DGS NBA Power Rankings: Post All-Star Break
The trade deadline is over. The All-Star break has come and gone. Now, the second-half the NBA regular season is officially here. Which NBA teams are gearing up for playoffs runs? Which teams are preparing for the lottery? We have all that and more in this week’s edition of the Double G Sports NBA Power Rankings!
- Golden State Warriors (44-14) (Last week’s ranking: 1) – Team Steph took a tough loss over the weekend and its namesake struggled as well. The most represented team in the NBA All-Star game was unsurprisingly the Warriors. Kevin Durant and Klay Thompson played well while Steph Curry and Draymond Green struggled. The “real” games come back on Thursday and it will be interesting to see how the Warriors play after the rest over the break. Steve Kerr bemoaned the mental fatigue the team was facing and had to turn to player coached huddles to keep his team mentally focused. While the innovative strategy is laudable, it still speaks to a team bored with the regular season. Houston passed Golden State in the standings. Can the Warriors muster the effort to play consistent basketball and clinch home court advantage throughout the playoffs?
- Houston Rockets (44-13) (Last week’s ranking: 2) – The Rockets felt underrepresented at the All-Star game for a team that has already amassed 44 wins and is currently atop the Western Conference. Expect Houston’s coaches to tuck that away as motivation should the Rockets end up facing Golden State in the playoffs. The Warriors have been incredible, no doubt, but the Rockets have the better record. That will serve as some great bulletin board material and hopefully continue to stoke the embers of a rivalry that could determine the NBA champion for the next few seasons. Houston is not messing around and seizing the one-seed could be vital to beating the Warriors. However, as the playoff seeds stand now, the Rockets might actually be better off as the second seed. As good as the Spurs are, there is a good chance that they will be without Kawhi Leonard. It also means potentially dodging a Thunder team that seems built for the playoffs.
- Toronto Raptors (41-16) (Last week’s ranking: 3) – “Why not us?” That’s the question many people in and around the Raptors’ organization should be asking as they begin the second-half of the regular season. They currently hold a two-game lead over the Celtics for first place in the East, but the road to the top seed in the playoffs will undoubtedly be a tough one. After many years of coming close but never getting over the hump, could this finally be the season that the Raptors represent the East in the NBA Finals? With DeMar DeRozan playing the best basketball of his career and Kyle Lowry still capable of putting up big numbers, you have to like Toronto’s chances with the Celtics currently struggling and the Cavaliers having many new faces on their current roster. Their chances of landing the top seed in the playoffs will increase even further if they are able to snag another veteran on the buyout market this week.
- Boston Celtics (40-19) (Last week’s ranking: 4) – The Celtics entered the All-Star break on a three-game losing skid and have given up first-place in the East to a surging Raptors team. I don’t think there is too much cause for concern, considering the Celtics have been without Gordon Hayward for the majority of the season. They have the deepest roster in the Eastern Conference and should still be the presumptive favorites to make the Finals. If Hayward manages to return to the court this season, that would be a small miracle for the Celtics. Even without him, the play of Kyrie Irving and Al Horford has given Boston fans plenty of reasons to be excited about their chances this year. If they manage to get back to playing the style of basketball that got them off to such a hot start, they should be able to hold off both the Raptors and Cavaliers and secure homecourt advantage throughout the Eastern Conference playoffs.
- Cleveland Cavaliers (34-22) (Last week’s ranking: 5) – The Cavaliers will be an interesting team to watch in the second half. They integrated four new players to their rotation at the trade deadline and have a four-game winning streak to show for it. LeBron James looks revitalized playing with younger and more athletic players such as George Hill and Jordan Clarkson. Once Kevin Love returns from injury sometime in March, the Cavs could put it all together and still have a chance to return to the NBA Finals. However, they face stiffer competition this year than they have in past seasons. Both the Raptors and Celtics are very much for real, and a six and a half game deficit in the conference with 22 games remaining might be too much to overcome. The best case scenario for the Cavs would be to get into the playoffs as the No. 3 seed and fly under the radar a bit. If they can get healthy and continue playing together, the Cavs could be even better than they were projected to be at the beginning of the season. If they don’t, we could be looking at LeBron’s final season in the Wine and Gold.
- Minnesota Timberwolves (36-25) (Last week’s ranking: 6) – Jimmy Butler did not play in the All-Star game, which is probably for the best as Tom Thibodeau eagerly awaits another chance to play his star upwards of 30 minutes. Rest up, Jimmy! Meanwhile, Karl Anthony-Towns did play and the KAT had his claws out. He and LeBron James were the only two players who posted double-doubles in the game. The Timberwolves will be eyeing the standings carefully as the second half of the season begins. It is hard to imagine Minnesota would rather see Golden State than Houston. Butler and Wiggins should theoretically help them keep Chris Paul and James Harden under wraps. Wiggins has had a disappointing season but his defense has improved a great deal from a season ago. It is hard to imagine Thibodeau resting his stars or purposely aiming for a lower seed to avoid Golden State, let alone both. Nonetheless, he should consider it. The Wolves need every edge they can get against the elite teams in the Western Conference and the foremost priority should be health heading into the postseason.
- San Antonio Spurs (35-24) (Last week’s ranking: 7) – LaMarcus Aldridge only played four minutes as the lone Spurs representative in the All-Star game. Coach Popovich surely approved. As the second half approaches, the Spurs’ season might very well come down to the health of Kawhi Leonard. No one seems to know what his timetable is or what has happened. We would probably need a CIA operative to learn much more. San Antonio is notoriously tight-lipped and will be especially so with their star player. If he cannot make it back healthy for the postseason, then San Antonio will not stand much of a chance against the Rockets and Warriors. While there are many other great storylines out of San Antonio, like the development of Davis Bertrans, Kyle Anderson, and Dejounte Murray, their season will rest on the shoulders – or more exactly, legs – of Kawhi Leonard.
- Oklahoma City Thunder (33-26) (Last week’s ranking: 8) – Oklahoma City has struggled without Andre Roberson. As little as he provides offensively, Roberson is such a defensive ace that his absence has noticeably hurt the Thunder defense. His injury could shift a playoff series. Imagine if the Thunder play the Rockets. With Roberson and Paul George, the Thunder could sic those two on Paul and Harden. Now, Westbrook will be chasing one of them around most of the game. The Thunder were not winning the championship this season anyway but the loss of Roberson could have a seismic impact on how their season ends. It could also determine whether George stays in OKC after the season.
- Washington Wizards (33-24) (Last week’s ranking: 9) – No John Wall? No problem for the Wizards, who have gone on a nice little run since losing their star point guard to a knee injury. While rehabbing his injury, Wall had to have a sit-down conversation with teammate Marcin Gortat over Gortat’s controversial tweet. Nobody believes the Wizards are a better team without Wall in the lineup, but other players have been forced to step up in his absence and that could be the root cause for their recent uptick in play. With all that said, the Wizards do not stand a chance in the postseason without Wall, especially with the Raptors, Celtics and Cavaliers all looking down on them in the standings. If they maintain their current position in the Eastern Conference standings until Wall can return to the court, this will already be deemed a successful season in D.C.
- Milwaukee Bucks (32-25) (Last week’s ranking: 10) – Not many teams improve after firing their head coaches mid-season, but the Bucks are one of them. Given their soft schedule entering the All-Star break, it’s no surprise that they went on a run and have firmly entrenched themselves in the Eastern Conference playoff picture. However, Milwaukee has lost seven of their last nine games against teams with winning records and begin the second half playing seven of their next eight against winning teams. This stretch of games will determine whether or not the Bucks have what it takes to earn a trip to the postseason. If not, they may want to retool their roster a bit over the Summer and surround Giannis Antetokounmpo with some game-changing talent.
- Indiana Pacers (33-25) (Last week’s ranking: 11) – I don’t think the Pacers envisioned Victor Oladipo being this good when they acquired him in the Paul George trade last summer. In fact, the team is 14.8 points per 100 possessions better when he is on the floor. It’s no wonder he was a no-brainer selection for the All-Star team. The Pacers are one of the few teams who actually got better after trading away their best player. They should be a playoff team this season, but it’s important to note that they have a tough schedule the rest of the way. If Oladipo keeps playing at a high level and Myles Turner continues to develop, things should continue unfolding nicely in Indiana.
- Utah Jazz (30-28) (Last week’s ranking: 16) – Donovan Mitchell is having a heck of a rookie year. His dunk contest victory was the cherry on top in a month where he led the Jazz back to .500. Now, the Jazz loom as a real threat to move up as high as the sixth seed. They may be two games back of the Nuggets and Trail Blazers but with Rudy Gobert back and healthy they look like the scariest of the bunch. Quin Snyder has found his best five man units. The starting lineup with a twin towers look with Derrick Favors next to Gobert has been playing better. However, Snyder has loved pairing new acquisition Jae Crowder with one of the two bigs in order to spread the floor. The extra space lets the perimeter trio of Ricky Rubio, Donovan Mitchell, and Joe Ingles go to work. The Rodney Hood trade also cleared up minutes for Alec Burks who had been largely forgotten. As good as Hood is, it feels like the Jazz may have accomplished addition by subtraction. The rest of the league better keep an eye on Utah.
- Denver Nuggets (32-26) (Last week’s ranking: 12) – The most recent timetable for Paul Millsap’s return is early-to-mid March. He needs to acclimate quickly with a crowded playoff race. Coach Mike Malone needs to be judicious. Returning players sometimes take a few games to get back into their rhythm. Unfortunately, Malone cannot afford to lose a single game in exchange for getting Millsap back. That game could be the difference between making the playoffs and sitting at home. For Malone, it also means rejiggering rotations again. Who will be the odd man out with Millsap back? Trey Lyles thrived without him while Mason Plumlee got to play more minutes than he did for most of the season. It almost certainly spells the end for Kenneth Faried who was already scrounging for minutes. Malone will have to juggle keeping all those players happy, holding onto his playoff spot, and giving the Nuggets the best chance to succeed come playoff time.
- Portland Trail Blazers (32-26) (Last week’s ranking: 13) – Damian Lillard is fresh off of his dynamite All-Star game performance and came out over the weekend to say he is as good as any point guard in the league. He is going to have to prove it if he wants to keep Portland in the playoff hunt. He is having a great season but with five teams competing for three spots, he has his work cut out for him. 13 of their last games are against potential Western Conference playoff teams. They have had one of the easier schedules so far so things will toughen up but it will be home heavy. Normally, the Blazers are one of the best home teams in the league. For some reason, they have bucked the trend this year and are one of the better road teams in the Western Conference playoff race. Paul Allen should also be happy as Portland is likely to duck the luxury tax even after signing Brandon Rush.
- Philadelphia 76ers (30-25) (Last week’s ranking: 15) – It looks like the magic happening in Philadelphia has not worn off as of yet. The Sixers are a whopping 11-0 at home in 2018. However, they come out of the All-Star break playing eight of their next 10 games on the road, where they have lost four straight. Joel Embiid looked great while playing in the All-Star game, and Ben Simmons should be joining him in next year’s game if things go according to plan. The Sixers have a much easier schedule during the second half, so it’s looking like the process will finally be playoff bound after many painful seasons. They trail the Wizards by just one game in the loss column for fourth place in the East, so it will be interesting to see how things shake out over the next two months.
- Los Angeles Clippers (30-26) (Last week’s ranking: 16) – For the first time since 2005, neither Los Angeles team had a representative at the NBA All-Star game. Lou Williams was widely considered a snub and should have gotten the nod given that Jimmy Butler did not even play. Williams is having a phenomenal season and looks like a lock for sixth man of the year. He is also on track to make history. His 23.2 points per game would be an all-time high for a sixth man of the year. In more good news for Clippers’ fans, his Player Efficiency Rating (PER) is actually higher than that of departed Blake Griffin. The young and deep Clippers look ready to jump one of the teams above them. They lack the star power but they make up for it with their depth and versatility. Unfortunately, they have a very difficult schedule to end the season that could end their dreams of a playoff berth. They will be fun to watch regardless and with LeBron to LA rumors continuing to swirl, maybe the little brother Clippers can beat the Lakers at their own game and land stars of their own.
- New Orleans Pelicans (31-26) (Last week’s ranking: 17) – The Pelicans currently have a precarious hold on the eighth spot in the Western Conference. The injury to DeMarcus Cousins and their lack of depth have them below some of the teams they are sitting ahead of in the standings. The good news is that they still have Anthony Davis and they have a home heavy schedule to finish the season. They have 11 games left against potential Western Conference playoff teams, including three against the Spurs. It feels like a playoff berth would mean more to New Orleans than any other team on this list. It could help keep Davis in New Orleans. That said, Alvin Gentry needs to look at the bigger picture and ensure he does not burnout Davis in order to make the playoffs. The clear winner in the tight Western Conference playoff race is the fans who should get some meaningful basketball from now until the season ends.
- Miami Heat (30-28) (Last week’s ranking: 14) – If any team is going to slip and fall out of the playoff picture in the East, it’s Miami. Bringing Dwayne Wade home was a great move for many reasons, but I still don’t think the Heat have enough talent to make a deep postseason run. Their recent skid has dropped them from fourth to eighth in the standings, so they will have to play much better if they want to hang onto a playoff spot. The good news for Miami is, seven of their next eight games are at home. They need to take full advantage of their home cooking if they want to avoid slipping out of the postseason picture altogether.
- Detroit Pistons (28-29) (Last week’s ranking: 19) – The Pistons come out of the break with both Blake Griffin and Andre Drummond ready to roll. Reggie Jackson is due back soon, which is a good thing because the Pistons are under an immense amount of pressure to make the playoffs this season after trading for Griffin. As I mentioned above, if the Pistons make the playoffs in the East, it will likely be at the expense of the Heat. The Heat shouldn’t be worried, though, if the Pistons don’t figure out how to win on the road. They have lost nine of their last 10 contest away from their new arena, but playoff teams always figure out ways to win on the road. Stay tuned for what will be a very compelling race to the finish in the bottom half of the Eastern Conference playoff picture.
- Charlotte Hornets (24-33) (Last week’s ranking: 20) – According to several sources, the Hornets are parting ways with general manager Rich Cho. The organization has reportedly elected not to extend Cho’s contract and will immediately begin searching for a new GM. Rumor has it that Michael Jordan is looking at former Lakers GM Mitch Kupchak for the job. It was time for a change in Charlotte, where the team will likely miss the playoffs this season despite having a $117 million payroll. Kemba Walker will likely be moved during the offseason, triggering a massive rebuild for the organization. You can’t blame the Hornets for trying, but the smart move for them would be to build through the draft instead of spending tens of millions of dollars on mid-tier free agents.
- Los Angeles Lakers (23-34) (Last week’s ranking: 21) – On a weekend where the All-Star game was held in LA, The Lakers were surprisingly underrepresented in chatter. The most meaningful story out of LA was the fine for Magic Johnson’s comments and Adam Silver’s response. Otherwise, less and less of the focus is on the basketball on the court and more towards the potential offseason moves for the Lakers. The LeBron hype continues but seems less likely every day. The good news has been the play of Brandon Ingram who continues to grow into his frame and show the potential that got him drafted so highly. If the Lakers young core can continue to gel and grow they hope they can keep it to a single year without an LA representative in the All-Star game.
- New York Knicks (23-36) (Last week’s ranking: 22) – The Knicks must strongly dislike the month of February. It seems like every year at this time, they go on a losing streak that all but ends their playoff hopes, and it’s happening again this season. New York comes out of the All-Star break with an eight-game losing streak in tow. They need to spend the remainder of the season letting Frank Ntilikina and Emmanual Mudiay develop and hoping that they land a high lottery pick in June. That’s the only way the Knicks will take steps forward in their rebuild. Kristaps Porzingis will be on the mend for a long time after having surgery to repair his torn ACL last week, so the development of the other young players on the roster will be crucial.
- Chicago Bulls (20-37) (Last week’s ranking: 23) – Lauri Markkanen dazzled in the Skills Challenge on All-Star Saturday Night, losing to Spencer Dinwiddie in the final round. It was a nice moment for the rookie, who has been a brightspot an an otherwise dark season for the Bulls. If Kris Dunn and Zach LaVine get healthy, it will be interesting to see how the Bulls look with those three young players on the floor together. The Bulls severely lack depth on the wings, but they will most likely have a high enough lottery pick to address that need in June’s draft. Head coach Fred Hoiberg should get a nice look at Noah Vonleh, who
- Brooklyn Nets (19-40) (Last week’s ranking: 24) – Spencer Dinwiddie is continuing his career year in a big way. He won the Skills Challenge during All-Star Saturday Night, becoming the second Nets player in history to win the competition. He has been nothing short of brilliant this season for Brooklyn, who enters the second half of the season on a seven-game losing streak. They remain one win shy of matching last season’s victory total, which they should easily surpass. With the Cavaliers owning the 2018 first-round pick, the Nets have nothing to tank for. However, their second-half schedule features 14 road games and 12 games against teams over .500. They will play hard, and getting to 25 or 26 victories will be a step up from last season’s 20-win campaign.
- Memphis Grizzlies (18-38) (Last week’s ranking: 25) – Not much has happened on the court since last week for the Grizzlies. However, the general mood around Memphis was confusion. As more people looked back at the trade deadline it seemed more and more of them were perplexed by the Grizzlies’ decision to hold onto Marc Gasol and Tyreke Evans. The lack of a trade for Evans underscored the total unwillingness of teams to part with first round picks and the stubbornness of Memphis in demanding one. That lack of action could come back to bite them if the lose him for nothing as many rival executives seem to believe. The market for Evans in the offseason is going to be something to watch. He has had a renaissance year and his shooting numbers have been well-ahead of his career numbers. Will teams pay big bucks for him based on this year with a mostly dry market? The Grizzlies are expecting that the lack of teams looking to spend money will help them keep Evans on the cheap. Only time will tell if that gamble will pay off.
- Orlando Magic (18-39) (Last week’s ranking: 26) – Elfrid Payton may be gone, but the Magic are receiving solid point guard play from D.J. Augustin and Shelvin Mack. The Magic appear to play more team basketball since trading Payton to the Suns. Both Augustin and Mack have combined for 43 assists and only 18 turnovers in the four games since the trade. They lost their final three games before the All-Star break by a combined 13 points. Frank Vogel is coaching for his job, so I would expect the Magic to play hard for him for the remainder of the season. If not, they will be looking for yet another head coach in June and July.
- Dallas Mavericks (18-40) (Last week’s ranking: 27) – Another quiet team at the All-Star break was the Mavericks. Dallas’ focus is clearly more on the lottery balls than the remaining slate of games. There are going to be some big decisions for Dallas as they chart the next course. They are not a move or two away from competing for the title. It seems Dirk is content to be a Maverick for life but spending the remaining year or years of his career on a team with no chance to win a title could be frustrating and impede the goal of trying to get better draft picks. That could spur the Mavericks to eschew a more long-term rebuilding strategy in hopes of making a playoff push next year. Mark Cuban wants a winner. Can we wait long enough to build it?
- Phoenix Suns (18-40) (Last week’s ranking: 28) – Devin Booker is a champion! Well, a three-point champion, at least. Booker took home the title of best three-point shooter with his victory over the weekend and continues to be the bright spot for the Suns. Phoenix hopes that Booker could find himself in the main event next season. In order for him to get there, the Suns need to improve. A high draft pick, solid free agent, and a new coach would help make that a reality. The Suns are likely to be in the middle of the tank war that Zach Lowe beautifully described in his article last week. Suns fans should enjoy Booker while they can watch him because the team might shut him down as the tanking heightens.
- Atlanta Hawks (18-41) (Last week’s ranking: 29) – The Hawks can’t catch a break. As they enter the second half, 17 of their remaining 23 games are against teams with winning records. John Collins looks like a first-round steal, but he has only started five games for the Hawks this year. Expect that number to rise as the regular season winds down. The Hawks, however, have stiff competition for the top pick in the 2018 draft. They are currently tied with the Suns for the worst record in the NBA, with six other teams within three games of the cellar.
- Sacramento Kings (18-39) (Last week’s ranking: 30) – Sacramento will be another team in the midst of the tank wars. Unlike some other teams, there is not much they can do that they are not doing already. They are already playing their younger players over veterans as Coach Dave Joerger told his players earlier this season. They may start to do that even more, which will mean more De’Aaron Fox, Buddy Hield, and company. That is smart for the Kings in both the short-term and long-term. It might not feel like progress to be at the bottom of these rankings but with the young talent already on the roster, the Kings might just need a leader to start putting things together. With the wealth of talent in this year’s draft, the Kings might be able to find just that.
Biggest Mover: Utah Jazz (4)
Biggest Flop: Miami Heat (4)