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NBA Power Rankings: Clippers rise, but are they true contenders?

The Clippers are healthy and have won seven straight—are they a threat to make the Finals?

The Clippers might be one of the most confounding contenders in recent memory. 

They boast one of the best starting lineups in the league (15.7 net rating, second in NBA), yet one of the worst benches. Their offense leads the league in efficiency (109.6), yet their defense ranks below average (103.0). They are both title-tested (Doc Rivers) and title-deficient (Chris Paul), somehow toeing the line between proven and uncertain contender. They own the NBA’s second-longest winning streak at seven games, yet only one victory came against a playoff team (the woeful Wizards). Their last seven losses all came against potential playoff opponents: Rockets, Mavericks, Warriors, Blazers, Rockets, Grizzlies and Thunder.

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So what do we make of L.A.? Before games kicked into gear, I was as high on them as anyone, picking the Clippers to win the title in the preseason. But not everything has gone according to plan (for my Crystal Ball picks or the Clippers). Spencer Hawes has failed to bolster the bench, Blake Griffin isn’t the MVP of his team, much less the league, and L.A. has failed to ascend to the throne of Western Conference frontrunner.

But with only eight games remaining on the schedule, the Clippers have to be pretty happy with where they stand despite the regular-season detour. They’re still in the running for home court advantage in the first round if they can catching the sinking Grizzlies (one game back), Griffin and Paul are both healthy heading into the postseason, and the team’s offense is clicking heading into the home stretch. With Jamal Crawford still recovering from a calf injury, the Clippers' bench issues are glaring—Griffin’s Austin Rivers impression was only funny because it was true—but Doc Rivers has made second-unit production appear out of thin air before.

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The Clippers sneak into the top five this week. Let’s see where all 30 teams stand in this week’s NBA Power Rankings:

(All stats and records through March 29).

1. Golden State Warriors


RECORD: 60-13 (4-0)

The contrast has been pointed out before, but Steve Kerr clinching the best season in Warriors history the same week the spurned Knicks clinch their worst serves as a reminder of the best decision of his career.

2. Cleveland Cavaliers


RECORD: 48-27 (2-1)

The Cavs had a sluggish end to last week, losing in Brooklyn then barely edging Philadelphia at home after failing to score in the final four minutes. Cleveland has two weeks to work out its offensive issues—and the LeBron-Love squabble—before the playoffs begin.

3. San Antonio Spurs


RECORD: 47-26 (3-1)

In the last eight days, the Spurs have beaten the Hawks in Atlanta, obliterated the Thunder by 39 and beaten the Mavericks and Grizzlies by double-digits.

4. Los Angeles Clippers


RECORD: 49-25 (3-0)

The Clippers’ seven-game winning streak might lack victories over formidable opponents, but their 13.8 average margin of victory shows L.A. is doing more than just taking care of business.

5. Houston Rockets


RECORD: 50-23 (4-0)

A humble and hungry Dwight Howard is a dangerous proposition for the rest of the league. Houston proved it can play at a high level without its All-Star center, but its even more dangerous if Howard is healthy come playoff time and willing to play second fiddle to MVP candidate James Harden.

6. Atlanta Hawks


RECORD: 55-18 (2-1)

The Hawks have lost as many games in March (six) as they had in December, January and February combined. Why isn’t that particularly concerning for Atlanta? The team deployed its usual starting lineup in just one of those defeats.

7. Oklahoma City Thunder


RECORD: 42-32 (2-2)

The loss of Kevin Durant lowers the Thunder’s ceiling, but don’t underestimate just how far Russell Westbrook can carry them. Westbrook helped OKC rally from a 20-point deficit on Sunday, the biggest comeback since the franchise moved to OKC.

8. Chicago Bulls


RECORD: 45-29 (3-0)

Nikola Mirotic is averaging a team-leading 20.8 points in March, more than John Wall, Klay Thompson, Damian Lillard, Blake Griffin and a host of other stars. Pretty good for a rookie coming off the bench.

9. Memphis Grizzlies


RECORD: 50-24 (1-3)

The Grizzlies are just 8-8 in March and have had the worst offense (100.1) of any playoff team in the West. For Memphis to win and get by with mediocre offense, it needs to be the league's best defense, but it ranks just No. 12 this month.

10. Portland Trail Blazers


RECORD: 47-25 (3-1)

If there was an award for gutsiest performance this season, LaMarcus Aldridge would be a heavy favorite. In addition to playing through a painful thumb injury for a large portion of this season, Aldridge missed just one game after it sounded like he would be out awhile. Portland has won all three games since Aldridge returned and benefited from his 32 points and 11 rebounds in its most recent contest.

11. Dallas Mavericks


RECORD: 45-29 (1-2)

Monta Ellis’s streak of 237 consecutive games played came to an end in Sunday’s loss to the Pacers after he suffered a right calf injury on Friday. With a bench thinner than a bolo tie, the Mavs can ill afford any injury, much less one to their leading scorer.

12. Toronto Raptors


RECORD: 43-30 (1-2)

Lou Williams starred in a Drake commercial last week, but he’s even better when starring for the Raptors. Toronto improved to 19-7 when Lou Will scores at least 18 points last week.

13. New Orleans Pelicans


RECORD: 39-24 (2-1)

Anthony Davis’s MVP campaign lost momentum a long time ago due to a field stuffed with strong candidates on stronger teams. But consider his March numbers for just a second: 27.9 points, 11.2 rebounds, 4.1 blocks and 3.6 assists.

14. Washington Wizards


RECORD: 41-33 (1-3)

The Wizards have reverted to muggle form again (yes, that was a Harry Potter reference), losing five of their last six and looking lifeless in each loss. Washington is one victory away from clinching a playoff berth, but barring a late turnaround its hard to feel good about their postseason chances.

15. Phoenix Suns


RECORD: 38-36 (0-3)

It appears the Suns are going to come painfully close to making the playoffs for the second straight year. Despite a series of bold moves during the offseason and the trade deadline, Phoenix’s efforts weren’t enough to stand out in the wildly competitive West. If only Arizona was located East of the Mississippi.

16. Milwaukee Bucks

Before going 1-of-10 in a loss to the Warriors on Saturday, Ersan Ilyasova had scored in double digits in nine straight games, including a 34-point effort last week against the Pacers. The Bucks power forward is averaging a season-high 15.7 points this month and shooting 45.3% from deep.

17. Miami Heat


RECORD: 34-39 (2-2)

The Heat are relying on Dwyane Wade as much as ever—literally. With Chris Bosh out for the season, Wade is putting the offense on his back, notching four of his six 30-point games on the season in the last three weeks. And with LeBron James back in Cleveland, Wade is averaging the third-highest usage rate (34.5) of his career at age 33.

18. Brooklyn Nets


RECORD: 32-40 (3-1)

Brook Lopez has topped 30 points in four of his last six games and is helping buoy Brooklyn’s playoff hopes. Lopez’s frequent injuries and sometimes uncertain role in the Nets’ offense makes it easy to lose sight of the center’s offensive repertoire, which matches or exceeds any 7-footer’s in the league.

19. Utah Jazz


RECORD: 32-41 (1-3)

Trevor Booker was already in the running for Shot of the Year, now he’s the clubhouse leader for Quote of the Year. After Enes Kanter ethered his former team before his first game back in Utah, the Jazz beat Kanter’s Thunder and set the table for Booker. Said the power forward of his former teammate: “He got his stats and he got the L as always.” 

20. Indiana Pacers


RECORD: 32-41 (2-2)

Indiana almost played itself out of the playoff race with its recent seven-game skid, but gutsy wins over the Bucks and Mavericks last week put them just a half-game off the pace. Indy faces a gauntlet of a tests this week, playing all four of the other teams (Miami, Brooklyn, Boston and Charlotte) competing for the final two spots in the East.

21. Boston Celtics


RECORD: 32-41 (2-2)

Teams led by Brad Stevens don’t go down easy. Boston suffered just its third double-digit loss Sunday in the last two months. Despite a storm of injuries and a mishmash roster, the C’s have gone 16-12 over that span and in the thick of the playoff hunt.

22. Charlotte Hornets


RECORD: 31-41 (1-3)

A victory over the East-leading Hawks was quite the feat after losing the night before in double-OT to the Wizards. Charlotte’s playoff hopes remain on life support, but vital signs remain despite losing eight of its last 11 games.

23. Denver Nuggets


RECORD: 28-46 (1-2)

The Nuggets are 6-5 this season when starting Kenneth Faried at center, a configuration Melvin Hunt has utilized heavily since taking over.

24. Detroit Pistons


RECORD: 28-45 (2-1)

The Pistons are proving to be a pesky out for playoff teams, taking down the Raptors, Bulls and Grizzlies in the last two weeks. With Anthony Tolliver in the starting lineup, Detroit is spacing the floor and winning games (5-2).

25. Sacramento Kings


RECORD: 26-46 (2-1)

The Kings are 19-25 under George Karl and Mike Malone this season. The .431 winning percentage would be their highest in seven years… if it weren’t for the Ty Corbin era (7-21) dragging them down to .361.

26. Orlando Magic


RECORD: 22-52 (0-2)

Shaquille O’Neal admitted he has regrets about leaving Orlando. Does Dwight Howard feel the same? In the friendlier Eastern Conference, a young Howard made five straight trips to the playoffs, including a trip to the Finals in 2008-09. Since leaving, he’s made two first-round exits in three years. Shaq said leaving Orlando was a “business decision” for him—the same could be said for the other Superman.

27. Los Angeles Lakers


RECORD: 19-53 (1-3)

With a top-five pick on the line, the Lakers aren’t taking any chances, giving extended tryouts to youngsters and coming up with excuses for veterans to sit out. Monday’s 76ers-Lakers game could set the NBA back decades.

28. Minnesota Timberwolves


RECORD: 16-57 (2-3)

The youth movement is in full swing in Minnesota. In the last four games, second-year center Gorgui Dieng (25) has been the oldest player in the starting lineup, which also features two teenagers.

29. Philadelphia 76ers


RECORD: 18-56 (1-3)

Nerlens Noel’s second-half breakout is likely making Sam Hinkie happy on a number of levels. On one hand, the rookie big man is showing he has elite potential as a rebounder and shot-blocker. On the other, he’s an enticing trade chip should Philly land a top pick and the chance to snag Jahlil Okafor or Karl-Anthony Towns.

30. New York Knicks


RECORD: 14-60 (0-4)

After playing in eight straight postseasons and winning a playoff series in each, Derek Fisher’s head coaching debut serves as a stark spring contrast. New York clinched the worst season in franchise history Saturday with eight games remaining.