DGS NBA Power Rankings: The Playoffs are Here
As the NBA playoffs approach, this is the final power rankings of the season. Where did your favorite team land? If they are out of the playoffs, what will this offseason hold? Read on and find out.
- Houston Rockets (65-17) (Last week’s ranking: 1) –This has been a magnificent season that will see James Harden crowned MVP. Houston hopes it can cap the season with a title after posting the best point differential in the league and the best record. Now they face the questions that have plagued the faces of this franchise. Can they win when it counts? Harden, Chris Paul, and Mike D’Antoni have faced questions about their ability to succeed in the postseason. This postseason, all three could silence the doubters for good. If not, none of them may ever escape the perception that they cannot cut it when the lights are the brightest.
- Golden State Warriors (58-24) (Last week’s ranking: 2) – The Warriors seem a like a team playing with house money despite lofty expectations. The noise around Golden State has faded with the injuries, particularly the one to Steph Curry. The pressure has subsided but the Warriors are still the Warriors. Despite struggles to end the season, Golden State feels more like an alpha predator resting for the real battle than one past its prime. The Warriors finish the season second in these rankings but once Curry is back, the smart money is on the Warriors to hoist the O’Brien trophy.
- Toronto Raptors (59-23) (Last week’s ranking: 3) – The Raptors have had a marvelous season. They managed the second best point differential and second-best record in the NBA and march into the postseason as the best team in franchise history. Like the two teams above, the Raptors real season is about to begin. No matter how many wins they amass, it will not matter unless the Raptors can make some serious hay in the playoffs. Anything less than a conference finals would be a failure. Coach Dwane Casey should get serious coach of the year buzz after a remarkable job but the toughest part of his season lays ahead.
- Cleveland Cavaliers (50-32) (Last week’s ranking: 5) – LeBron James has done it again. After posting one of the best seasons of his career, James has brought the Cavaliers back from the brink and they enter the playoffs as the favorites in the Eastern Conference yet again. With Kyrie Irving and Gordon Hayward already out, the Celtics are one less obstacle this season. The king is on his way to his eighth consecutive Eastern Conference crown. In that measure, he is chasing Bill Russell, not Jordan for historical greatness. Russell’s 10 straight finals appearances seemed unattainable in a league with so much parity but LeBron is proving the doubters wrong. What else is new?
- Portland Trail Blazers (49-33) (Last week’s ranking: 4) – With a win on Wednesday, the Blazers clinched the third seed. Portland will keep home court advantage and get a chance to show the world that they belong to the group of contenders. Meanwhile, Damian Lillard gets his chance to prove he is a genuine MVP candidate. Could a first-round flameout preclude major changes in Portland? With their salary cap bloated, they will have tough decisions this offseason. A first round exit might expedite those changes. However, if the Blazers can shock the world and upset one or both of the juggernauts in the West and make their way to the conference or NBA finals, that might convince the front office to keep things to together. A lot rides on this postseason for Lillard and the Blazers.
- Philadelphia 76ers (52-30) (Last week’s ranking: 7) – The 76ers were never supposed to be here. Their preseason over-under had them in the 40’s for wins. Many thought that was far too high. Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons proved those people wrong. Now, the 76ers get home court advantage against a Heat team without anyone in the same stratosphere as Embiid or Simmons. Goran Dragic is a nice player but Simmons and Embiid look like franchise players. Embiid will likely miss game one but the 76ers should have the firepower to overcome that, particularly with Markelle Fultz back in the fold. The 76ers have arrived early. Now, let’s see how far they can go.
- Boston Celtics (55-27) (Last week’s ranking: 6) – It is hard to assess the Celtics. They had a magnificent regular season, particularly since they only got five minutes out of their star free agent in Gordon Hayward. With Kyrie Irving expected to miss the playoffs, the Celtics are no longer legitimate title contenders. Conversely, they had no right to win as many games as they did without Hayward in the first place. That makes Brad Stevens the coach of the year frontrunner. Meanwhile, Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown emerged as two of the best young wings in the league. It is bittersweet to miss out on watching a fully healthy Boston team but if Hayward and Irving come back healthy, we will be seeing plenty of Celtics’ playoff games in the future.
- Oklahoma City Thunder (48-34) (Last week’s ranking: 8) – Russ got his triple-double and the Thunder got the fourth seed. The Thunder’s season was mostly a success since this was where most people anticipated them falling at the beginning of the season. However, that was before Kawhi Leonard missed almost the entire season. Now, Westbrook and Paul George get a chance to show what they can do. Utah might be the toughest lower seed so the Thunder have their work cut out for them. Their success in the first round could play a huge role in whether George stays or goes regardless of what he says publicly.
- Utah Jazz (48-34) (Last week’s ranking: 11) – the Jazz went from being the third seed, with home court advantage, and playing against a Pelicans team without their second-best player to the fifth seed, losing home court advantage, and playing a team that owned them this season. The Jazz were 3-1 against the Pelicans and 1-3 against the Thunder. One piece of good news is that the Thunder are not a team that can run Rudy Gobert off the floor. Some more good news is that all four games featured Andre Roberson and only two featured a healthy Gobert. Both teams have transformed since their last meeting on December 23rd. Donovan Mitchell is a different player, Roberson is out, Gobert is in, and Jae Crowder has keyed a second-half surge for Utah. Could the Jazz keep it up and upset the Thunder?
- Indiana Pacers (48-34) (Last week’s ranking: 9) – Facing the king in the first round is a tough draw. John Gonzalez of The Ringer wrote a superb piece on how the league has ignored their success this season. Beating the Cavs would end that once and for all. In order to win, Victor Oladipo will have to improve on his already lofty play. He will have to outplay LeBron James and be the best player in the series if the Pacers want to win. That is a tall order, particularly when LeBron is garnering conversation of being the GOAT. Either way, this season was a massive success given the expectations for the Pacers. Win or lose against the Cavs and the Pacers still have work to do and GM Kevin Pritchard will have moves to make this summer.
- San Antonio Spurs (47-35) (Last week’s ranking: 10) – Coach Gregg Popovich deserves some Coach of the Year buzz and LaMarcus Aldridge should make an all-NBA team. With that said, the Spurs are going to have a tough time making noise in the playoffs. Facing the Warriors in the first round, even without Steph Curry, is usually a death sentence. The Spurs will try to get revenge after the Warriors swept them a year ago but there is a good chance the season is essentially over. That is okay. The Spurs did a wonderful job even getting this far and the players, fans, and organization should be proud of an incredible season.
- Minnesota Timberwolves (47-35) (Last week’s ranking: 12) – What a way to end the season! The Timberwolves ripped the Nuggets’ heart out with an overtime victory to punch their ticket to the postseason. Jimmy Butler and Karl Anthony-Towns did exactly what they needed to and Minnesota prevailed. Unfortunately, the Timberwolves now face a Houston buzzsaw that has dismantled them all season. Minnesota has not beaten the Rockets all year so it will be a tall task to beat them four times in seven games.
- New Orleans Pelicans (48-34) (Last week’s ranking: 14) – Anthony Davis and the Pelicans are into the playoffs. Davis remains a strong MVP candidate and his strong play propelled the Pelicans into the sixth seed. That means they avoid the Warriors and Rockets for at least one round. Davis will instead face off against fellow MVP candidate Damian Lillard. This series could easily come down to which player plays better. The good news for the Pelicans then is that the Trail Blazers have no one remotely equipped to guard Davis who could run roughshod over them this series and show why he is considered a top five or even top three players in the league.
- Milwaukee Bucks (44-38) (Last week’s ranking: 16) – The Bucks are right where they want to be. Of the top four seeds, the Celtics are easily the most vulnerable without Gordon Hayward, Marcus Smart, or Kyrie Irving. Giannis Antetokounmpo will be the best player in this series by a mile. Could we finally start to see some small-ball lineups from the Bucks? Getting Malcolm Brogdon, Eric Bledsoe, Jabari Parker, Giannis, and Khris Middleton on the floor at the same time has to be a priority for Joe Prunty now that all five are healthy. The Celtics will have trouble matching that talent and it could play Aron Baynes off the floor and out of the series. The Bucks were 2-2 against both the Celtics and 76ers who they could see if they make it past the first round. Could Milwaukee find a way to make it to the conference finals after all their struggles? The spotlight will be on Prunty who has struggled as an interim coach. His ability to scheme against wunderkind Brad Stevens could decide the series.
- Miami Heat (44-38) (Last week’s ranking: 17) – While it lacked the stakes of the Timberwolves/Nuggets game, the Heat/Raptors game had almost the same level of excitement. Now, the Heat will face playoff newcomes in the 76ers. They may even manage to dodge Joel Embiid for a game or two. The bad news is that the Sixers have not lost since early March and just seamlessly integrated the number one pick into their rotation. The schedule makers did the Heat a favor by scheduling their first game for Saturday as it means Embiid will likely miss it. His availability in this series could be crucial, especially with Hassan Whiteside on the other side. The Heat split the season series against the 76ers but all of the games were within 10 points so this should be a good series. The coaching matchup could be one to watch with Erik Spolestra facing off against Brett Brown in Brown’s introduction to playoff basketball as a head coach.
- Washington Wizards (43-39) (Last week’s ranking: 13) – I am still a believer in the Wizards but a loss to the lowly Magic in the final game despite playing many of their starters inspired no confidence. This season has been a mess. There has been dysfunction and John Wall and Marcin Gortat exchanged Twitter barbs before reconciling in February. Nonetheless, the Wizards seem to do this every season and turn it on for the postseason. They still have Wall, Bradley Beal, Otto Porter, Markieff Morris, Tomas Satoransky, Gortat, and Kelly Oubre. Few teams in the league can match the talent of those seven guys, which will make the Wizards a tough out. The pressure is on Coach Scott Brooks as he faces Coach of the Year candidate Dwane Casey. Would a first-round exit imperil Brooks’ job?
- Denver Nuggets (46-36) (Last week’s ranking: 15) – Woof. What a way to get knocked out of the postseason. The Nuggets had a great run this season but the weight of injuries helped push them out. Then again, none of the team above them want to hear about injury luck, either with Kawhi Leonard, Jimmy Butler, DeMarcus Cousins, and Rudy Gobert all missing time. It is fair to wonder if Mike Malone may be looking for a new job but the front office has some work to do. A healthy Paul Millsap will help but the Nuggets had the fifth worst defense in the league. Unless a team has LeBron James, that level of defense is not going to cut it. They do have Nikola Jokic and the Joker was a man against boys on Wednesday. His 35 points and 10 rebounds almost got the job done but Denver will need to get him some help and someone who can help cover him on defense. While the season was not a total fai
- Los Angeles Clippers (42-40) (Last week’s ranking: 18) – The Clippers will not be in the playoffs this season but they will have some draft picks to help retool. They also have some flexibility and could try to land some free agents. The Blake Griffin trade has turned out to be a coup for the Clippers. Tobias Harris has played well as a Clipper and could stay around past the end of his contract next year. The most important thing is that the Clippers have given themselves options. Only Danilo Gallinari and Lou Williams are the only big contracts that will be on the books past next season and neither one is an albatross. Gallinari is overpaid but after next year, he becomes a valuable expiring contract while Williams’ deal is a bargain. The future is bright for the Clippers.
- Detroit Pistons (39-43) (Last week’s ranking: 19) – The team that traded with the Clippers is not looking nearly as good in the present or the future. Detroit faces myriad questions this offseason that stretch from the top down. Stan Van Gundy may be looking for a new job but seems likely to have his role reduced even if he stays with the team. Meanwhile, after another season of missing the playoffs, the Pistons need to figure out if this core can go anywhere. Reggie Jackson has missed time the past two seasons. Can Andre Drummond and Blake Griffin play together? Can Griffin stay healthy? Detroit will have a lot of decisions to make.
- Charlotte Hornets (36-46) (Last week’s ranking: 21) – Charlotte is in a better position than Detroit in terms of draft picks since they have theirs. However, their salary cap is a disaster. Do not be surprised if the Hornets have to execute a D’Angelo Russell like trade with Kemba Walker in order to unload one of their contracts. Nicolas Batum stands out as a particularly unmoveable deal unless a substantial sweetener comes with him. Walker quietly has transformed himself into a top tier shooter. Only three players attempted more threes than Walker. James Harden and Damian Lillard were two of them and Walker has the best shooting percentage of any of the four. His true shooting percentage has climbed in each of the past four seasons and it reflects his evolution as a basketball player. Walker could be the final piece for a contender.
- Los Angeles Lakers (35-47) (Last week’s ranking: 20) – Outside of the Cavaliers, no team faces a more crucial offseason. The Lakers have said they are looking forward at the 2019 offseason but it is hard to believe they will pass on the opportunity to woo Paul George or LeBron James. If the Lakers can nab a couple marquee free agents with their cap space, they are back in business. However, this season has not been rainbows and sunshine. Kyle Kuzma and Kuzmania were a thing. Then again, the major shooting struggles for Lonzo Ball and Brandon Ingram’s struggles were too. Luke Walton does not have the same job security he once did and some of the shine has faded with the younger players. On the plus side, they did just have one of the best feel good stories of the year.
- Chicago Bulls (27-55) (Last week’s ranking: 22) – The Bulls have walked the middle road this season. They started it off like tank commanders and briefly looked frisky before falling back to earth and embracing the tank. Still, it is hard not to see the makings of something good with the Bulls. Lauri Markkanen has been a revelation. He has one of the highest ceilings of any player from last year’s class with his combination of size, quickness, shooting ability, and surprising athleticism. He has to improve on defense but so do all rookies. Outside of him, the Bulls should be thrilled with what they saw out of Zach LaVine, Kris Dunn, and Bobby Portis. The other wings are expendable. This season will likely be Robin Lopez’ final one with the Bulls as they already have a glut of big men and Omer Asik and Cristiano Felicio’s contracts make them untradeable. It was a difficult season but there is a lot to like about this team going forward.
- Brooklyn Nets (28-54) (Last week’s ranking: 23) – It is hard to call a season that ends with fewer than 30 wins a success but the Nets are an exception. After Billy King left Brooklyn in one of the worst spots any professional team has ever faced, it was remarkable to see their rise this season. Brooklyn is no laughing stock. For a closer look at the season that was, take a listen to Anthony Puccio, Jason, and Ben on the Baseline Jumper as they break down the Nets.
- Sacramento Kings (27-55) (Last week’s ranking: 24) – The Kings have been downright respectable this season. They have not gone to the lengths of Memphis or Phoenix to tank. If the basketball Gods are watching, Sacramento should get the first pick. This team could use it, too. They have a lot of secondary and tertiary players but need a star. Buddy Hield can shoot the lights out and would be a nightmare if someone else commands a double team. Ditto for Bogdan Bogdanovic. Willie Cauley-Stein could be the rim running five that so many teams are looking for, particularly if he improves his rebounding. Meanwhile, Skal Labissiere and De’Aaron Fox have had their moments. Labissiere and Fox might never be all-stars but Labissiere can be the third big man and has the ability to stretch the floor if he develops his shot and Fox could be a great third guard. Add in a true star and the Kings have the makings of a playoff team. Maybe they can find one in the draft this year.
- New York Knicks (29-53) (Last week’s ranking: 25) – The Knicks looked like a playoff team with Kristaps Porzingis. They were a doormat without him. That speaks to the depth of high end talent (or lack thereof) on New York’s roster. There are plenty of role players on the team but they need Frank Ntilikina to develop because none of the other players on the roster figure to have his upside. That also makes this draft a crucial one for the Knicks who need to rebuild while also keeping Porzingis happy so they can keep him around.
- Dallas Mavericks (24-58) (Last week’s ranking: 26) – Anyone believing the Mavericks were one year away from the playoffs need only rewind this season. Dallas is a long way from contention. Dirk Nowitzki may have been their best player this year despite his age. There are some pieces here but it is hard to point to any one of them as a building block. Dennis Smith and Harrison Barnes can be starters but neither looks like they have star potential. Unless the Mavericks strike it big in the lottery, they might be right back there next year.
- Orlando Magic (25-57) (Last week’s ranking: 27) – The Magic have a big decision to make with Aaron Gordon. It feels like they have to keep him. No big free agent will be angling to play in Orlando and Gordon has shown flashes of being an all-star caliber player. He had a career high shooting percentage from three on a career high number of attempts. Normally, that would mean less impact around the rim but he actually got to the line and rebounded the ball more often. All that would seem to make the decision easy but Gordon may command a max contract this offseason and the Magic would be paying a lot of money for someone who is not a surefire all-star.
- Atlanta Hawks (24-58) (Last week’s ranking: 28) – The Hawks have a long way to go but there were some promising wins and some promising flashes from their young players. Taurean Prince was on a tear to end the season while John Collins showed he can be a long-term piece. Besides Schroder, it is hard to say who Atlanta will opt to keep. Even Schroder was involved in trade rumors this season. The only definite for Atlanta fans is that the team will look a lot different next season. That is probably a good thing.
- Memphis Grizzlies (22-60) (Last week’s ranking: 29) – The Grizzlies put up an admirable effort but they could not tank as hard as the Suns despite their best efforts. They tried running out three big men, dusting off players who were out of the league since 2014, and resting their best players. Still, it could pay off since they did manage to finish second and unlike most of these teams, the Grizzlies are not nearly as far away from the playoffs. Pair an NBA ready talent or the player they trade him for with a healthy Marc Gasol and Mike Conley and Memphis could be in business.
- Phoenix Suns (21-61) (Last week’s ranking: 30) – The Suns are your NBA champions. No, they did not win the finals but they did win the annual NBA tank race. Their entire starting lineup from their season finale against the Mavericks might not be in the league in three years. Devin Booker’s injury helped their historic tank job but the Suns were a cut above (below?) the rest of the tankers this season and they might be able to stay in state with their selection if they win the lottery and nab DeAndre Ayton.
Biggest Mover: Utah Jazz (2)
Biggest Flop: Washington Wizards (3)