NBA power rankings: Turning up the Heat

BY foxsports • February 26, 2014

Trades and buyouts are mostly complete, so we now have a good vision on how the remainder of the season will play out. Here are five quick, overly safe predictions:

1. The Heat will never relinquish their season-long placement as Vegas title favorites.

2. The Knicks and Carmelo won't make the playoffs.

3. Kevin Durant will be the regular-season MVP.

4. None of the surprise teams (Blazers, Suns, Raptors) will make it to their respective conference finals, but they still deserve a high-five.

5. This season's top tankers will be rewarded by a field of talent that's about to make the 2014 NBA Draft one to remember.

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.

Don't be surprised that the Miami is once again the hottest team in the NBA. They were never going away, and they are still the most talented team in the league. Miami has hit an identical 39-14 record every year they've been together, and they've also never missed a Finals.

Dwight Howard, you can now smile as wide as you'd like. Houston is playing the best basketball in the West. The pessimist can pick at the overtime loss at Golden State last week. But the realist will point to 10 wins in 11 games, only losing in OT on the road. No team has a better record since Jan. 1 than the Rockets (18-5).

The Pacers need to start looking in the rear-view mirror. Miami is hauling closer toward Indy's Eastern Conference lead, now just 2.0 games back -- and LeBron is going to look pretty scary in a mask. The good news? The gas pedal should be in the form of this current five-game, post All-Star stretch that includes five teams with losing records. It's also the right timing to find the ideal role for scoring addition Evan Turner.

Losses to the Heat and Clippers coming out of the All-Star break sting, but they're forgivable due to the circumstances of working Russell Westbrook back into the system. Don't worry about Westbrook impeding Kevin Durant's MVP season either. Durant just had the first 40-point, 10-assist game of his career in the recent loss to the Clippers. Blame that loss on the defense. OKC gave up 72 points to the Clippers in the first half.

The Spurs will eventually get healthy, and it's difficult to get perspective on San Antonio until the postseason begins. The defending Western Conference champs are still loaded with playoff experience and the best coach in the league. It seems like the Spurs are right where they want to be, not yet having hit their peak, and quietly just 2.5 games behind OKC in the West.

The league's highest-scoring offense is about to make a run back into the top half of the West. That's because following the loss to the Spurs just after the All-Star break, Portland began a string of seven games against teams with losing records. Portland's offense will be tough to handle, and this light stretch will push the Blazers past 40 wins before March.

Glen Davis is the absolute perfect fit for the Clippers. He's Doc Rivers-tested with 69 games of playoff experience plus a championship. He's got the bruising attitude the Clippers needed last season when they bowed out to the Grizzlies. This was a fantastic move as LA looks to gain more traction toward a title.

It's no mystery. When the Warriors are stingy rather than run-and-gun, they win. You don't need five Stephen Curry three-pointers when you play the West's best defense. Of course, the health of Andrew Bogut as a clog in the middle will have a hand in that.

The Raptors are no longer a punchline. They are no longer the default "other" team in the East. Toronto has won six of its last seven and is clinging to the No. 3 spot. Since trading Rudy Gay, the Raptors are no 26-13 (.667), a winning percentage that stands as top-five in the league right now.

Dirk Nowitzki called his rim-hopping, final-second shot in New York the ugliest game-winner he's ever had. The rest of us will just call it "shooter's touch" for one of the all-time great, high-arcing shots. Dallas has bounced back into the seventh seed.

The Suns are close to returning Eric Bledsoe from knee injury. He's just slightly behind the original timetable of four to six weeks, and there should be no rush. Phoenix was supposed to fall off without him, yet it has continued to impress and remains a playoff team. Working him back into the groove shouldn't be a problem under the genius of Jeff Hornacek.

Only the Thunder and Rockets have as many wins (15) in their last 20 games than the Grizzlies. Memphis continues to put pressure on the bottom half of the West's playoff seedings, now trailing the Suns by 1.5 games for the No. 8 spot. No one wants to face the Grizzlies in the postseason, but if they keep this up, someone is going to have to.

Chicago's loss to Miami (without LeBron) highlights the season-long problem. THe Bulls will hang around the mediocre East playoff picture by default amongst poor teams, but they just don't have enough firepower to beat good teams like the Heat. The Bulls are 8-14 against teams .500 and above.

Charlotte has been peeking around that corner long enough, and it may be time they make the turn. Charlotte has now won four in a row and is just three games under .500 (after being eight games under less than a month ago). It's because the Bobcats are still playing fantastic defense and have allowed opponents to break the century mark only three times this month, each of which was a loss.

Prediction: Brooklyn will finish with the fourth-best record in the East. The Nets have the third-best winning percentage (.696) in the league since Jan. 1, tied with the Heat. Brooklyn is building momentum, and it makes sense when you consider a first-year coach in Jason Kidd who needed to find his way on top of a revamped roster. The only thing between them and the third seed is the play of the Raptors.

There are a multitude of reasons why Kevin Love should win MVP and one giant reason why he should not. The Wolves' superstar has a stacked stat line (26.6 points, 13.5 rebounds per game), but Minnesota's losing record overshadows it all. Love can win in Minnesota eventually, but like all other great players, he'll need stars beside him.

It's frustrating. When the Wizards get moving, it seems inevitable they'll be dealt a blow. A knee injury may keep Nene out for four to six weeks, and it could be bad enough to keep him out the rest of the season. It's not as if Washington was contending for a title, but hopes of a winning record and a gutsy playoff push are now in jeopardy.

The Hawks are battling; you've got to give them that. They're undermanned but pushing nonetheless, yet the losing results continue to spiral them further down the standings. Once seen as a favorite to land with a No. 3 or 4 seed in the East (by default), they are now barely clinging to the No. 8 spot after losing nine of 10.

There was a time, just more than a month ago, when the Nuggets were a winning team. They had won 6 of 7 and had a 20-18 record as of Jan. 15. After losing eight of their last 10 (the only two wins coming against the league-worst Bucks), the Nuggets are essentially out of playoff contention. And they're not just losing; they are getting demolished. Denver has a plus/minus of -14.0 in their last 10 games. Have they checked out on Brian Shaw?

It's not a good sign when your mascot is getting more attention than your talent. Other than Anthony Davis, it continues to be another forgettable season for New Orleans. How they finish this season may be a strong indicator of how much they're listening to Monty Williams.

Jimmer Fredette is reportedly set to be the latest piece of the old regime sent out of Sacramento. Former GM Geoff Petrie has only been gone eight months, and now only four of his players remain on the roster. These Kings under new owner Vivek Ranadivé and GM Pete D'Alessandro aren't wasting time trying to make auxiliary pieces work.

J.R. Smith wins the "Most Likely To Pull a Sixth-Grader Move" award for the NBA. Sadly, it's the only honor the Knicks will receive this year. Raymond Felton's gun charge isn't worthy of the trophy case, and neither is New York's record.

The Cavs continue to slide backward, and it's hard to navigate what's next for this team. You can make the argument Kyrie Irving is a Top 15 player in the game while at the same time concede he's never proven he can win. The Cavs would be stupid not to offer him a max extension this summer, but will Irving decide to pass for greener pastures into the future? The losing continues, and Cleveland needs to somehow prove things can get better.

Blowing up in the fourth quarter is an awful formula when trying to reach the playoffs -- even out East. The Pistons average a league-low 22.4 points in the final frame and a league-worst differential of -3.2. Detroit is losing its sight of a playoff spot in the East, trailing the No. 8 seed Hawks by four games.

The Jazz are the worst defensive team in the league. Their defensive rating of 107.5 points allowed per 100 possessions is the most of any team. It's to be expected with a transition team, of course. The young guys are learning that mediocre offense mixed with awful defense doesn't translate into wins.

"Please, Arron Afflalo, don't rush back." If Orlando's lottery advocacy group has any pull, the Magic's leading scorer will take his time returning from an ankle injury. Orlando remains in the bottom three, on its way to top-three lottery odds. The advocacy group may want to watch, though, for Maurice Harkless, who had his best performance of the season with 22 points as a fill in for Afflalo vs. the Wizards.

It's sad to think there's a kid out there somewhere with a Steve Blake Lakers jersey, and now he can't even have that.

Finally Rajon Rondo can finish out this lost season in peace. The deadline passed and Rondo is still a part of a team pacing to win just 26 games. At least if the losing continues, Rondo will gain a top lottery pick in addition to all other Boston picks. The Celtics could rebound quickly from this season with all those assets this summer.

Poor Milwaukee, even when they win they lose. The Bucks maintain the league's worst record by a sizeable 3.5-game lead, but a win against Philly didn't help. There's a silver lining though, Bucks: You've finally moved out of last in these rankings.

How could Danny Granger want out of this good time? 76ers fans have never rooted more for a loss. Philly's recent defeat (or victory) to the Bucks brings them just one game closer to Milwaukee in the chase for the top lottery odds. Philly will not give up, so they've lost 11 straight.

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