DGS NBA Power Rankings: NBA’s Second Half
All-Star festivities are over but the road to the postseason is narrowing and with it, the contenders. With the second half of the season underway, which teams will emerge from the pack and which will fall behind. Meanwhile, the teams at the bottom begin to ready themselves for the draft. Where does your favorite team end up? Read on and find out!
- Golden State Warriors (47-14) (Last week’s ranking: 1) – The Warriors are rolling, but they find themselves in a tough battle with the Rockets for Western Conference supremacy. Entering play Tuesday, the Warriors sit one-half game behind Houston for the top seed in the West. On a brighter note, the Warriors played at Madison Square Garden on Monday night. In the middle of a victory over the Knicks, JaVale McGee hit a contested jumper and sent comedian Jon Stewart into a frenzy. Everything is clicking for the defending champions. The stars are healthy and playing well, and their bench is stronger than it was last season. They just have to find a way to fend off the Rockets for homecourt advantage throughout the NBA playoffs.
- Houston Rockets (47-13) (Last week’s ranking: 2) – Make that 13 straight victories for the Rockets, who are currently holding off the Warriors for the top seed in the Western Conference. James Harden and Chris Paul are both playing at the top of their games, and the supporting cast is as good as it has been since Harden arrived in Houston six years ago. If the Rockets finish the regular season ahead of the Warriors in the standings, James Harden should be the clear favorite for the MVP award. I love the addition of Joe Johnson for Houston. The grizzled veteran has been through countless playoff battles and has been known for his clutch shooting. It’s a safe bet to assume that Johnson will be out on the floor with Paul, Harden, Trevor Ariza and Clint Capela during the fourth quarter of close playoff games. I don’t know how much playing time he will receive during the remainder of the regular season, but Johnson has always shined in the postseason. The Rockets have the best chance out of any other team out West to beat the Warriors in a seven-game playoff series.
- Toronto Raptors (42-17) (Last week’s ranking: 3) – The Raptors look like an interesting test case. They are in the same ballpark as the Warriors and Rockets in terms of point differential. The difference is that their success comes from chemistry and strong bench play. San Antonio has piled up championships with those key ingredients but they had David Robinson and Tim Duncan. Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan are not the same caliber of player before considering that the Spurs never faced a team as talented as the Warriors on their way to a title. There are so many good players on Toronto’s roster but no great ones. DeRozan can get close but he is still a step behind the elite players in the league. Without that type of player, can the Raptors conquer the East?
- Boston Celtics (43-19) (Last week’s ranking: 4) – The Celtics have won three in a row and look closer to their early season form. They have not faced a murderer’s row but the Eastern Conference is wide open with the Cavaliers struggling and Boston must feel like they can step into the power vacuum. Kyrie Irving looks every bit the star this team needs and should be able to help them push deep into the playoffs. Irving has been doing it in multiple ways since the all-star break. It is a small sample size but he has shot over 50 percent in all three games including a performance Monday where he racked up 25 points in just 25 minutes. Everyone and their mother knows Uncle Drew can score but he has averaged nearly seven assists a game in his past five games and nearly seven rebounds in their past three wins. When he stuffs the stat sheet like that, it makes Boston tough to beat. It might not be healthy to hope for Gordon Hayward’s return as Jeff Clark of Celtics Blog wrote, but it certainly would make the Eastern Conference playoffs that much more interesting.
- San Antonio Spurs (36-25) (Last week’s ranking: 7) – Kawhi Leonard may return this season, after all. Rumor has it the star forward has returned to San Antonio to practice with the team. He is hoping to return to the court by late March, which would be a huge boost to a Spurs offense that has struggled mightily without him. The Spurs are still sitting in a top-four position in the Western Conference standings, but the West is so competitive that a four-game losing streak could knock them out of the playoff picture. Give the coaching staff a lot of credit for keeping the team afloat while Leonard has been out. Defensively, they’ve been decent without Leonard, but scoring the basketball has been a major issue. This news could not come at a better time for the Spurs.
- Cleveland Cavaliers (35-24) (Last week’s ranking: 5) – Somehow, the Cavaliers feel too high at six. They are a trainwreck on defense and the moves at the deadline failed to live up to their sticker price. Give GM Koby Altman credit for getting real assets without giving up much. Then again, the teams trading away those players are not foolish either and are not giving away perennial all-stars. The shine has come off a bit as Rodney Hood has reverted to his inconsistent ways and Larry Nance Jr. is competing for minutes against a player with a similar skill set in Tristan Thompson. This iteration of the Cavs would be right there with the Mavericks and Suns if not for LeBron James. It helps to have the best player on the planet. However, the Cavaliers are in a dangerous spot. If they fall much further in the playoff race, they could end up playing without home court advantage throughout the playoffs. That would make the trip to the finals that much more difficult and if they stumble in the early rounds it might also mean the exit of James.
- Washington Wizards (35-25) (Last week’s ranking: 9) – The Wizards have to feel good about the way they have played without John Wall. Holding the fort without a star player is easier said than done. Washington is doing it with ball movement. In spite of what Colin Cowherd says, the Wizards are not better without Wall. However, it does help when everybody eats. Improvement of the defensive end along with that newfound democratic offense has the Wizards humming at just the right time. If the Cavs continue to struggle and Hayward cannot return in time for the playoffs, that could be just what the Wizards need to make a run through the conference.
- Minnesota Timberwolves (38-26) (Last week’s ranking: 6) – Jimmy Butler’s injury is a really tough break for the Timberwolves, who were really starting to click on all cylinders. Butler underwent meniscus surgery over the weekend and hopes to return during the regular season. He is so dedicated to his team that he actually sat out the All-Star game to keep himself fresh for the postseason. It’s a bit unfair that he got hurt almost immediately afterwards. Minnesota will miss him most on the defensive side of the floor. Offensively, look for Karl Anthony Towns, Andrew Wiggins and Jamal Crawford to pick up the scoring slack while he is sidelined.
- Oklahoma City Thunder (35-27) (Last week’s ranking: 8) – OKC’s play has slipped recently, and so has its firm grip on a playoff spot. Entering Tuesday’s games, the Thunder are in the seventh seed, just two games ahead of the ninth-place Clippers. With the Jazz clawing their way back over .500, it looks like there will be 10 Western Conference teams fighting for eight playoff spots. The Thunder are very talented and should get in regardless, but Paul George and Carmelo Anthony need to step up their games if they don’t want to fight all the way to the finish line.
- Milwaukee Bucks (33-26) (Last week’s ranking: 10) – Milwaukee remains my sleeper in the Eastern Conference. The Bucks have been up and down all season but have the talent to match up with anyone. They also have the profile of a team that can ratchet it up a level or two come playoff time. The Greek Freak and Khris Middleton are the only two players playing above 35 minutes a game and it seems that Joe Prunty is managing his player’s minutes more closely than teams like the Pelicans or Timberwolves. That should mean fresher players when the playoffs arrive and the uptick in productivity as the stars play more minutes. The Bucks will likely be a lower seed having to win on the road but having the best player in a series often pays dividends and Giannis Antetokounmpo is still the MVP favorite.
- Indiana Pacers (34-26) (Last week’s ranking: 11) – The Pacers continue to be plucky overachievers this season. As the playoffs approach, the question that arises is whether they can translate regular season success into the postseason. They are 5-5 against the top four teams in the East, including 3-1 against the Cavs. Unfortunately, they are currently slotted against the only team above them in the standings that they have not beaten this season. They do have two games left against Washington that could play a huge role in the final seedings.
- New Orleans Pelicans (34-26) (Last week’s ranking: 17) – Anthony Davis has played like a man possessed since DeMarcus Cousins went down, leading the Pelicans to six-straight victories along the way. His performance last week against the Heat was one for the ages, finishing with 45 points, 17 rebounds, five steals and five blocks. The Pelicans are slowly moving their way up the Western Conference standings, as they currently sit just two games out of the three seed. Look for New Orleans to pounce on the teams in front of them. With Jimmy Butler on the mend for Minnesota and Kawhi Leonard for the Spurs, it would not be much of a surprise if the Pelicans finish up the regular season with only the Rockets and Warriors ahead of them in the standings.
- Portland Trail Blazers (34-26) (Last week’s ranking: 14) – Sure, Anthony Davis has received a lot of praise for his recent play, but what about Damian Lillard. He has scored 197 total points over his last five games, which is a new franchise record for points scored in a five-game span. Despite having a flawed roster, the Trail Blazers are right in the thick of the Western Conference playoff race. With the Clippers selling off assets and Utah fighting to stay relevant, the Blazers will be playoff-bound if they continue to stay the course. With Lillard leading the way, anything is possible for Portland, until they run into the Rockets or Warriors. Then, it’s game over.
- Philadelphia 76ers (32-26) (Last week’s ranking: 15) – It looks like Markelle Fultz is shooting a normal jumpshot again. That is fantastic news for a team that already seems to be on the rise. The Sixers are downright scary any time that Joel Embiid is on the floor. This season that has been more often that not. That has translated into the best rebounding team in the league which has helped improve their defense dramatically. It is also what makes Embiid the frontrunner for the DPOY. Imagine adding the number one pick in the draft to that. Fultz could slot into the lineup and add playmaking and shooting if he can emulate his performance in college. With the Lombardi Trophy already residing in the city of brotherly love, adding LeBron would be a cherry on top. It is hard to imagine how 2018 could be off to a better start for Philly.
- Denver Nuggets (33-27) (Last week’s ranking: 13) – How about the recent play of Nikola Jokic? Last week, he joined Wilt Chamberlain as the only players 6-foot-10 or taller to have three or more consecutive triple-doubles. However, the Nuggets are slowly losing their grip on a playoff spot and have both the Clippers and Jazz ready to take advantage. This is a big week for the Nuggets, who fae the Clippers at home before hitting the road to take on the Grizzlies and Cavaliers. They need to win at least two of those games or else they will be in some serious trouble.
- Los Angeles Clippers (31-27) (Last week’s ranking: 16) – Despite facing a ton of adversity this season, the Clippers continue to show poise and currently find themselves only one game out of a playoff spot. Lou Williams has continued his career-best season, becoming just the second player in NBA history with 10 30-point games off the bench in a single season. Losing Avery Bradley hurts, as the versatile guard will miss up to three weeks with a sports hernia. Danilo Gallinari is still considered day-to-day with a right hand contusion, but he may not play until this weekend. The Clippers have a big game against the Denver Nuggets on Tuesday night. A win would pull them into a tie with the Nuggets for the eighth seed in the Western Conference.
- Miami Heat (31-29) (Last week’s ranking: 18) – Dwyane Wade’s reaction to a fan being buried in his jersey is a great reminder of the difference that basketball, and sports in general, can make in people’s lives. While the Heat and Wade have been sluggish since his return, they did notch a win over the weekend. They also find themselves currently matched up against the Raptors in the first round who they are 1-1 against with a total of four points deciding those two contests. That would be a great matchup and could see the old guard (Wade) against the new (DeRozan) and be an interesting passing of the torch. Wade has not talked much about his retirement but he is clearly approaching the end of his career and it is not crazy to imagine this being his final NBA season. What better way to go out than a vintage Wade performance in the playoffs?
- Utah Jazz (31-30) (Last week’s ranking: 12) – Don’t count the Jazz out, just yet. They have won 12 of their past 13 games and battled their way to a respectable 31-30 record, To top it all off, the Jazz are now just two and a half games out of the eighth seed. Rookie forward Donovan Mitchell has really carried the team during their most recent surge. I understand how good Ben Simmons has been, but Mitchell has to have the inside track on winning Rookie of the Year honors. The Sixers are a good team with Simmons, but Mitchell has literally had to carry the Jazz after losing several veteran players to injury. Mitchell is on pace to become an All-Star in the next several years and was the steal of the 2017 NBA Draft by far.
- Charlotte Hornets (27-33) (Last week’s ranking: 20) – The Hornets are starting to hit their stride as the end of the season nears. They are playing their best basketball and the pieces seem to fit. In spite of the newfound success, the recipe has not changed. The Hornets still lean on Kemba Walker to do the heavy lifting. They key in their four-game win streak has been improved defense. When Walker and Dwight Howard are clicking and the defense plays well, the Hornets are a tough matchup. Charlotte does not have the weapons to put up huge point totals night after night so a stout defense is critical for their success. The only issue for the Hornets is whether these wins will push them further out of the lottery and away from the ability to draft players who can push them to the next level.
- Detroit Pistons (28-32) (Last week’s ranking: 19) – The play of the Pistons is a classic example of why it is important to withhold judgment on trades for a while. The once promising Pistons are now back below .500 and will likely be on the outside looking in when the playoffs come. The fit between Griffin and Drummond seems tenuous but the same was said about Anthony Davis and DeMarcus Cousins. The bottom line is that the trade and its impact to the Pistons will only be assessable once there is more time. For now though, Detroit looks like it may have missed on its big swing and it could mean disaster for the team with a laundry list of bloated contracts and no path to contention. If Stan Van Gundy cannot turn things around, his seat is going to be boiling hot.
- Los Angeles Lakers (26-34) (Last week’s ranking: 21) – The Lakers are showing some life during the second half. They’ve won three in a row and are a respectable 14-7 since January 6. Isaiah Thomas and Channing Frye have adjusted to their new roles and the organization has been helped by the return of rookie Lonzo Ball. It’ll be interesting to see how Ball and Thomas play together for the remainder of the season. Thomas will be a free agent this Summer and if he and Ball click, then the Lakers may look to re-sign him.
- New York Knicks (24-38) (Last week’s ranking: 22) – Trey Burke is the one bright spot on a tanking Knicks team. Burke has exploded for 26, 26, and 18 points in each of his past three games despite playing 30 minutes or less in each. The dark side of the Trey Burke explosion is that Burke is already 25 and is closer to a finished product than some of the other guards on the roster. Thankfully, Frank Ntilikina has played over 24, 28, and 30 minutes in his past three games. That said, his average is under 20 for the month of February, which is borderline criminal on a team that is not trying to win basketball games. Coach Jeff Hornacek needs to turn Ntilikina and his other young guns loose.
- Brooklyn Nets (20-41) (Last week’s ranking: 24) – The Nets are off the schneid with a big win over the Bulls that included Jarrett Allen stealing Lauri Markkanen’s soul on a monster dunk. Allen has been a major factor for the Nets in the new year. He has some monstrous February splits. He is shooting nearly 63 percent from the floor and over 80 percent from the free throw line. He is playing under 24 minutes a game but extend his numbers to per-36 and a clear picture emerges. His per-36 numbers 10.5 rebounds, over 19 points, over two assists, 1.5 blocks, and a steal a game. Those are all-star caliber numbers and he has shown some nascent shooting ability. If Dinwiddie and Allen become keepers, the Nets can call this season successful.
- Chicago Bulls (20-40) (Last week’s ranking: 23) – Lauri Markkanen put Allen in a coffin before the big fella paid him back in kind. On the Nets broadcast, Ian Eagle couldn’t contain his excitement and both announcers praised the potential and present capabilities of the young Finn. Much as the Nets can take success from this season given the growth of their young core, the Bulls have found a number of bright young stars. Markkanen, Zach LaVine, Kris Dunn, and possibly some of the assortment of Bobby Portis, Denzel Valentine, and others can remain on the roster and become contributors. Markkanen has the highest ceiling of all of them. He has shown athleticism and defensive instincts that few expected. If his playmaking ability continues to grow, he could emerge as a perennial all-star.
- Dallas Mavericks (19-42) (Last week’s ranking: 27) – The Mavericks made some headlines in the past week for all the wrong reasons. First, outspoken owner Mark Cuban was fined for his tanking comments. Then, future Hall-of-Famer Dirk Nowitzki disagreed with Cuban. It’s a messy situation in Dallas. Sure, the Mavericks are a bad basketball team, but they are up there with seven or eight other NBA teams, all of whom could finish with the worst record in the league. Nowitzki is staring retirement right in the face, so best believe he will try and win a few more games if this season spells the end of his illustrious career.
- Memphis Grizzlies (18-41) (Last week’s ranking: 25) – The Grizzlies are on a 10-game losing streak, including.a 26-point drubbing over the weekend at the hands of the Heat. They have already lost more games than they have all of last season. Not much else to say here.
- Orlando Magic (18-42) (Last week’s ranking: 26) – The Magic are a cautionary tale for the other tanking teams this season. The Dwight Howard trade propelled the Magic into the lottery where young talent would emerge to create another great team. The problem was that in both selection of talent and the lottery balls needed to get that talent, luck is a huge aspect. Aspiring tankers should look with fear at how Orlando has essentially emerged from years of tanking without any long-term assets. If the over-under for all-star games for Aaron Gordon was set at 1.5, which way would bets go? Jonathan Isaac has been nonexistent. The situation has obviously played a role but those situations are created often from constant losing. Ask Sacramento how hard it is to build a winning culture. The Magic feel like they are building around the right players now but there is still a lot of work to be done.
- Phoenix Suns (18-44) (Last week’s ranking: 28) – If the Suns do not beat the Grizzlies on Wednesday night, they will have their first winless month in franchise history with a minimum of five games played. The Suns have been rebuilding for a while, but they are one of the only teams that has not shown any signs of progress. They are currently in the middle of yet another double-digit losing streak. Another team with not much else to speak to.
- Atlanta Hawks (18-43) (Last week’s ranking: 29) – The Hawks have to desperately hope that they can get a star in the draft or risk falling into the trap of mediocrity. The reality is that for all the good things to come from Atlanta, including the emergence of John Collins, they are still without a star in a league driven by them. Now they pin their hopes on lottery balls, tanking odds, and their coaching staff in order to get a top talent in the draft and develop that player into a future star. The good news is that Atlanta has shown the ability to develop internally in a way that teams like Orlando and Sacramento have struggled to emula
- Sacramento Kings (18-42) (Last week’s ranking: 30) – Bogdan Bogdanovic has been a fun player to watch. His scoring has taken off after winning MVP of the Rising Stars Challenge during All-Star weekend. Other than that, the Kings have not had much to be excited about this season and are headed to the NBA Draft lottery yet again.
Biggest Mover: New Orleans Pelicans (5)
Biggest Flop: Utah Jazz (6)