Nothing feels set in the NBA at this point. The nine-team race in the West continues to shuffle down this final quarter of the season. As it stands today, the Spurs, Rockets, Clippers and Thunder can be argued as the best team in the conference. Meanwhile, there is a cooling trend atop the East, as both the Pacers and Heat have stumbled of late. As teams look to get healthy and start playing their best basketball, plenty can still change in these final weeks of the season.
Note: NBA rankings are updated each week before Wednesday’s games.
Follow the NBA season through the lens of Jimmy Spencer on Twitter at @JimmySpencerNBA.
As we spring forward, it’s no surprise the Spurs have surfaced as the best team in the NBA — thanks to renewed health. Don’t sleep on the huge value of Kawhi Leonard (15.6 ppg, 56 FG percent in March). The 22-year-old is arguably the team’s best player.
Houston was a road win in OKC away from their first No. 1 spot of the season. For now, they remain runner up. It’s no knock on what the Rockets have accomplished after becoming one of the West’s most elite teams thanks to a league-best 23-7 record since Jan. 1.
Let’s review the facts: 1. The Clippers have a championship-tested coach. 2. Blake Griffin is a legit superstar and a much better overall player than last postseason. 3. Chris Paul is still Chris Paul. Yup, at this rate these Clippers could be playing for a title in a few months.
As LeBron James goes, so goes Miami. That’s no surprise when we’re talking about the game’s greatest player. James felt the hangover of his 61-point performance, going relatively cold in Miami’s three-game losing streak to the Rockets, Spurs and Bulls. Don’t fear though, James bounced back in a win against the Wizards.
That victory over Houston was a statement game for both Russell Westbrook and the Thunder. Since Westbrook’s return, OKC had cooled to a 3-5 record. But the win, plus Westbrook’s 42-point "so there" moment on Patrick Beverley, puts OKC back on track.
There’s no reason to freak out, right? Every team stumbles at some point during the season, don’t they? Truth is, though, the Pacers current downward trend started well before the four-game losing streak. Miami is about to take away the rights to home court.
The Warriors are peaking at the right time. Golden State is buckling down, and has won five in a row and 10 of their last 12 games. With Steve Blake, Jordan Crawford and a healthy Jermaine O’Neal, the Warriors are showing how dangerous they are with full depth.
Once a Grizzly bear gets his foot in the door, he rarely backs down. Memphis is officially back in the postseason picture, the current No. 7 seed, and with just 19 games left it doesn’t seem like they’ll back off. Memphis is 20-7 since Marc Gasol returned.
Portland used to rule these rankings, but the Blazers have slid off Contender Island and now live strictly in "they’re a legit playoff team" land. Since reaching a season-high .750 winning percentage (33-11) on Jan. 25, the Blazers are at just .450 (9-11).
The Raptors haven’t finished .500 or above since 2007-08, when Chris Bosh was a true superstar and Jose Calderon was breaking loose. But this is the year. At eight games above .500 with 20 games to go, DeMar DeRozan and Kyle Lowry will have the Raptors back in the postseason.
Give me Joakim Noah ahead of any other center in the league right now. The Bulls will be a frustrating draw for any East team this postseason, and it’s because the competitive spirit of Noah. You’ve seen the video of Noah getting frustrated with teammate Tony Snell after the rookie gave a not-so-exuberant chest bump. Well, imagine how he is at practice.
Dallas has now lost four of six games and clings to the No. 8 spot by just one game. Those recent wins against the Blazers and Pacers were huge, but every game is going to count down the stretch.
Phoenix is now on the outside looking in, as Memphis has jumped over them for a playoff spot. It looks like Eric Bledsoe is set to return though, and the Suns will need all of his now-healthy legs. Phoenix finishes the season with 12 of 19 games on the road.
The Nets keep moving despite the absence of Kevin Garnett (back) and Andrei Kirilenko (ankle), and as Paul Pierce plays through pain. Brooklyn wants a top-four spot, but hopefully it does not come at the price of being unhealthy for the postseason.
The Wizards are taking the proper steps as a franchise, and this season’s likely playoff berth is a gigantic one. But you don’t become contenders overnight when growing through the draft, and the final-moments loss to Miami proves that.
The Bobcats (5.5 games up on No. 9 Detroit) are set to enter the postseason for just the second time in their existence. Sure, they’ll probably do it with a losing record, but it’s still a nice gift for Charlotte fans who generally only watch college basketball this time of year.
The Wolves have won eight of their last 11 games and are now above .500 for the first time since Jan. 29. Of the eight victories, however, only two came against winning teams, and it’s still too late for the Wolves to catch a spot in the playoffs.
Try to figure out Tyreke Evans. After a bitterly cold February (9.4 ppg, 36.7 FG percent, 4.9 assists), Evans has once again flashed his potential. In five March games, Evans has averaged 23.6 points (51.9 FG percent), 6.8 assists and 6.4 rebounds, and the Pelicans have gone 3-2.
The Nuggets have been crushed by injuries this season. JaVale McGee, Danilo Gallinari, Nate Robinson and, at times, Ty Lawson are all big pieces not to have. So does Denver roll the dice with this same core next season or look to revamp the roster?
The Zen may already be working for NY, as the Knicks’ four-game win streak has them sniffing playoffs. Phil Jackson will be good for the Knicks, and his signing makes you wonder if it came with a guarantee Carmelo Anthony will come back.
The Hawks have won just two of their last 16 games and are eight games under .500, yet they remain the No. 8 seed in the East by 3.0 games. Atlanta could become the worst team to ever make the playoffs. The 1987-88 Spurs made the postseason at 31-51.
The Kings would love to land a combo guard like Marcus Smart in the draft. They need a pushy competitor like Smart with versatility and strength, but they’ll probably need a top-five pick to get him. Now is not the time to collect wins, Sacramento.
Anthony Bennett stands as the dismal symbol of the Cavs’ season. The rookie entered with unfairly heightened expectations, was ineffective early and never showed significant improvement. Now, like the Cavs’ playoff hopes even in the woeful East, his season appears done. Bennett suffered a strained left knee that will keep him out three weeks.
Well, it wasn’t Maurice Cheeks’ fault. The team was 21-29 (.420) under their old coach and are just 4-10 (.286) under John Loyer. Establishing chemistry and rhythm can’t be done that quickly, but it looks like more proof these pieces simply don’t fit.
Trey Burke probably had more fun last spring, leading his Wolverines to the title game. He got off to a rough start this March with Utah, shooting 26.1 percentin his first four games. But he answered with 23 points vs. Atlanta on 9-of-15 shooting, hitting 5-of-8 three-pointers.
If you think Mike D’Antoni is a bad coach, please don’t include this Lakers’ season on your evidence list. L.A.’s roster was going to struggle even if healthy, but getting only 16 games combined from Kobe Bryant and Steve Nash took it to another level.
Remember how Michael Carter-Williams was declared Rookie of the Year in the first few weeks of the season? Well, the vote has become quite tight, as Victor Oladipo continues to improve while MCW has cooled off. Oladipo still looks plenty raw at times, but he’s arguably ending the season as the best rookie.
Boston will never regret hanging on to superstar point guard Rajon Rondo, even as the Celtics build for the future. He tallied 18 assists against the Pistons, and he’s averaging double-digit assists since February.
The Bucks are still awful, but it’s hard to keep pace with the 17-game losing streak of the 76ers. Milwaukee has won five of their last 17 games, and if not careful, the tanking championship could slip away.
The pain is nearly over. Like a bad breakup, it takes time before the clouds part and optimism emerges. Philly has the least talent in the NBA, but a 2014-15 core of Michael Carter-Williams, Nerlens Noel and two lottery picks could make next year’s 76ers a playoff team.