The Cleveland Cavaliers have a couple reasons for concern headed into the final weeks of the regular season, but things are generally pretty good in "The Land" these days.
Out on the West Coast, meanwhile, Magic Johnson is already starting to prove us wrong for doubting him and the Lakers, who are going gonzo for Lonzo. And on top of all that, there's the looming cloud of Kevin Durant's injury in Golden State.
After a one-week hiatus for the All-Star break, we're back with our NBA power rankings to tip off March. Enjoy.
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Philadelphia 76ers (Previous ranking: 28)
Joel Embiid’s injury news just sucks. Sorry for the crass phrasing, but there's no other way to put it. Now that Embiid’s officially done for the season, The Process starts all over in Philadelphia.
Hail to the Nets! Brooklyn snapped a 16-game losing streak with a win over the Sacramento Kings, in large part thanks to Brook Lopez (who scored his 10,000th career point) and a healthy Jeremy Lin. It’s not rocket science: when the Nets have those two, they’re an actual NBA team. When they’re missing either player … good luck.
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Phoenix Suns (27)
I’m a little bit confused here. Coach Earl Watson says he needs an enforcer after Vince Carter elbowed Devin Booker into next week, but the Suns already have Alex Len and Tyson Chandler on the roster. Why are you paying those guys if they can’t keep your young talent safe? Was this a way of calling them out in the media? What gives, coach?
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Sacramento Kings (20)
Sacramento experienced the typical post-trade bump with a double-digit win over the Nuggets right after the All-Star break — and followed that up with three straight awful losses to the dregs of the NBA. Sorry, Kings fans. There’s a reason I called this the least talented team in the Association.
Los Angeles Lakers (30)
March seems like a fun time for the “Lonzo Ball to the Lakers” bandwagon to start picking up momentum. We know Lavar Ball is certainly on board, anyway. FOX Sports NBA analyst Chris Broussard joined Colin Cowherd to break down Ball’s fit in Los Angeles and how badly the Lakers might want to draft the hometown guard.
Terrence Ross summed up the post-deadline Magic this week, pointing out Orlando has to play a lot smaller after trading Serge Ibaka for Ross: “When you play smaller, you play a lot faster. We’re a little more scrappy. We kind of get our hands more into pocket passes and try to take advantage of our mismatches and our speed. Any time you have that, it helps on the defensive end.”
Portland Trail Blazers (24)
The Blazers’ hopes of making the playoffs are fading fast, with Portland now [tktktk] games back of the eighth seed in the Western Conference. Losing Ed Davis for the rest of the season certainly doesn’t help, either — unless his shoulder injury frees up even more minutes for Jusuf Nurkic to step up as the tertiary option the Blazers need behind Damian Lillard and C.J. McCollum.
Jaime Valdez-USA TODAY SportsJaime Valdez
New York Knicks (25)
The Triangle is back as New York’s primary focus, and Derrick Rose spoke for all Knicks fans about that decision on Thursday: “[Expletive], do I have a choice? Do I have a choice?” Rose said when asked if he’s warming up to the triangle. “I just want to win games. Winning takes care of every category for an athlete.”
Way to save your response by bringing it back to winning, D-Rose.
New Orleans Pelicans (22)
New Orleans has a simple problem with DeMarcus Cousins in town. Between Boogie and Anthony Davis, the Pelicans have two of the best paint-scorers in the NBA, but they have no one to get them the ball at the rim other than Jrue Holiday.
Cousins and Davis are at their best when they can fly up and down the court dunking on people in transition. Until New Orleans can figure out how to loosen things up, this team is a work in progress.
Chuck CookChuck Cook-USA TODAY Sports
Dallas Mavericks (21)
It’s kind of a shame the Mavericks didn’t discover Yogi Farrell, February’s Western Conference Rookie of the Month, just a little bit sooner. Had he exploded onto the scene like this back in November, he’d probably be the clear favorite for Rookie of the Year at this point.
Yes, the rookie class is that bad.
Kevin JairajKevin Jairaj-USA TODAY Sports
Minnesota Timberwolves (23)
It looks like the Timberwolves made the right decision by holding onto Ricky Rubio at the trade deadline. He averaged 10.5 assists per game in February, third best in the Association, and six of his double-doubles came last month. With Rubio playing like that, there’s still time for Minnesota to make a push for the postseason.
USA TODAY SportsBrad Rempel
Charlotte Hornets (19)
Good news in Charlotte: Frank Kaminsky thinks he’s turned the corner, saying he’s a “confidence player” who’s finally feeling confident. Hooray!
Bad news in Charlotte: The Hornets just lost to the Suns of all teams and look incapable of stopping their spiral out of playoff contention.
But at least Frank the Tank is looking good.
Jeremy Brevard-USA TODAY SportsJeremy Brevard
Milwaukee Bucks (16)
The Bucks have a rather important week coming up, with four games split among contenders (a home back-to-back against the Warriors and Raptors) and lottery-bound basement-dwellers (at the Sixers, hosting the Knicks). If Milwaukee wants to sneak into the playoffs, Giannis Antetokounmpo and the newly-signed Terrence Jones will have to help the Bucks steal one of those tough home tests.
Associated PressDarron Cummings
Detroit Pistons (15)
Ish Smith doesn’t want to hear about a point guard controversy, no matter much better he’s playing than starter Reggie Jackson. "I don't like that (talk), because Reggie's our guy," Jackson said. "And for us to be who we are and to be great, we need him to be great. And so, I'm in his corner. We need our fans to be in his corner. We need everybody to be in his corner. When he's at his best, we're at our best."
That’s the kind of leadership you want out of a starting point guar—on second thought, never mind.
Miami Heat (17)
The single-biggest indicator of Miami’s ridiculous second half to the season: A Heat team most thought was best served tanking now has the third-best odds to win the Southeast Division, according to OddsShark.com. They’re not going to catch the Wizards, but passing the Hawks in the Eastern Conference standings isn't completely out of the question.
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Chicago Bulls (18)
While the focus Thursday night was on the Warriors and their struggles without Kevin Durant, give the Bulls credit for giving Golden State fits. Jimmy Butler complemented his typical stellar defense (just ask Klay Thompson) with a steady diet of free throws, and Chicago’s bench outscored the Warriors’ second unit by eight in a seven-point victory.
The Bulls could do some real damage in the postseason with that kind of play — against everyone except the Cavs, anyway.
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Atlanta Hawks (12)
Most coaches preach defense and getting stops during hard times, but not Atlanta’s Mike Budenholzer. Asked this week how the Hawks can solidify their standing in the Eastern Conference, Coach Bud preached more focus on offense. "If there's one area where we probably need the most improvement — and if we improve that it's going to lead to more consistency — it's us being better offensively," Budenholzer said. "Reducing our turnovers, just being more efficient."
We’re looking at you, Kent Bazemore.
Jeremy BrevardJeremy Brevard-USA TODAY Sports
Indiana Pacers (14)
Regardless of whether Kawhi Leonard’s final shot over Paul George should have counted on Wednesday, it was nice watching PG-13 and The Klaw go back and forth at each other in an old-school display of one-on-one basketball. Here’s hoping those watching at home took note of George’s own excellence as he proved yet again he’s one of the best two-way players in the game.
Denver Nuggets (13)
Despite not quite making the cut for our top five Rookie of the Year contenders, I’d be remiss not to recognize how well Jamal Murray has played over the past month or so. Remember Emmanuel Mudiay? Hope you weren’t a big fan, because Murray already took over as the Nuggets’ backup point guard before getting the starting nod earlier this week. He’s going to be a prime contender for “Most Improved Player” two seasons from now.
Toronto Raptors (10)
Kyle Lowry’s wrist injury is one of the biggest blows of the year — right up there with Kevin Love’s knee Joel Embiid’s knee and Kevin Durant’s knee. (Seriously, can we ban knee injuries in the next CBA?). The Raptors were on the verge of establishing a new identity as a roster of bulldogs, from Lowry to DeMarre Carroll to Serge Ibaka to P.J. Tucker and sure, even DeMar DeRozan. They looked like a squad that could go toe-to-toe with the Cavs, if not quite knock off the defending champs.
If Lowry’s not his All-Star self, though, that all falls apart.
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Memphis Grizzlies (9)
It’s been a quiet couple of weeks for Memphis outside of Vince Carter launching Devin Booker into orbit with his “Respect my old man game” elbow earlier this week. Who knew the 40-year-old future Hall of Famer had so much nastiness left in him?
Oklahoma City Thunder (11)
Russell Westbrook "failed" to come up with his third straight 40-point triple-double on Thursday night, which is almost irrelevant. The fact that he's still averaging a triple-double in March is astonishing.
In case you're curious — and I know you are — Westbrook needs to average 8.29 rebounds and 9.57 assists per game for the rest of the year to match Oscar Robertson's historic season-long average, assuming he plays all 82 games.
Los Angeles Clippers (7)
The Clippers sound like an old married couple trying to figure out how to keep things fresh after all this time together. After the Rockets roasted his team on their own court, Doc Rivers insisted L.A. is better than their lackluster effort in defeats.
Chris Paul echoed his coach’s comments, although with a bit more urgency: “I mean, I guess,” Paul said. “I don’t know. We just got to win games. I think the concern probably is our energy. Know what I mean? It’s something that should never be up for question. And we just got to play better.”
Geoff BurkeGeoff Burke-USA TODAY Sports
Washington Wizards (6)
Brandon Jennings is just what the Wizards needed: a bit of scoring punch off of the bench who can handle playmaking duties in a pinch. Adding the former Knicks guard won’t shift the balance of power in the Eastern Conference, but it was a smart, risk-free, low-cost move — the kind of transaction Washington doesn’t pull off all that often.
Utah Jazz (8)
Dropping a winnable game against the Wolves was a brutal blow for Utah, with the Grizzlies, Thunder and Clippers all right behind the Jazz for the fourth seed in the Western Conference. After a couple more cupcakes, Rudy Gobert & Co. face one of the toughest remaining schedules in the regular season, so they can’t afford to lose the (relatively) easy contests.
Boston Celtics (5)
The Celtics had a lot to be happy about in their clutch win over the Cavs this week, but the biggest takeaway was Isaiah Thomas’ fourth-quarter impact. He dominated the final frame without scoring, keeping the Cleveland defense on a string and finding teammates for open looks — until he hit one of the biggest shots of his life to seal the win.
Of course, Avery Bradley was a pretty big help as well. Without his ridiculous defense, Thomas might be a mismatch waiting to be exploited when the game is on the line. That synergy up and down the roster is what makes this team so special.
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Golden State Warriors (1)
I have to admit, I made a major mistake in breaking down how Golden State would adapt to Kevin Durant’s absence. I assumed Steve Kerr would get Stephen Curry involved in as many pick-and-roll situations as possible, slicing up opposing defense as they scrambled to stop the Warriors’ old bread and butter.
But apparently the days of setting on-ball screens are long gone in Golden State. The Warriors were happy to run guys off of elbow sets and through their off-ball motion actions against the Bulls rather than going with the simple answer.
Waiting to see if that’s the new standard operating procedure in Golden State adds another intriguing wrinkle to the tail end of this drama-filled regular season.
Houston Rockets (4)
Houston GM Daryl Morey doesn’t mind sharing his team’s strategy for taking down Goliath in the Western Conference playoffs. The Rockets are going to shoot all of the 3-pointers, dare the Warriors to do the same, and let variance rule the day.
And given how ridiculous this team is from behind the arc, it’s a plan that’s just crazy enough to work.
San Antonio Spurs (3)
Gregg Popovich hinted this week that Dewayne Dedmon will be the Spurs' starting center moving forward, which is a well-earned promotion for the big man. He's the perfect San Antonio role playing who does all the little things to help you win basketball games, as Pop himself said.
Oh, and after Kevin Durant's injury, Colin Cowherd thinks the Spurs have a path to the NBA Finals, going so far as to predict Golden State won't make it out of the Western Conference.
Cleveland Cavaliers (2)
It’s hard to blame the Cavs for their reported high spirits in the locker room following that close loss to Boston this week. The defending champions know they’re just biding their time until everyone gets healthy and they flip the switch in May and June — and they know the Warriors are the team scrambling to keep things in order headed into the stretch run this season.
Forget the record and the injuries. For now, it's still good to be the King.