There are just 25 days until the playoffs start and a whole lot remains up for grabs in the standings, from home court to seeding to postseason berths to lottery position. Even if you’ve been glued to college hoops for the last week or two, it’ll behoove you to know that March—mercifully—hasn’t been quite the snooze-fest of NBA seasons past. There’s still time to appreciate the red-hot Trail Blazers, the free-for-all for the West's No. 4 seed, Vivek’s weird Sacramento science project, and the pesky Sixers (who could actually win more games than the Knicks).
The finish line is in sight, and we’re ready for it. Here are this week’s Power Rankings.
(All stats and records through Mar. 19)
30. Brooklyn Nets (13–56)
Last Week: 30 Net Rating: -7.3
The Nets have now beaten the Knicks twice in two weeks, but these aren’t the New York City Power Rankings.
29. Los Angeles Lakers (20–50)
Last Week: 29 Net Rating: -7.7
D’Angelo Russell had 40 points against Cleveland on Sunday night and is the youngest Laker to ever eclipse the mark. The Lakers, however, are still quite bad.
28. Phoenix Suns (22–48)
Last Week: 25 Net Rating: -4.8
TJ Warren has really picked things back up since the All-Star break, averaging 17.5 points and 7.8 rebounds and giving Phoenix a much-needed wing presence. I maintain the best scenario for the Suns is drafting Lonzo Ball, committing to never, ever playing defense and seeing what happens next.
27. Orlando Magic (25–45)
Last Week: 27 Net Rating: -7.0
There’s speculation that Doc Rivers might come back to Orlando, but the truth is, that probably wouldn’t fix much. The off-season rumor mill is aliiiiiiive!
26. Philadelphia 76ers (26–43)
Last Week: 28 Net Rating: -5.2
Raise your hand if you had Dario Saric (19.3 points, 8.3 rebounds, 4.6 assists since the All-Star break) for Rookie of the Year. Anyone?
Willie Trill, Skal and Papagiannis are doing stuff! The Kings. They’re happening!!! (Maybe.)
23. Chicago Bulls (33–37)
Last Week: 21 Net Rating: -1.8
Dwyane Wade’s elbow is injured, the Bulls have the league’s third-worst net rating in March (and least efficient offense by a mile), leaving Chicago fans dreaming of the days of Jalen Rose and Ron Mercer.
22. Charlotte Hornets (30–39)
Last Week: 23 Net Rating: +0.7
Nobody outside of North Carolina seems remotely concerned with the mystery of when and why the Hornets stopped being remotely good, but it happened. Technically, they’re only three and a half games out of the playoffs, but optimism has run try, the ceiling has become roof, and Kemba Walker can only take so many shots in a game.
Charlotte by most measures has performed like a .500 team, struggling to win on the road and unable to put everything together with the type of consistency we saw last season. Late-game execution has been an issue as the Hornets continue to struggle in close games, with a 0–6 mark in overtime, 0–7 record in games decided by three points or less and 9–18 in games decided by six points or less (and four of those wins game in the first month of the season). They’ve lost 13 games after leading through three quarters. Them’s the breaks. But it’s amounted to somewhat of a lost season for a franchise that shelled out for continuity in the off-season, paying Nicolas Batum and Marvin Williams big money to play supporting roles but mostly failing to beef up its depth. There’s no true blanket reason for the failure to launch, but Hornets are officially in the dreaded competitive limbo zone.
The Hornets did just beat the Wizards to snap a three–game losing streak, and they’ve actually been top 10 in net rating since the All-Star break (and 6–7 record-wise). There have been some positives—Frank Kaminsky’s playing well and Cody Zeller ranks among the top centers in the league on a plus-minus basis. Kemba is very good. There’s some degree of optimism, but a lot that has to happen over the summer for Charlotte to return to relevancy.
Will luck deliver Michael Jordan’s team a quality spot in the lottery? Will the Hornets find another shot creator? Will any of the young fliers on the roster become rotation players? Will they at least become watchable on offense? Check back in six months or so…
This is an article about the 1996 Mavericks and not the 2017 Mavericks, but Rob Mahoney crushed this story and I’m going to shamelessly link to it. (Also, the current Mavs lost by 40 to the Sixers this week).
19. New Orleans Pelicans (29–41)
Last Week: 22 Net Rating: -2.0
The Pelicans have quietly owned the league’s second-most efficient defense in March and are 6–4, so the Boogie experiment is… honestly way too early to grade. The playoffs are a stretch, but the next few weeks remain critical as New Orleans cobbles together what next season should look like.
18. Detroit Pistons (34–36)
Last Week: 13 Net Rating: -1.3
Miami is breathing directly down Detroit’s neck in the standings, and the Pistons tip off a four-game road trip Tuesday that may very well determine whether or not they make the playoffs. The good news is, those four games are the Nets, Bulls. Magic and Knicks. Detroit just handily beat the very short-handed Suns and has certainly proven capable of dispatching bad teams when their offense clicks—since Feb. 1, they’ve lost just once against current non-playoff teams. They’ve also effectively cut down on turnovers. The schedule is forgiving enough for the Pistons to hold serve, but it mostly depends how badly they want a first-round rematch with Cleveland. And hey, objectively, that series was kind of fun last year.
Then again, Stan Van Gundy benched Reggie Jackson and Andre Drummond in a loss to Utah last week. That, coupled with all the trade deadline noise, is fairly indicative of how liquid the Pistons’ organizational future might be. Their best lineups lately have featured Ish Smith, Stanley Johnson, Tobias Harris (who’s been generally very good) and Aron Baynes. For those scoring at home, that doesn’t include either of Detroit’s nominal two best players. Drummond remains a massively valuable rebounder on both ends, and Jackson remains on a mostly untradeable contract. Sneakily, their best player might actually be Kentavious Caldwell-Pope. All of Detroit’s core players will be back next season, so they’re pretty much stuck with these guys for now. And when we talk about continuity, well, a second straight playoff berth certainly wouldn’t hurt.
17. Indiana Pacers (35–34)
Last Week: 15 Net Rating: -0.8
Paul George is trying his hardest this month—27.5 points, 8.1 rebounds, 3.1 assists and 51% shooting ain’t bad—and the Pacers are hanging in there. That said, they’ve now alternated wins and losses for a franchise–record 14 straight games.
16. Milwaukee Bucks (34–35)
Last Week: 16 Net Rating: +0.8
The Bucks are getting decent minutes out of Greg Monroe and Tony Snell right now, which is to say, their current playoff position is rather tenuous. But then again, Giannis.
15. Portland Trailblazers (32–37)
Last Week: 18 Net Rating: -1.3
Damian Lillard is peaking while the Blazers mount a mad push for a playoff spot, which sounds kind of familiar.
14. Denver Nuggets (33–36)
Last Week: 17 Net Rating: -0.6
Denver hasn’t finished with a winning record since 2013, so the fact they’re three games from .500 with 13 to play is a significant step. But they’re also pushing to stay ahead of the surging Blazers. They get nine more games at home, and they own one of the league’s highest-scoring offenses, but they'll be challenged down the stretch. Come on you Nuggets.
Atlanta’s struggled through three separate three-game losing streaks in their last 15 contests, including their current one (and Paul Millsap is hurt). The Hawks fortunately face a soft-ish draw the rest of the way, but better find some inspiration quickly.
12. LA Clippers (41–29)
Last week: 11 Net Rating: +3.1
The Doc Rivers exit rumors have begun, it’s impossible to know what we’re getting on a nightly basis, and the Clippers are the post-season’s boom-or-bust archetype yet again. Clippers gonna Clip.
11. Miami Heat (34–36)
Last Week: 10 Net Rating: +0.8
The Heat are thisclose to being in the playoffs and cementing the worth of this breakneck, ridiculous run of performances. Erik Spoelstra’s case for Coach of the Year grows more and more compelling. Dion Waiters for MVP, well…
10. Washington Wizards (42–27)
Last Week: 5 Net Rating: +2.2
Add the Wizards to the list of would-be conference contenders totally not helping themselves right now. Washington dropped bad ones against Minnesota, Dallas and Charlotte and has seen its defense fall off the rails this month despite a fine 7–4 record. Fifty wins, however, will come with some resistance.
9. Toronto Raptors (41–29)
Last Week: 12 Net Rating: +4.6
The Raptors hit some degree of rock bottom in a blowout loss to the Thunder this week, but bounced back with two convincing defensive performances against the Pistons and Pacers. They're starting to look like a team that could be a massive thorn in someone’s side in a month or two. Even better: they might be the deepest team in the East when Kyle Lowry gets back.
8. Boston Celtics (44–26)
Last Week: 7 Net Rating: +2.9
Just when you think things are going great again, the Celtics drop a random Sunday matinee in Philly. Lucky for Boston, their next six games come at home and can go a long way toward potentially winning the conference—especially if the Cavs continue to rest stars.
7. Utah Jazz (43–27)
Last Week: 6 Net Rating: +4.8
Utah has slipped incrementally on both sides of the ball this month, but so far it’s been enough to hang onto that No. 4 seed. The picture is still murky, but the Jazz have the horses to seal the deal.
Whatever was ailing Memphis looks totally patched over: the Grizz rallied for four straight wins after dropping five in a row and take a lot of momentum into a four-game road trip. For what it’s worth, they’re 6–3 against the Spurs, Warriors and Rockets combined, and get both San Antonio and the Golden State this week.
5. Oklahoma City Thunder (40–29)
Last Week: 8 Net Rating: +0.0
This is not a new question by any means, but it’s one that bears repeating: exactly how far can Russell Westbrook carry this team? Right now he’s lifted the Thunder to five straight wins, entering Monday night’s showdown with the Durant-less Warriors. The Thunder also notably have the Rockets on tap this week. And as the post-season looms, those two teams remain the most compelling (and obvious) matchups for the fighting Westbrooks of Oklahoma.
It’s natural and defensible to look at the Thunder as a critical playoff plot point as April approaches because they’re an increasingly steady vehicle for their relentless superstar. It’s not unlike what’s happened in Houston this season—OKC has assembled a compatible group of tough role players around Westbrook and unleashed its star, a strategy that’s been successful because of the fact that he never, ever seems to get tired. Russ is the Thunder and the Thunder are Russ. At this rate, they’re inching closer to a four seed (where they’d likely have a chance for a second–round crack at Golden State), and if things stay constant, the potential of a Westbrook-Harden first-round showdown is just too juicy. For better or worse, Russell Westbrook has his own gravitational field this year.
Breathless prognostication aside, OKC’s peaking at the right time. They made a shrewd deadline trade, they’ve kept pace and play just four of their final 13 games against current playoff opponents. Taking home court from the Jazz or Clippers over the next three weeks is totally in play. Westbrook is averaging 34.5 points per game since the break—an improvement! Victor Oladipo has returned to the starting lineup. And aside from lacking a real backup point guard, they’re solid up and down. Sure, teams will gameplan hard for Russ in a seven–game series but there’s nobody who really wants to try and beat this guy four times. There won’t be a more fascinating team to watch in the first round.
4. San Antonio Spurs (53–16)
Last week: 4 Net Rating: +8.6
Thankfully LaMarcus Aldridge’s heart appears to be fine, and Kawhi is back from his concussion, and the Spurs are still serious playoff contenders. If history serves, they should be back to top form in no time.
3. Houston Rockets (48–22)
Last Week: 1 Net Rating: +6.5
James Harden now has an NBA-record seven 40-point triple doubles. Meanwhile, the Rockets are a stupid 13–1 on the second leg of back-to-backs this season.
2. Cleveland Cavaliers (46–23)
Last Week: 2 Net Rating: +3.5
What happens when you rest stars? Kyrie Irving’s 46 points, LeBron’s 34/7/6 and Kevin Love’s 21 and 15 happens. It was against the Lakers, but still.
1. Golden State Warriors (55–14)
Last Week: 3 Net Rating: +11.6
Three wins in a row, and these guys are back on top with a few weeks left to go. Also relevant: Kevin Durant is shooting jumpers again. Tick tock…