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NBA Power Rankings – Preparing for the Final Stretch

3 minute read

The NBA’s top teams further separated themselves from the pack this week, while certain trade acquisitions look to vault mid-tier squads into the championship conversation coming down the stretch.

Picture: <br />Jeremy Wallace
Jeremy Wallace

Milwaukee Bucks 45-17

Last week: 1st

Well, Milwaukee has extended its winning streak to 16 games. It hasn't always been pretty for the Bucks this season, but the one constant has been their defence, which ranks first in the league. On top of that, the Bucks' offence, which ranks 17th overall, has jumped up to fifth over the last fortnight. This has been predominantly because of their three-point shooting; Milwaukee now ranks fourth in the NBA in made three pointers per game at 14.4. The Bucks have surrounded Giannis Antetokounmpo with shooters at every position, and these shooters are making shots at a much higher rate.

Boston Celtics 45-18

Last week: 2nd

Boston continues to breathe down Milwaukee's neck for the top spot in the Eastern Conference. Now with Marcus Smart back, the Celtics' depth is truly something to behold. Being able to bring guys like Malcolm Brogdon, Derrick White and Grant Williams off the bench, and for them to perform at an elite level, is a great luxury to have. This depth has become even more important with the struggles of Jayson Tatum, who has not shot well in many of Boston's recent games.

Denver Nuggets 44-19

Last week: 3rd

Other than laying an egg against Memphis, Denver kept its good form rolling coming off the All-Star break with wins over the LA Clippers and Houston. After missing six games as he manages his previously injured knee, Jamal Murray has returned and is starting to get back to form, dropping 21 and 32-point games in his last two. With Murray back in the fold, Denver only gets scarier.

Philadelphia 76ers 40-21

Last week: 4th

Philadelphia has dropped a few heartbreakers since returning from the break to give Milwaukee and Boston some breathing room at the top of the East. Nevertheless, When Joel Embiid plays well, the Sixers rarely lose. However, there have been games where Embiid was double-teamed all game long, and the Sixers' shooters were unable to punish those double-teams, evident in their low-scoring 101-99 loss to Miami this week. Tyrese Maxey has also been very up and down since the break; some games Maxey looks among the best on the floor, and other games he is barely heard from.

Memphis Grizzlies 38-23

Last week: 6th

Memphis seems to be, for the most part, back on track. Nobody thought that losing Steven Adams would have that much of an impact on the Grizzlies' success, but this period without Adams has shown how valuable he is as a role player. Nevertheless, Xavier Tillman has been adequate as a replacement at centre, while the Grizzlies' ancillary pieces have begun to hit shots again. The only thing to note with Memphis is that lots of their offence comes in transition off forced turnovers, which happens much less on the playoffs. When the game is mostly in the halfcourt, the Grizzlies can struggle to create offence efficiently, a prime example of that being their loss against Philadelphia.

Sacramento Kings 36-25

Last week: 10th

Sacramento continues to be an awesome story, winners of four straight games. Stats-wise, the Kings own the NBA's top offence and are near-impossible to slow down when they are rolling. Domantas Sabonis' ability to act as a play-making Hub for guards like DeAaron Fox, Malik Monk and Kevin Huerter has transformed this team on the offensive end. The bottom line is this: if an opposing team's defence can slow down Sac's offence, they can win, because the Kings' defence remains bad. If not, the Kings will just outscore other teams and win.

Cleveland Cavaliers 39-26

Last week: 5th

Admittedly, Cleveland has had a decently tough schedule since the break, with games against the Nuggets, Hawks, Raptors and Celtics. But the Cavs only beat the Raptors in this stretch, losing all the other games. Much like the Heat, these struggles are, somewhat inexplicably, defence related. Cleveland's proficiency on that end has earned them the third-rated defence for the season, but they are an astounding 27th since returning. Assuming there are no injuries, expect these foibles to level out.

New York Knicks 37-27

Last week: 8th

The Knicks can't put a foot wrong, winners of seven straight games, including a victory over the Celtics. New York does play heavily in isolation, ranking dead last in assists per game. However, with the efficiency with which their isolation scorers (Julius Randle and Jalen Brunson) are playing at, the lack of passing hasn't mattered. Additionally, after barely attempting to shoot three pointers with Portland, Josh Hart seemingly can't miss; Hart has gone a combined 11/16 from deep with the Knicks thus far.

Phoenix Suns 34-29

Last week: 9th

After trading for an injured Kevin Durant, Phoenix momentarily lost some key depth, contributing to them losing two of three games. Durant finally returned on Thursday in the Suns' win against the Hornets, dropping a cool 23 points on excellent efficiency. The goal for the remaining 19 games for Phoenix will be to learn how to play with Durant, and figure out which of their depth pieces can contribute in the playoffs.

Brooklyn Nets 34-28

Last week: 7th

Considering Brooklyn's string of losses since trading Kyrie Irving and Kevin Durant, this much has become clear: they need a true primary option. Mikal Bridges, as good as he's been, is probably a third-best player on a championship team. Expect the Nets to drop into the play-in tournament in the coming weeks.

Golden State Warriors 32-30

Last week: 17th

Golden State have responded well out of the break, going 3-1 this week as they continue trying to tread water with Steph Curry and Andrew Wiggins out. How are they doing it? Well, Klay Thompson has been on fire, dropping 42, 32 and 42 points in the Warriors' last three games. Also, Golden State has been able to get good performances from Jordan Poole, Donte DiVincenzo, Jonathan Kuminga and Kevon Looney. Having said that, there has been somewhat worrying news out of Golden State, with Draymond Green having an MRI on a bothersome knee issue. We'll see if that pops up again later, given Green did play on Wednesday against the Blazers after missing two games.

Miami Heat 33-30

Last week: 11th

After an extended stretch where Miami was playing well, they have now lost five of their last six games - the stats paint a surprising picture as to why that is. Miami's offence has been as bad as usual (25th on the season). It has been the defence, which is top tier across the entire season, that has fallen off. Over the past two weeks, the Heat's defence ranks 20th in the NBA!

Los Angeles Clippers 33-31

Last week: 12th

The Clippers made the surprising decision to add Russell Westbrook, who was traded to the Jazz and bought-out, to their team. On balance, Westbrook has been decent for the Clippers; he is racking up stats like he has done throughout his career. However, opposing teams have been leaving Westbrook open at the end of games and tried to make him beat them, as opposed to the likes of Kawhi Leonard or Paul George. This, along with Eric Gordon not playing great either, has contributed to the Clippers losing all three of their games this week.

Dallas Mavericks 32-31

Last week: 14th

It was well-documented that with the addition of Kyrie Irving to Dallas, their ceiling went up, but their floor also went down. Surprisingly, the Mavericks' defence, which got theoretically worse with the addition of Irving, has not been the problem – it's been the offence. Irving has had some good games, some OK games, and some bad games. The more important factor, some might say, has been Irving and Luka Doncic needing to build chemistry. Some games Irving is taking 20 to 25 shots, and some games he is taking 10-15 shots. This may take time… time Dallas doesn't have if it wants to cement itself inside the top six in the West.

Atlanta Hawks 31-31

Last week: 18th

Atlanta is another team that has played well after the break, with two solid wins against Cleveland and Brooklyn, and a close loss to Washington on Wednesday. The Hawks star duo of Trae Young and Dejounte Murray have both come out firing, while Bogdan Bogdanovic continues to be steady off the bench. Additionally, Atlanta has hired former Utah coach Quin Snyder to take over as the team's head coach; can Snyder get this team back on track? His track record certainly suggests so.

Minnesota Timberwolves 32-32

Last week: 13th

Extending before the All-Star break, Minnesota has not been playing well, losers of four of their last six games. Included in this stretch was losses to the Wizards, Hornets and Warriors (without Steph Curry). With that said, it is encouraging that Minnesota's defence has steadily improved each week, and is now up to 10th. Additionally, we know that, when the Wolves lock in, they are capable of beating good teams, as they showed in their victory over the Clippers on Wednesday.

Toronto Raptors 31-32

Last week: 19th

The Raptors made a bold decision at the deadline not to sell, but to be aggressive in making their team better in the short term by trading for Jakob Poeltl. And, honestly, it has worked a charm. It is amazing how different this team looks with a true centre on the roster. Poeltl attracts real gravity as a roller to the rim, and sets terrific screens to get their guards free for open shots. With many teams at the bottom of the East playoff picture failing to solidify a position, there is certainly room for the Raptors to jump in.

Los Angeles Lakers 30-33

Last week: 23rd

The tough news that LeBron James will be out for an extended period of time with yet another injury puts a real dampener on the Lakers improved play since their deadline moves. Now, the lakers have won five of their last seven, and maybe they can continue winning without James… but those chances become much smaller without their superstar. Anthony Davis must be at his best for LA to keep winning, but the deadline additions have fit seamlessly. If the Lakers can find a way to make the play-in tournament, they remain a credible threat to pull off a first round upset.

New Orleans Pelicans 31-32

Last week: 16th

The news that Zion Williamson was going to miss even more time has been back-breaking for New Orleans. For the full season, the Pelicans rank 18th offensively and 10th defensively; those numbers have dropped to 29th and 21st respectively over the last two weeks. Also, CJ McCollum's plus/minus stats have dropped off significantly since Williamson went out; McCollum was at +3.9 in November, and has plummeted to -9.1 in February. Brandon Ingram has been doing everything in his power to will the Pels over the line, but it hasn't been enough without their franchise player.

Utah Jazz 31-32

Last week: 22nd

The Jazz are showing signs of a young team in the NBA. This week, Utah beat the Thunder and Spurs, but then backed up to lose to San Antonio in their second game. With a roster that has gotten much younger after the trade deadline, expect an uneven season the rest of the way for Utah. It will be interesting to see whether they can hold onto their play-in tournament positioning.

Oklahoma City Thunder 28-34

Last week: 15th

For the first time in a while, OKC is experiencing an extended losing skid, dropping seven of their last eight games. Given the Thunder have been missing Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, who is their primary offensive creator, these struggles are somewhat understandable. With that said, it does shine a spotlight on OKC's heavy reliance on Gilgeous-Alexander to win. Nevertheless, we must remind ourselves of how young this squad really is, and growing pains are still a part of the process. 

Washington Wizards 29-32

Last week: 20th

Washington has played three games since the break, and went 1-2 in those contests, including a 20-point shellacking by Chicago. Prior to the break, the Wizards were playing some great basketball, but the worry was always staying consistent. This next week will be key to the Wizards' play-in tournament ambitions.

Portland Trail Blazers 29-33

Last week: 21st

Despite Damian Lillard's ridiculous play of late, Portland just doesn't have enough to compete without the services of Anfernee Simons. Lillard is doing all he can to drag this team to victories, but their surrounding pieces have been straight-up bad. Additionally, the acquisitions of Matisse Thybulle and Cam Reddish have done nothing to help the Blazers' defence, which has actually gotten worse since their arrival. 

Chicago Bulls 29-34

Last week: 24th

Even with the news that Lonzo Ball has been ruled out for the season, the Bulls have played well coming out of the break, going 2-1 this week. The addition of Patrick Beverley has injected some life into this squad, while Chicago's stars have played well. Given their wins have come against the Nets and Wizards, it is still unlikely that the Bulls will make any noise.

Indiana Pacers 28-35

Last week: 25th

Indiana has come out of the break playing some good basketball. In their first game back, the Pacers took the Celtics to overtime, losing by four. Then, Indy beat the Magic and Mavericks to end the week; two wins Indy probably wouldn't have gotten a few weeks ago. Myles Turner has gotten back to his early-season form, dropping 40, 24 and 24 points in his last three games.

Orlando Magic 26-37

Last week: 26th

The Magic have gone 2-2 since the break, with wins over the Pistons and Pelicans, and losses against the Pacers and Bucks. Paolo Banchero, although he did drop 29 points against New Orleans, has dropped off slightly from his form a month ago, seemingly hitting somewhat of a rookie wall. Also, Cole Anthony has been much better at involving his teammates in the month of February, upping his assists per game from 3.6 to 4.

Charlotte Hornets 20-44

Last week: 27th

Man, Charlotte was finally experiencing some success, winning five consecutive games, before LaMelo Ball suffered a fractured ankle in their win over the Pistons on Tuesday. This is horrible news for this Hornets squad, with Ball out for the rest of the season. It will be tough for Charlotte to win in any sort of consistent fashion now, but expect the Hornets to prioritise getting rookies Mark Williams and Bryce McGowens minutes.

Detroit Pistons 15-48

Last week: 28th

Despite remaining competitive, the Pistons have lost their last five. This week, Detroit lost to Toronto by four, and Chicago by two. On the positive side, Marvin Bagley III returned after the All-Star break after a long injury layoff. Additionally, the Pistons have snapped up former New Zealand Breaker RJ Hampton after he was waived by the Magic.

San Antonio Spurs 15-47

Last week: 29th

San Antonio *finally* snapped their 17-game losing streak on Wednesday. Along with the likes of Jeremy Sochan and Malaki Branham, Charles Bassey and Blake Wesley have also begun to play upwards of 20 minutes per game for the Spurs as they continue to prioritise development of their younger players.

Houston Rockets 13-49

Last week: 30th

Houston has lost their last 10 games, and rank in the bottom two in both offensive and defensive rating. The Rockets have pivoted to more of a developmental phase, getting considerable minutes into Jabari Smith Jr, Tari Eason, Tyty Washington Jr and Daishen Nix. Hopefully, those minutes bode well for the future.

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