at the 76ers who are above them in the playoff hunt. A win against Brooklyn (their third in a row this season) helped the Knicks stay victors in the battle for New York but they will have to beat better teams, especially on the road if they want to stay in the hunt. Kristaps Porzingis is doing everything he can but even he cannot carry this team to the playoffs by himself. Whether it is through the draft or in free agency, the Knicks need to get the big Latvian some help.
- Utah Jazz (17-26) (Last week’s ranking: 20) – It’s getting to be too little, too late for the Jazz. After a recent loss to the Pacers, they are one setback short of falling 10 games under .500. This was not the type of season the organization was envisioning back on October, but injuries to several key players have derailed Utah’s season. Now, the focus should shift to whether or not the Jazz should be tanking for a higher draft pick. They are not as bad as some of the teams below them in the standings, but they would definitely benefit from having a top-ten draft pick in June.
- Chicago Bulls (17-27) (Last week’s ranking: 22) – Could the Bulls come back from their horrendous start to make the playoffs? Zach LaVine came back with a vengeance this week and has the Chicago faithful thinking big. The combination of LaVine, Lauri Markkanen, and Nikola Mirotic forms of the the better perimeter scoring trios in the the Eastern Conference. Coach Fred Hoiberg is doing backflips over the amount of shooting he can now put on the floor at the same time. Meanwhile, the development of Kris Dunn could be a major coup for the Bulls who managed to get him on the cheap from Minnesota. If he can continue to improve his shooting stroke, he could be a late blooming point guard a la Mike Conley.
- Brooklyn Nets (16-28) (Last week’s ranking: 21) – D’Angelo Russell is with the G-League and nearing his return. That is the best news we have for the Nets who are 4-6 in their last ten games and struggling without their most talented player. Russell will bring an entirely new dimension to the team when he returns and Jarrett Allen should be a huge beneficiary. No one will get more easy looks than Allen who should be able to live off lobs and put backs once the star point guard gets back in the lineup.
- Charlotte Hornets (17-25) (Last week’s ranking: 23) – It might be too little too late but Kemba Walker and the Hornets have reeled some gutty wins in the past few weeks. Walker has become a tragic figure akin to someone trying to bail water out of a sinking freighter. He is doing his best but there simply is not enough talent around him to get the job done. The mid-40’s win projections are looking sillier by the day and the rotation players for the Hornets continue to show themselves as one-trick ponies. Frank Kaminsky is a solid player but he cannot expand himself beyond his role. Walker needs some help but he probably is not getting it any time soon. Until he does, the Hornets will continue to stay in the bottom half of the East.
- Phoenix Suns (16-28) (Last week’s ranking: 24) – The Suns are a much better team than many pundits expected them to be this season. They currently sit only six and a half games out of the eighth seed in the West, but also only two and a half games from being in last place. The key for Phoenix this season is to continue grooming their young players in hopes of a couple of them becoming stars. The Suns would also directly benefit from trading one of Tyson Chandler or Greg Monroe over the next few weeks to receive something of value in return as well as open up more frontcourt minutes for the young guys.
- Dallas Mavericks (15-29) (Last week’s ranking: 25) – Dirk Nowitzki reached yet another career milestone this week. Playing in his 1,435th game on Sunday, Nowitzki passed Karl Malone for second place in NBA history for most games played with one team. John Stockton holds the record with 1,504 games played with the Jazz. I truly believe this is Dirk’s final NBA season, so Stockton’s record appears to be safe. It would be nice for the Mavericks to go on a little run in the second half of the regular season, helping the future Hall-of-Famer end his illustrious career on a high note.
- Los Angeles Lakers (15-28) (Last week’s ranking: 29) – The Lakers were riding high on a four-game winning streak before they were defeated by the Grizzlies on Monday night. It was their longest winning streak of the season. The silver lining of this loss was that both Lonzo Ball and Brandon Ingram did not play due to injury. One of the highlights of their week was also snapping a 14-game losing streak to the Mavericks. Their recent stretch of victories shows that they may not be the NBA doormat everyone thinks they are, but they face some tough competition in the next week with games against the Thunder, Pacers and Celtics.
- Memphis Grizzlies (14-28) (Last week’s ranking: 27) – As the Grizzlies continue to lose games, the Marc Gasol trade rumors will continue to swirl. He played well during Monday’s win over the Lakers, but the Grizzlies will have to seriously consider trading one of the best players in franchise history before it is too late. The 32-year-old Gasol is not getting any younger, so the Grizzlies will have to act fast if they want anything of value in return for the versatile center. The Celtics would be an interesting option. They have the assets to deal for Gasol, but it remains to be seen how a Gasol-Al Horford frontcourt pairing would work. With only four weeks to go until the trade deadline, things will certainly continue to heat up.
- Sacramento Kings (13-30) (Last week’s ranking: 26) – Don’t look now, but the Kings have found themselves in last place in the Western Conference. A five-game losing streak coupled with the Lakers’ recent surge has sent the Kings right into the cellar. The Kings are playing without a true identity, and several of their young players are not yet ready to be high-impact players on the NBA level. The bright spot here is that the Kings should have a top draft pick in June’s loaded NBA draft, but that doesn’t mean fans should not be upset with yet another losing season.
- Atlanta Hawks (12-31) (Last week’s ranking: 30) – Atlanta is 4-6 in their last 10 games and starting to look a little frisky. It is likely fool’s gold but after a gut punch loss by the Falcons, Atlanta sports fans need all the help they can get. The Hawks fit that description as well and look primed to add a big talent in a stacked draft . The rumors swirling in Atlanta suggest a few of their veterans are set to go to greener pastures this offseason if not by the trade deadline. It is unlikely this team will look like it does now and with that change might go Coach Mike Budenholzer. Enjoy Coach Bud while you can, Hawks fans!
- Orlando Magic (12-31) (Last week’s ranking: 28) – Magically, Orlando is at the bottom of the conference. It has been stunning to watch Orlando plummet in the standings after a miraculous start. Their failure has been a combination of factors from health, to poor shooting, and especially the porous defense. Coach Frank Vogel’s days are numbered and it’s hard to see why management would want to keep many of the impending free agents. It’s hard to imagine many of the players could be all that valuable for a team as bad as they are. If there is one thing this team knows how to do, it is win lotteries at the right time. Maybe Orlando has a little magic left in them.
Biggest Mover: Los Angeles Clippers (5)
Biggest Flop: Detroit Pistons (5)
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