NBA Power Rankings: Playoff Races Heating Up
Kristaps is back, Curry is not, and the holidays are around the corner. With injuries around the league, the middle of the playoff races are heating up. The Knicks and 76ers make some big moves in this week’s rankings as they go in different directions. Where do the other 28 teams fit? Read on and find out!
- Golden State Warriors (24-6) (Last week’s ranking: 1) – Death, taxes, and the Golden State Warriors at number one in the Power Rankings. Playing without Steph Curry has not been a problem for the Warriors who are mauling other teams with Durant. That is the luxury of having two of the top five players in the league. Golden State has not lost in December and Durant has been on fire. He is averaging over 34 points, 10 rebounds, seven assists, and three blocks since Curry went down. Curry played like an MVP without Durant a year ago and Durant has been returning the favor.
- Houston Rockets (25-4) (Last week’s ranking: 2) – It speaks to the challenge they are up against that the Rockets cannot seize the number one spot despite being on pace for over 70 wins. The Rockets have been unstoppable. The win streak is up to 14. Chris Paul and James Harden look ready to take this team deep into the playoffs. They could become the first teammates in NBA history to average double-digit assists. Both are above nine a game and rank among the best passing duos in NBA history. It will be up to the rest of the team and their defense if they want to unseat the Warriors.
- Boston Celtics (26-7) (Last week’s ranking: 3) – Terry Rozier is making Celtics fans appreciate the fact that Danny Ainge decided to hang on to him after gutting much of last season’s roster. His steal and dunk with 1.2 seconds remaining helped seal a stunning comeback victory over the Pacers on Monday night. With the Cavaliers and Raptors in hot pursuit of the East’s top seed, the Celtics are doing everything they possibly can to widen the gap in the standings. Imagine if Gordon Hayward was healthy? Boston would be running away with the Conference. They are a fun team to watch and head coach Brad Stevens has them playing extremely well. He has to be the current favorite for Coach of the Year honors.
- Cleveland Cavaliers (23-8) (Last week’s ranking: 4) – LeBron James was named Eastern Conference Player of the Week for the second time this season, and the Cavaliers are hot on the heels of the Celtics for the top spot in the standings. Over the past week, James averaged a triple-double for the Cavaliers, who are winners of five-straight. After a slow start, the Cavs seemed to have figured things out and James is showing zero signs of slowing down. Cleveland is an NBA-best 18-1 since November 11. They face the Bucks and Bulls this week before facing the Warriors on Christmas Day in their highly-anticipated NBA Finals rematch.
- San Antonio Spurs (21-10) (Last week’s ranking: 5) – Kawhi Leonard is back. The Spurs have tread water while he was out. Now, Leonard will have to perform to keep the Spurs in the Western Conference race. They are shockingly only 3.5 games behind the Warriors despite not having a minute of Leonard all season. The biggest challenge for the Spurs will be reintegrating him and Tony Parker into an offense that has leaned heavily on Rudy Gay and LaMarcus Aldridge in their absence. Aldridge had issues with his place in the offense in the past. Will those issues reemerge with few touches? How will Gay adjust to a smaller role? Coach Gregg Popovich has his work cut out for him but he could thrust himself into the Coach of the Year race if he can get them back into the top two.
- Toronto Raptors (20-8) (Last week’s ranking: 6) – Nobody knows how they are doing it, but the Raptors are doing an admirable job of keeping pace with the Celtics and Cavaliers in the East. They went 3-0 last week and have a chance to put a nice winning streak together. The Raptors face the Hornets in Charlotte on Wednesday night before playing the struggling Sixers in a home-and-home over the weekend. By this time next week, they could have a six-game winning streak on their hands if they continue to play this well. Kyle Lowry and company just continue to get the job done, and Toronto is quietly turning itself into a title contender in a season where not many people expected them to do much.
- Minnesota Timberwolves (18-13) (Last week’s ranking: 7) – Jimmy Butler is settling in and beginning to win the young Wolves some games. Karl Anthony-Towns is clearly a capable number two. After those two, questions start to emerge. Concerns continue to grow over Coach Tom Thibodeau’s minutes allotment as his starter’s minutes continue to hover in the high 30’s. Meanwhile, Andrew Wiggins looks completely lost fresh off his massive new contract. Could the Wolves consider moving Wiggins to bolster their depth and curtail the minutes for their starters? For now, patience will prevail but for a team locked into the middle of the playoff race, some moves could be on the horizon. Until then, the Timberwolves look like they will finally end their playoff drought.
- Detroit Pistons (17-13) (Last week’s ranking: 10) – All four of the top teams in the Eastern Conference currently have winning streaks of three or more games. That includes the Pistons, who are the biggest surprise in the NBA this season. They have a chance to string some more victories together with winnable games against the Mavericks and Knicks this week. To make things even better for the Pistons, Andre Drummond has been protecting the rim at a high rate, making it extremely difficult for opposing teams to attack the paint against them. It would be a sheer disappointment is he isn’t named to the Eastern Conference All-Star team next month.
- Indiana Pacers (17-14) (Last week’s ranking: 11) – Monday’s heartbreaking loss to the Celtics has to sting if you’re a Pacers fan. That setback withstanding, the Pacers have been a surprisingly good team thanks to the All-Star-caliber play of Victor Oladipo. Indiana is also the only remaining undefeated team (8-0) against the 12 worst teams in the league, a club that you’re in if you’re at least two games under .500. If the Pacers continue taking care of business, they will prove to the entire NBA that they belong in the postseason conversation. How ironic would it be if the Pacers make the playoffs in the East while Paul George and the Thunder fall short in the West?
- Washington Wizards (16-14) (Last week’s ranking: 8) – The Wizards welcomed All-Star point guard John Wall back after a nine-game absence, but inconsistency woes are still plaguing this team. They are feasting on the NBA’s bad teams, but are struggling against top competition. Sunday’s loss to the Cavaliers at home is a perfect example of that theory. Otto Porter Jr. is looking nothing like the player the Wizards thought they were getting when they matched Brooklyn’s offer sheet over the summer. There is still plenty of time to turn things around and the Wizards should still be a playoff team, but how much longer will it be until Washington decides to blow it all up and start from scratch?
- Milwaukee Bucks (15-13) (Last week’s ranking: 9) – The skidding Bucks have lost three-straight and are beginning to slip in both the standings and the power rankings. During their three-game losing streak, the Bucks have allowed a whopping 114 points per 100 possessions and are shooting under 30 percent from 3-point range. Neither of those are traits that good basketball teams possess. Giannis Antetokounmpo can’t do it all himself every night. They have a chance to get back on track this week with two upcoming games against the woeful Hornets.
- Portland Trail Blazers (16-14) (Last week’s ranking: 15) – Portland looks stuck. That issue centers on their backcourt and the strength at the top of the conference. As a result, the Blazers’ ceiling is probably the fourth or fifth seed in the Western Conference. Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum are stars in the league but they are clearly a piece away from a title. Monday’s loss to the Wolves felt emblematic of their place in the conference as well. The younger Minnesota team was able to win with two stars who already seem like a better fit than those in Portland. If the Blazers continue to lurk around .500, they will have to consider a rebuild. Maybe this one from Bill Simmons would move the needle? With luxury bills looming, a change could be coming to Portland.
- Denver Nuggets (16-14) (Last week’s ranking: 12) – Nikola Jokic is back while Paul Millsap’s absence continues. The Nuggets need him as they try to hold onto a playoff berth. Without those two, the Nuggets went 3-4. Denver’s point differential is down to 0.3 and they are looking less and less like a real playoff team. All of this means the pressure will be on Jokic to lead the Nuggets. They need a star to take over the squad. Gary Harris played well in Jokic’s absence but they still lack a 20 point scorer. One thing that could help Jokic is their dominant home record. They are 11-2 at home, which is particularly remarkable given they are barely over .500 overall.
- Oklahoma City Thunder (15-15) (Last week’s ranking: 14) – The Thunder are surging. They are 7-3 in their last 10 and Westbrook has decided to take over. Monday, Westbrook essentially had his teammates give him the ball and get out of the way. With the way that Carmelo Anthony has played this year, that might continue. Westbrook and Paul George will have to carry this team to any wins they hope to have unless Coach Billy Donovan can coax some ball movement and get the other rotation players involved.
- New York Knicks (16-14) (Last week’s ranking: 19) – Kristaps Porzingis missed his sixth game of the season during New York’s loss to the Hornets, which snapped their four-game winning streak. The Knicks’ formula is quite simple: They play well when Porzingis is in the lineup and look like a lottery team when he doesn’t. It’s frustrating to think that the team’s playoff hopes hinge on the health of their 22-year-old power forward, but he needs to get healthy fast because the upcoming schedule looks absolutely daunting. They face the Celtics, Pistons, and Sixers this week, all of whom are ahead of the Knicks in the standings. They also play the Spurs twice in a span of five days at the end of the month, which could make for a very unhappy holiday season for Knick fans.
- New Orleans Pelicans (15-15) (Last week’s ranking: 16) –
The Pelicans are 15-15, the seventh seed in the playoffs if the season ended today, and DeMarcus Cousins and Anthony Davis have found a way to play together. The even better news has been that Rajon Rondo has seamlessly fit into the rotation. The best news of all might be the incredible play of E’Twaun Moore who has filled the gaps for their team. He is one of the team’s only players who can shoot, defend, and handle the ball. That has taken pressure off of Jrue Holiday. It is pretty incredible to think that the Pelicans’ playoff hopes might hinge on the play of a 31-year old Rajon Rondo and a 28-year old journeyman combo guard.
- Philadelphia 76ers (14-15) (Last week’s ranking: 12) – Everyone knows the Sixers are a young team, but that shouldn’t excuse the fact that they have the NBA’s highest turnover rate for the fourth time in the last five seasons. If they keep turning the ball over this much, they will find themselves right back in the NBA Draft lottery at the end of the regular season. The Sixers suffered two crushing losses this week, including a triple-overtime game at home against Russell Westbrook and the Thunder. They need more production from their bench if they want to break out of this current mini-slump.
- Utah Jazz (14-17) (Last week’s ranking: 17) – Can Rudy Gobert stay on the floor? That must be the question plaguing the minds of Jazz fans after Gobert went down with another injury. The team has managed well in his absence, though. Utah kept themselves in the playoff race largely behind the play of rookie Donovan Mitchell. Mitchell has played himself into the top three of a potentially all-time rookie of the year race. Few rookies, particularly in the modern era, have been successful their first years. Mitchell, Jayson Tatum, and Ben Simmons are all playing like potential all-stars. Mitchell’s emergence clearly takes some of the sting off of the loss of Gordon Hayward and his playmaking capacities have many around the league thinking the Jazz may have nabbed a superstar late in the draft.
- Miami Heat (15-15) (Last week’s ranking: 18) – Miami has won four of its past six games, but they currently find themselves on the outside of the playoff picture. Some of their best players have been in and out of the lineup due to various injuries. This week, they take on the Hawks and Celtics on the road before coming home to face the Mavericks and Pelicans. Anything other than a 3-1 record in these games would be a disappointment.
- Brooklyn Nets (11-18) (Last week’s ranking: 22) – The Nets miss D’Angelo Russell and Jeremy Lin. They have been competitive in almost every game they’ve played so far this season, but it’s frustrating to think about what their record would be if at least one of their two top players were healthy. Brooklyn’s 1-3 week featured blowout losses to both the Knicks and Raptors, as well as the debuts of new Nets Jahlil Okafor and Nik Stauskas. Stauskas looks like the perfect fit in Kenny Atkinson’s offense, but Okafor looks out of shape. He’ll need some time to adjust to the fast pace the Nets love to play at, but if any coach can get the most out of the now 22-year-old former Sixer, it’s Atkinson. Let’s see how Okafor looks playing next to 19-year-old rookie Jarrett Allen. This could be the frontcourt of the future for the Nets.
- Orlando Magic (11-20) (Last week’s ranking: 20) – What happened to Orlando’s hot start? Aaron Gordon has been banged up, but the Magic have become a horrendous team. When we first started doing these rankings, we entertained the idea of putting the Magic in the top seven or eight. Now, they will be in the bottom five by the end of the season if they don’t start to play better. The Magic have lost five straight and are just 3-16 since November 11. Frank Vogel may be coaching for his job down there in Disney World.
- Charlotte Hornets (11-19) (Last week’s ranking: 21) – The Hornets have a lot of issues. They have been one of the worst offensive teams in the NBA this season and they lack a deep bench. Dwight Howard has played, but he has proved time and time again that he can’t do it all by himself. Both Kemba Walker and Nicolas Batum have got to start playing better. Beating up on the Knicks sans Kristaps Porzingis is a good start, but the Hornets have some tough tests remaining this week with games against the Raptors and Bucks.
- Los Angeles Clippers (11-18) (Last week’s ranking: 24) – Obviously injuries have derailed the Clippers’ season but they continue to fight. The question will be how much longer they keep the players together. Lou Williams and DeAndre Jordan seem more like half-season rentals at this point. Neither player seems suited for a team that may have to rebuild. Moreover, both players are looking at free agency so the Clippers have no reason to hold onto them since their spending spree this summer largely takes them out of the bidding unless they lock in their core and the subsequent tax bills that come with them. Jerry West came to town to bring another California team to the mountaintop. Time to get to work, Jerry!
- Los Angeles Lakers (10-18) (Last week’s ranking: 23) – How should Lakers’ fans feel so far? On the one hand, the team’s young players are showing plenty of promise and Brandon Ingram is starting to look like a future all-star. On the other hand, the Lakers had hoped to be better this year and find themselves with fewer wins than the Phoenix Suns and likely without their first-round pick. It is easy to daydream about LeBron James and Paul George but neither of those players is coming to a basement level team. NBA stars are too smart to end up in a bad situation. The flexibility James craves enables him to avoid getting stuck in a rebuild. That is exactly where the Lakers find themselves. If Ingram morphs into the superstar some projected, the Lakers could regain their place among the top destinations but until then, Luke Walton has some work to do with his team.
- Phoenix Suns (11-21) (Last week’s ranking: 25) – The Suns’ rebuild is hitting some bumps. Devin Booker looks like a star but Josh Jackson, Dragan Bender, and Marquese Chriss all sit with PERs under 10. They are playing like replacement-level players. Meanwhile, Alex Len is heading towards free agency. He has played well this year but not well enough to garner a big-time extension. TJ Warren and Booker have panned out but hitting under .500 on those picks without a home run has hurt Phoenix. Booker is a good player but cannot carry a team and none of the other young players have the pedigree to be the alpha. If Bender, Jackson, and Chriss all wash out, the Suns will need to think about shaking up their front-office in expectancy of another rebuild.
- Sacramento Kings (9-20) (Last week’s ranking: 27) – There is a remarkable dichotomy on the Kings’ roster. There are a number of win-now veterans playing good basketball. There are even a few youngsters who could be contributing to wins. On the other, there are players like De’Aaron Fox who use their playing time as an opportunity to stretch their limitations. The Kings need to establish their identity and decide which way they are going. While it is admirable to avoid Thibodeau levels of minutes, Coach Dave Joerger will have to start playing the young guns more as the Kings slide out of the playoff race.
- Memphis Grizzlies (9-21) (Last week’s ranking: 26) – Amid the rebuild talk, very few people have talked about the unique position the Grizzlies find themselves in this season. Few quality playoff teams stuck in the middle get a chance to add the star they need through the draft. Instead of blowing it up, the Grizzlies could let this season go and use the draft to build around Mike Conley and Marc Gasol. The cap situation is murky and Gasol and Conley’s values are both at all-time lows. Why not keep the core together, add some young talent, and try again next year? Free agent bargains like Tyreke Evans are around every year and if the young players like Dillon Brooks and JaMychal Green can become something, they could make Memphis a contender again.
- Chicago Bulls (9-20) (Last week’s ranking: 30) – At this point in the season, I didn’t think I’d be putting the words “surging” and “Bulls” in the same sentence, but I feel like I have to here. The surging Bulls have won six-straight games and look like a much better team than they did a month ago. Nikola Mirotic is a huge reason why the Bulls have been playing some good basketball as of late. Chicago is 6-0 since Mirotic returned from facial fractures and a concussion suffered during an October fight with teammate Bobby Portis. Suddenly, the Bulls find themselves just 6.5 games out of the 8th seed in the East. I’m not saying they are going to be a playoff team, but they might not be the Eastern Conference doormats everyone expected them to be.
- Dallas Mavericks (8-23) (Last week’s ranking: 28) – Dallas is in a tough spot. Their Coach wants to win. The best player in team history wants to win. The owner wants to win. The problem is that the roster simply lacks the talent to get it done. Dennis Smith has shown some star potential but neither he nor Harrison Barnes project as top players on a championship team. Coach Rick Carlisle might not have the patience to go along for the ride as they try to get back there and Dirk Nowitzki’s is nearing the end of his career. At some point, the Mavericks need to choose a direction and stick with it.
- Atlanta Hawks (7-23) (Last week’s ranking: 29) – You can’t make this stuff up. A woman was caught on camera profusely puking behind the bench during the fourth quarter of Atlanta’s 110-104 win over the Heat on Monday night. The Hawks are currently the worst team in the NBA and if they can make their fans sick, one can only imagine how the rest of the league feels about them. All kidding aside, I’m sure the woman getting sick had nothing to do with the Hawks, but they simply do not have the talent to compete with the majority of the teams in the NBA right now. They have some nice, young pieces in the fold, but this rebuild is clearly just beginning.
Biggest Mover: New York Knicks (4)
Biggest Flop: Philadelphia 76ers (5)