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'Melo-less Nuggets surge to No. 4

The Nuggets' resurgence is the best story in the NBA, and there is the tantalizing prospect that it is going to get much, much better in the weeks ahead.

With Sunday's road victory against a Lakers team playing its best ball of the season, Denver continued to show signs that its feel-good saga might have staying power. But even if it doesn't, and the team loses in the playoffs to a formidable foe like Oklahoma City in the first round, it's worth taking a moment to appreciate what the Nuggets have accomplished.

A month into the season, many of the players in Denver's current rotation hadn't logged a minute for the Nuggets, as they were either sidelined by injury or playing for the Knicks. For half the year, the team was mired in nonstop speculation over where and when Carmelo Anthony would be traded.

But then, slowly but surely, forwards Kenyon Martin and Chris Andersen returned, closely followed by the blockbuster deal that brought Wilson Chandler, Danilo Gallinari and Raymond Felton from New York in exchange for Anthony. The lodestones of Anthony's indifferent defense and ball-hogging offense gave way to dedicated teamwork on both sides of the ball.

The results have been remarkable. In the 19 games since the trade, the Nuggets have eight players averaging between 10 and 17 points, with none of them playing more than 33 minutes per game. During that same 15-4 period, they rank second in fast-break points and lead the league in fewest fast-break points allowed. They are trouncing opponents in transition at both ends.

With a six-game winning streak, the Nuggets have cracked the top five of the Power Rankings for the first time all season. Denver faces the Thunder twice this week in a likely preview of what should be a glorious first-round playoff series.

(All stats and records are through April 4.)

NBA Power Rankings
1Los Angeles Lakers
Last Week: 1
Getting center Andrew Bynum's sore right knee in the best possible condition for the playoffs is a greater priority for the Lakers than pushing to make good on their slim chance to overtake the Spurs for home-court advantage in the West. Ditto the recuperation for Pau Gasol, who has a bone bruise in his right knee and is listed as day to day. The merely minor worries for Phil Jackson's team are those injuries (you could also throw in the status of Kobe Bryant's knees and ankle); the possibility that they peaked too soon right after the All-Star break; and the caliber of the bench beyond Lamar Odom. Add it up, and the Lakers are slightly vulnerable against deep teams such as Portland -- a potential first-round opponent who has had success against the Lakers the last few years -- and Denver, which L.A. could see down the road. But the Lakers are still the favorites for a third straight championship.
 
2Chicago Bulls
Last Week: 2
One of the few arguments against Derrick Rose's MVP candidacy is that the Bulls are winning with defense while his greatest impact is leading an offense that ranks only 11th in offensive efficiency. (Chicago was 13th when this article analyzing his credentials was published.) But the Bulls were 27th in offensive efficiency a year ago, and their improvement of 4.9 points per 100 possessions nearly matches their five-point improvement on defense (from 105.3 to 100.3). Second, anyone who has watched Rose since he came into the league in 2008 knows how much more dedicated and effective he is on defense this season. His personal defensive numbers only look bad in comparison to the monster defense played by Chicago's second unit, not the NBA overall. Finally, there have been more than a dozen games this season in which Rose has put the Bulls on his back in the fourth quarter and taken them to victory.
 
3Miami Heat
Last Week: 4
Miami Heat (54-23)
Mario Chalmers returned Sunday after being out two weeks with a sprained knee. Maybe that will lighten the load on LeBron James, who, among many other things, has been Miami's primary ball-handler and power forward in coach Erik Spoelstra's increasingly frequent small lineup. At 26, LeBron is entering his chronological prime. He hasn't been slowed by injuries and he's actually shooting a higher percentage from both the field and the free-throw line on the tail end of back-to-backs. He's also motivated by the multitude rooting for his failure. But averaging 39.8 minutes since the All-Star break, especially with the multifaceted roles he fills, is not the best way to prepare for what he surely hopes will be a long and inevitably grueling playoff push.
 
4Denver Nuggets
Last Week: 11
Another reason the Nuggets are flourishing is because of a beneficial attitude brought about by their unique circumstances. All of their rotation players were regarded as bit players in the abiding Carmelo negotiations. The holdover Nuggets were overtly spurned by their then-resident superstar. The incoming Knicks were treated like a pile of bargaining chips even after they'd lifted New York to its best start in a decade. For various reasons, then, Denver's key players feel like they have something to prove, and yet not much to lose. That's a potent combination heading into the playoffs.
 
5Oklahoma City Thunder
Last Week: 3
The Thunder's post-All-Star break roll abruptly came to a halt with road losses to the Blazers and Clippers. The two defeats followed a similar pattern. OKC built double-digit first-half leads but couldn't get its offense in gear after intermission, relying too much on outside jumpers from Kevin Durant (who was 3-of-14 in Portland and 4-of-14 in Los Angeles in the second halves, including a combined 2-for-12 from three-point range). Meanwhile, Russell Westbrook never found his rhythm in either game, shooting a combined 6-of-27. The Kendrick Perkins trade sacrificed offensive options (Jeff Green and Nenad Krstic) in exchange for stauncher defense. But that puts even more of the onus on the team's offensive studs -- Durant, Westbrook and (management hopes) sixth man James Harden -- to produce.
 
6Boston Celtics
Last Week: 7
No one should doubt the ability of Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce and Ray Allen to elevate their games and motivate their teammates in the playoffs. But the Celtics still have significant question marks at center and point guard. The folly of banking on the return of the league's oldest and heaviest player was highlighted Sunday when Shaquille O'Neal was sidelined with a strained calf less than six minutes after returning from a 27-game absence because of a strained Achilles tendon. Neither one of Shaq's replacements, Krstic and Glen Davis, strike fear in opposing big men posting up or in little men penetrating toward the hoop. At point guard, Rajon Rondo is valiantly trying to regain his old swagger, but the strategy of daring him to shoot jumpers and fouling him when he drives has never been more effective. Since the end of February, Rondo is shooting 40.3 percent with no three-pointers. And he is making 53.8 percent overall at the line, a lower percentage than either Shaq or Dwight Howard this season.
 
7San Antonio Spurs
Last Week: 6
The Spurs score and allow more points per 100 possessions this season than at any time in the Gregg Popovich/Tim Duncan era. Understand this is about efficiency, and is not directly related to the Spurs' faster pace this year. More than ever under Popovich, San Antonio can't be stopped but also can't stop opponents. That's why it was so good for Spurs fans to see defensive anchor Tim Duncan's vigor and agility in his return from missing four games with a sprained ankle last week. Duncan's offense will also be vital in the postseason. Four Spurs have attempted more than 190 three-pointers and shot better than 38 percent from deep this season, and San Antonio leads the NBA in long-range accuracy at 39.8. But as Houston's former championship teams with Hakeem Olajuwon and, more recently, Orlando's playoff runs with Howard have proved, the outside-shooting game is most effective with an inside presence who draws the double team. If Duncan can summon a vintage offensive performance in the playoffs and make that happen, San Antonio's odds of a fifth ring get much better.
 
8Memphis Grizzlies
Last Week: 10
Swingman Tony Allen continues to demonstrate that, dollar for dollar, he was the most valuable acquisition in last summer's free-agent market. Allen, whose three-year, $9.5 million deal is worth slightly more than half the mid-level exception annually, has been the Grizzlies' second-best player behind Zach Randolph since Rudy Gay was lost for the season with a shoulder injury in mid-February. His clutch shooting and infectious pressure defense have fueled an 8-2 spurt that has the Grizzlies firmly in the playoff picture and not fearing any postseason foe -- they've split four games against the Lakers and Spurs and hold 3-1 advantages against the Mavs and Thunder. As the games become more important, Allen keeps elevating his performance. During Memphis' four-game winning streak, Allen is averaging 18.3 points (on 61.5 percent shooting) and three steals.
 
9Portland Trail Blazers
Last Week: 8
Gerald Wallace has quickly figured out how to be both aggressive and fit into the team's schemes at both ends of the court. Wallace provides the core rotation with crucial relief, just as Marcus Camby did last season when he was the big trade-deadline acquisition. The former Bobcat's ability to play multiple positions is especially important in getting power forward LaMarcus Aldridge some much-needed rest. And if the current standings hold and Portland plays Dallas in the first round, Wallace is exactly the sort of smaller but wiry and physical defender who can bedevil Dirk Nowitzki. Exhibit A was Sunday's matchup with an admittedly tired Nowitzki, in which Wallace had more points, rebounds, assists and steals than the Dallas All-Star.
 
10Dallas Mavericks
Last Week: 5
To begin the week, we had the irony of Chris Webber calling out the Mavs for being soft. Anyone who watched Webber play knows that his own lack of grit was probably his greatest flaw in an otherwise marvelous skill set. It is true, however, that Dallas' improvement this season and the key to its playoff hopes is the ability of Tyson Chandler to remain healthy, active and foul-free, precisely because the Mavs lack that grind-it-out intensity in the paint when he's out. But no one would be questioning the Mavs' fortitude if they were simply hitting their jump shots. In the last 10 games, Jason Kidd (29.4 percent), Jason Terry (41.1), J.J. Barea (41.6), Roddy Beaubois (43.9) and even Dirk Nowitzki (45.8) have missed shots far more often than their season average. Given Kidd's advanced age and the Mavs' recent history of playoff disappointments, it is a troubling trend.
 
11Houston Rockets
Last Week: 13
If there were any lingering doubts that the Yao Ming era should be over in Houston, the team's recent surge should have quelled them. Between the unorthodox, multifaceted skill set of the radically improved Chuck Hayes and the high upside of rookie Patrick Patterson, the Rockets have two smart players who can be effective at both ends of the court. It probably cost Houston a playoff berth figuring out that neither Yao nor Aaron Brooks fits into the pace, flow and attendant skills of the core rotation players on hand -- and they'd still be trying to make the mismatch work if Yao hadn't sustained a stress fracture in his ankle in mid-November. But that should be ancient history now. Provided they can re-sign Hayes and take advantage of their wealth of draft picks, the Rockets don't need to add any expensive pieces to set themselves up for a regular place in future postseasons.
 
12Philadelphia 76ers
Last Week: 12
All season, coach Doug Collins has adroitly alternated control of the offense between Jrue Holiday and Andre Iguodala (and to a lesser extent Lou Williams). In the final minutes of regulation and then overtime in Milwaukee on Saturday, Holiday was the primary decision-maker and the attack sputtered. The 20-year-old point guard has had a superb season, but come playoff time with the game on the line, the ball needs to be in the veteran Iguodala's hands. Both players average 6.4 assists, but Iguodala ranks eighth in assist-to-turnover ratio, he can get to the hoop more readily and, because of his stature, is more likely to get a call from the officials. However Collins decides to play it, the Sixers need to upgrade their crunch-time strategy. Philadelphia boasts a reliable mid-range shooter in Elton Brand, and Jodie Meeks is among the league leaders in fourth-quarter free-throw percentage. And yet, the Sixers are 2-8 in overtime.
 
13New Orleans Hornets
Last Week: 14
There are a lot of superb coaches in the NBA, but perhaps no one has done more with less than Monty Williams. The Hornets rarely beat themselves, sealing off the glass (only Howard's Magic and the Bulls and their strong front line allow a lower percentage of offensive rebounds) and taking care of the ball (they are third in fewest turnovers committed). Williams has adeptly mixed and matched the nondescript players on the roster, with two recent examples being Willie Green's fourth-quarter scoring splurge to beat Portland last Wednesday and backup center Aaron Gray's effective mucking the last few weeks. Meanwhile, the leaders are leading, with standard-issue brilliance from Chris Paul and a career season from center Emeka Okafor, who dominated Roy Hibbert in Sunday's win over Indiana.
 
14Orlando Magic
Last Week: 9
The Magic are a mess. In Sunday's loss to the lowly Raptors, they were outrebounded by 18 and allowed 50.6 percent shooting from the field. Earlier in the week, a loss to Atlanta left them 1-3 this season against their soon-to-be first-round opponent. For better or worse, Stan Van Gundy needs to put the ball in Jameer Nelson's hands and reduce the inconsistent Hedo Turkoglu's role. He needs to get more minutes for Quentin Richardson, one of the few Magic players deigning to defend on the perimeter. Meanwhile, instead of polishing their jump shots, supposed power forwards Brandon Bass and Ryan Anderson need to take some of the burden off Howard defending and rebounding in the paint. Howard needs to hit his free throws, J.J. Redick needs his strained abdomen to heal before the playoffs and Gilbert Arenas needs to stay on the bench.
 
15Atlanta Hawks
Last Week: 15
ESPN.com's John Hollinger had a sharp piece last week on Jason Collins' ability to frustrate Howard with solid positional defense, hard fouls and a knack for drawing charges, with the Atlanta center's single coverage enabling teammates to stick with Orlando's perimeter shooters. Collins should be working with Zaza Pachulia on his methods, because come playoff time, the Hawks' centers are going to need a dozen fouls instead of six to effectively contain Howard. Besides, Pachulia has been playing well lately, carrying himself with a bit of an edge. The more Atlanta can disrupt Howard when the two teams meet in the first round, the better their chances -- especially because Orlando no longer has backup center Marcin Gortat as a safety valve.
 
16New York Knicks
Last Week: 19
The best sign in the last week has been the slow but steady generosity of Carmelo, who apparently needed a few blowout offensive performances to establish his primacy before he started moving the ball in the half court. Three times in the last two first quarters, Anthony fed Amar'e Stoudemire for dunks or layups. That pattern needs to continue if the Knicks insist on trying to outscore their opponents. To be fair, Anthony has also stepped up his defensive intensity of late. Nevertheless, it is hard not to notice that the Knicks lack a single stopper among top players Anthony, Stoudemire and Chauncey Billups.
 
17Indiana Pacers
Last Week: 17
While Indiana has battled for a playoff spot, Danny Granger's numbers are down almost across the board since the end of February. To his credit, once it was apparent that his shooting woes were chronic in March (he hit just 37.8 percent from the field and 33.3 percent from long range), Granger successfully began drawing more fouls. He averaged 6.8 free-throw attempts last month and made 88.8 percent of them. But if the Pacers are to have any hope of stunning the top seed in the East later this month, their former All-Star needs to shoot lights out in the playoffs.
 
18Phoenix Suns
Last Week: 16
Phoenix Suns (37-39)
In retrospect, aside from a four-week stretch from Jan. 28 to Feb. 28 when they won 11 of 14, last year's conference finalists have had a terrible season. The problem was defense. During that golden month of February, the Suns yielded just 98.1 points per game, nearly five points lower than any previous month. But in March they regressed to 107.9 points allowed, without increasing their own scoring, ending their playoff hopes. What's worse is that just one rotation player will be under 25 at the beginning of next season, 23-year-old center Robin Lopez, who has been a colossal bust in his second year. Gortat, 27, is a solid fixture for the future at center, but otherwise, the Suns' two best players are 37-year-old Steve Nash and 38-year-old Grant Hill.
 
19Charlotte Bobcats
Last Week: 18
Sunday's loss to the Wizards kept Charlotte two games behind Indiana (just one in the loss column) for the eighth and final playoff seed with six games to play (four for the Pacers). Injuries to Stephen Jackson, Tyrus Thomas and Shaun Livingston provided the by-now-typical level of adversity for the team, which has withstood trading-deadline roster stripping and myriad injuries to remain in the playoff chase. But even if the Pacers lose all of their remaining games, the Bobcats will have to finish at least 4-2 to get past them. That would involve beating at least one of their opponents (Miami, Orlando and Atlanta) with winning records.
 
20Milwaukee Bucks
Last Week: 22
Corey Maggette made his first start in more than six weeks Saturday filling in for the injured Carlos Delfino, but it comes too late for either Maggette or the Bucks to rescue the season. Maggette is on pace to play his fewest minutes since being limited to 32 games in 2005-06; he's occasionally been injured, but stylistic difference with coach Scott Skiles also kept him on the bench. That's hardly a surprise: Maggette is a ball hog and an indifferent defender, and while management actually endorsed the former trait -- eschewing the pass and driving to the hoop is how Maggette has averaged seven free throws per game in his career -- Skiles has little patience for a player who doesn't get after his man at the defensive end. But Skiles' future job security may depend on figuring out a way to either motivate Maggette or work around his defensive lapses, because the 6-6 swingman is owed $21 million for the next two years, making him the team's second-highest-paid player in that span behind Andrew Bogut.
 
21Golden State Warriors
Last Week: 21
Ekpe Udoh and Louis Amundson, the center combination the last few weeks, have provided more stable interior defense than the Warriors have had all season. It paid off in Saturday's victory against Dallas. Golden State allowed only 92 points in a fast-paced game, improving to 16-4 when keeping opponents below 100. Udoh (6-10, 245 pounds) and Amundson (6-9, 225) are undersized for primary pivot duty, but they are also solid, stay-at-home defenders (although the rookie Udoh also gets his share of help-out blocks). That's a necessary quality on a team that likes to gamble in transition -- Golden State leads the NBA in points off turnovers -- but yields the most offensive rebounds by a wide margin. The next step is more defensive consistency from David Lee. Coach Keith Smart praised Lee for holding Dirk Nowitzki to 5-of-16 shooting Saturday, and the power forward also helped end Kevin Love's double-double streak last month. But over the course of the season, Lee has been a weak link in the Warriors' defense.
 
22Los Angeles Clippers
Last Week: 20
With one week left, it's a good time to consider the Clippers' first-year players who won't win Rookie of the Year. In retrospect, point guard Eric Bledsoe benefited greatly from the trial by fire resulting from injuries to Baron Davis and Randy Foye. Bledsoe started 21 consecutive games and averaged more than 30 minutes in a stretch during November and December. The extended stint produced his best field-goal percentage and assist-to-turnover ratio of the season, but the most glaring stat was the Clippers' 5-16 record in that span. With Mo Williams now ensconced at the point, Bledsoe has more time but fewer opportunities to pick up the nuances of the position. Still, logging nearly 2,000 minutes is a healthy baptism for the No. 18 pick. Forward Al-Farouq Aminu, taken 10 picks earlier than Bledsoe, also was a frequent starter in November and December but has struggled finding his role. Initially he seemed like a three-point specialist, but a 31.9 percentage from long range discourages that notion. He's a capable rebounder and defender who plays one of the few positions, small forward, where the Clippers aren't brimming with young talent. That said, he has a long way to go.
 
23Sacramento Kings
Last Week: 23
There were doubts about having enough touches to go around when point guard Tyreke Evans returned recently from his foot injury and joined swingman Marcus Thornton and rookie DeMarcus Cousins. In Sunday's victory against Utah, Evans and Cousins took 16 shots apiece and Thornton had 13. All three recorded at least three assists resulting in dunks or layups, and they combined for 23 assists overall (10 for Evans, seven for Thornton, six for Cousins). It's true that offensive numbers are easy to come by against the woeful Jazz, but in Sacramento's previous game, against the red-hot Nuggets, Thornton had 14 shot attempts and five assists, Evans 11 and four and Cousins 15 and five. That's a positive sign for the future.
 
24Toronto Raptors
Last Week: 27
This is the third straight week I'm picking on Andrea Bargnani, but the unavoidable story in Toronto is how much livelier and competitive the Raptors were in their last two games -- a victory against Orlando and a loss to Chicago -- without their injured leaders in scoring (Bargnani) and assists (Jose Calderon). With the 7-foot Bargnani sidelined, the Magic and Bulls both shot a lower percentage at the rim than the Raptors' season average for opponents. That's because rookie Ed Davis and veteran Reggie Evans received more minutes, along with Toronto's most efficient player, Amir Johnson, on the front line. More surprising, against two of the NBA's three most efficient defenses, the Raptors shot better than 50 percent, had 44 assists versus 16 turnovers and averaged 104 points. This improvement with youth (22-year-old Jerryd Bayless and 21-year-old DeMar DeRozan were the primary backcourt) would be more heartening if Bargnani and Calderon weren't set to remain Toronto's highest-paid players for each of the next two years.
 
25Utah Jazz
Last Week: 24
Utah Jazz (36-41)
There is no way to sugarcoat the way the Jazz have rolled over and started their offseason hibernation a month early. Losing Jerry Sloan and Deron Williams was a one-two gut punch, no question, but it occurred more than a month ago, and the lack of pride and resilience among the remaining players and coaches is surprising. A team with Al Jefferson, Paul Millsap, C.J. Miles and two top-10 picks from last June, Derrick Favors and Gordon Hayward, has lost eight in a row. The latest embarrassment occurred Sunday in Sacramento, where the Jazz rarely bothered to get back in transition or rotate with diligence in the half-court defense. Yes, Raja Bell, Andrei Kirilenko, Devin Harris, Mehmet Okur and Ronnie Price are all in the training room. But that doesn't mean coach Tyrone Corbin shouldn't light a fire under the healthy players. Because under Sloan, accountability used to be the rule in Utah.
 
26Washington Wizards
Last Week: 28
It has been a long, ugly season in D.C. Those who have endured it deserve to luxuriate in this 3-1 stretch, which ties the Wizards' hottest run of the season. Andray Blatche's return from a shoulder injury has helped. Blatche grabbed an astounding 16 offensive rebounds in a victory against Cleveland. And rookie guard Jordan Crawford has opened some eyes with his recent play. But the best news has been center JaVale McGee's inspiring all-around play. In the last 10 games, McGee has averaged 16.1 points (on 57.9 percent shooting), 10.7 rebounds and 2.9 blocks in 35.6 minutes. He's also improved his passing skills and general court awareness. If McGee can sustain that level, the John Wall-led Wizards will be in great shape for years at the game's two most important positions.
 
27Detroit Pistons
Last Week: 25
I was among those who criticized president Joe Dumars for his ill-conceived spending spree in the summer of 2009, when he signed Ben Gordon and Charlie Villanueva to fat, long-term contracts. But while Villanueva's five-year, $37.7 million deal looked exorbitant under any circumstances, Gordon's five-year, $58 million contract seemed wrong because of Gordon's redundancy with shooting guard Rip Hamilton (also signed long term) rather than the limits of his ability. It's on Gordon, not Dumars, that the two lowest Player Efficiency Ratings and Win Shares of his career have come in his first two years in Detroit. His shooting is less reliable both inside and outside the three-point line. Add in his merely mediocre defense, and Detroit's sizable investment look exponentially more foolish now than when he signed.
 
28New Jersey Nets
Last Week: 26
It's common knowledge that the Nets took a huge risk acquiring Deron Williams, who could decline his contract option and become a free agent after next season. It doesn't help that Williams has had a season to forget in 2010-11, from the lousy defense he played in Utah, to his run-in with Sloan just before the Hall of Fame coach abruptly resigned, to the wrist injuries and 34.4 percent shooting in New Jersey. Williams will always possess premier court vision and excel at making the most simple and efficient pass to an open teammate -- despite his woes, he's averaging 12 assists for the offensively challenged Nets. The franchise needs his marquee presence to draw fans and recruit other stars. But so far, the team has as much right as Williams to be dissatisfied with the status quo during his brief tenure.
 
29Cleveland Cavaliers
Last Week: 30
Who is the MVP of a team that will set the record for the largest one-year drop in victories? There are three legitimate candidates. After a rough start, second-year player J.J. Hickson has done yeoman's work as a power forward and undersized center. He has dramatically improved his rebounding. After a lost year in Minnesota, point guard Ramon Sessions is compiling solid numbers that are comparable to his breakthrough season in Milwaukee in 2008-09. Sessions is among the NBA's most underrated guards at getting to basket and he's been coming on strong in the second half of the season. Then there is Daniel Gibson, who has expanded his game beyond shooting. He has set career highs in points, rebounds and assists, and Gibson has the most positive impact on the court of any Cavalier.
 
30Minnesota Timberwolves
Last Week: 29
Watching Martell Webster score 22 points in Friday's loss to Miami brought back memories of the preseason, when the 6-7 swingman looked like the Wolves' best player before having back surgery on the eve of the regular season. Webster had a brief bout of productivity after missing the first six weeks of the season, but he hadn't found his groove until somewhat recently. Webster says the problem is lack of minutes; coach Kurt Rambis implies that Webster's defensive woes have eaten into his playing time. The numbers support management: The Wolves' 25th-rated defense allow more points per 100 possessions with Webster on the court than any other player except little-used rookie Lazar Hayward.
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