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NBA Power Rankings: Preseason title favorites reaffirm dominance

As the season nears its end, the NBA Power Rankings look a lot like they did before the year began.

The NBA's regular season draws a lot of criticism for being an unnecessarily arduous process. The 82-game slate spans almost six months—and that's just the appetizer to a postseason that begins in mid-April and doesn't wrap until mid-June.

With resting players becoming a more common strategy, the regular season can feel like it has lost its luster. But the marathon slate also has a way of vetting the competition.

In my preseason Power Rankings, I put the Spurs and Cavaliers at No. 1 and 2 and crowned them the most obvious contenders. That prediction didn’t always look sound over the past few months. Cleveland's struggles were well-documented as they began the season 19-20, and the Spurs have lurked in the weeds most of the season while dealing with injuries to Kawhi Leonard and a host of other critical contributors.

Yet with less than two weeks remaining in the season, the Spurs and Cavaliers have become mainstays in the top three and are near-locks to end the season in that position. San Antonio is peaking at the right time of the season—no coincidence under Gregg Popovich in his 18th season—while Cleveland has used the regular-season slate to smooth out the bumps and find its footing as a contender.

Adding to the importance of the regular season: the races as we hit its home stretch. Five teams are competing for two spots in the East and are separated by just two games. While in the West, a back-and-forth between the Thunder and Pelicans for the No. 8 seed could go down to the final day of the season, with OKC currently holding just a half-game lead. 

Here's where all 30 teams stand in this week's NBA Power Rankings.

(All stats and records through April 6)

1. Golden State Warriors


RECORD: 63-14 (3-1)

Shaun Livingston’s dirty foul on Dirk Nowitzki brought a rare dose of bad karma to the Warriors, who subsequently suffered their largest loss of the season (15 points) to the Spurs and saw their 12-game winning streak come to an end.

2. Cleveland Cavaliers


RECORD: 50-27 (2-0)

Anyone else surprised Sunday marked LeBron James’s first triple double in 66 games this season? The Cavs star is averaging the fewest rebounds since his rookie season (6.0) after shifting to more of a perimeter role in Cleveland. He’s also averaging a career-high 26.5% of his field-goal attempts from three-point range, partially explaining his career-low 0.7 offensive rebounds per game.

3. San Antonio Spurs


RECORD: 51-26 (4-0)

The rest of the NBA has every right to be terrified of the defending champs. San Antonio has won seven straight, knocked off the Warriors, Grizzlies, Mavericks and Thunder along the way, and leads the NBA in defensive rating (93.6) and net rating (18.1) over their last 10 games. With Kawhi Leonard blossoming and the Big Three well-rested, there’s little reason not to pick San Antonio to repeat at this point.

4. Los Angeles Clippers


RECORD: 52-26 (3-1)

Chris Paul isn’t one to let something roll off his back. After getting crossed-up by Steph Curry and losing to the rival Warriors, CP3 dropped 41 points and 17 assists the next night out in Portland. And after getting targeted by Shaq at Justin Bieber’s roast and teased for not having a ring, Paul dropped 15 assists and routed Shaq’s Lakers by 28.

5. Houston Rockets


RECORD: 53-24 (3-1)

James Harden topped 40 points for the ninth time this season and outdueled Russell Westbrook in Sunday’s marquee matinee. But the best news of all for Houston? Dwight Howard scored 22 points (10-of-15 FG) in 22 minutes. With Josh Smith thriving in a reserve role, the Rockets (10-2 since March 15) could be peaking at the right time of the year. Now if only their GM would leave our writers alone…

6. Atlanta Hawks

It would have been downright cruel for Paul Millsap to miss extended time with a shoulder injury. Instead, he’ll miss just two games. The Hawks star suffered the scary injury during a 32-point blowout win Saturday, which marked the team’s franchise-record 57th win of the season, a milestone it wouldn’t have come close to without Millsap’s services.

7. Portland Trail Blazers


RECORD: 50-26 (3-1)

Portland’s depth has been tested with the loss of Wes Matthews and the early results have exceeded expectations. The Blazers’ bench has averaged 35.5 points over their last eight games, a span in which they’ve gone 6-2. On the year, the Blazers’ second unit averages just 15.3 points, third-worst in the league.

8. Memphis Grizzlies


RECORD: 52-25 (2-1)

Memphis doesn’t need much offense to win, but the team has a history of losing when it fails to score 90 points. The Grizz are 2-12 when they don't hit the mark this season and lost in the first round of the playoffs last year after being held under 90 in three of their four losses.

9. Chicago Bulls


RECORD: 46-31 (1-2)

It’s easy to forget how dominant the Bulls are with Derrick Rose, even when not at full strength. Chicago’s oft-injured star is set to return this week, just in time to knock off the rust before the postseason begins. And when the Bulls' entire starting lineup is intact— something they’ve only had for 19 games this season—they’re 15-4.

10. Oklahoma City Thunder


RECORD: 42-35 (0-3)

The Thunder are dangerously close to missing the playoffs for the first time since their first season in Oklahoma City. OKC holds just a half-game lead on New Orleans heading into Monday and the Pelicans own the tiebreaker after claiming the season series. One advantage for the Thunder: they own the easier schedule the rest of the way, facing just two playoff opponents in their last six games (Pels face four in their last seven).

11. Dallas Mavericks


RECORD: 46-31 (1-2)

The Mavericks own the worst record (10-12) of any West playoff team since the All-Star break, So what ails Dallas? Defense and rebounding. The Mavs rank in the bottom third of the league in defensive rating (104.8) over that span and are dead last in rebounding percentage (46.6).

12. New Orleans Pelicans


RECORD: 41-35 (2-1)

Tyreke Evans’s transformation into an efficient scorer is an ongoing process, but recent signs are promising. Evans has shot above 50% in each of his last six games. His jump shot remains an iffy proposition (30.3% on the year), but when Evans attacks the rim he’s tough to contain.

13. Washington Wizards


RECORD: 44-33 (3-0)

When the Wizards defend, they’re a pretty good team, as evidenced by their stifling victory over the Grizzlies on Saturday. But when Washington fails to clamp down, it usually fails all around. The Wizards are 7-24 when allowing 100 points or more this season.

14. Toronto Raptors


RECORD: 45-32 (2-2)

The Raptors have lost five of their last nine with Kyle Lowry missing all but one game due to back spasms. Toronto can afford to limp to the finish line with home-court advantage already locked up in the first round, but it’ll need a healthy Lowry to make it to the second.

15. Utah Jazz


RECORD: 35-42 (3-1)

Trey Burke believes the Jazz can make the playoffs next season, an opinion that might become trendy come next fall. Utah’s youngsters continue to impress in the second half—particularly the front court duo of Derrick Favors and Rudy Gobert—leading the NBA in defensive rating (93.2) since the All-Star break and going 16-8.

16. Phoenix Suns


RECORD: 39-38 (1-2)

T.J. Warren is shooting 61.9% since the All-Star break and emerging as a reliable scorer off the Suns’ bench. Almost half of the rookie’s field-goal attempts this season have come at the rim, where he’s shooting an impressive 76.2%.

17. Brooklyn Nets


RECORD: 35-41 (3-1)

Brook Lopez’s recent tear should be enough to get the Nets into the playoffs, but it’s hard to feel good about hopping on the Brooklyn bandwagon. The Nets are 10-3 in their last 13 games, but those three defeats couldn’t be more troubling. Brooklyn lost to Atlanta by 32 on Saturday and has also succumbed to the Celtics (19) and Cavaliers (25) by huge margins.

18. Milwaukee Bucks


RECORD: 38-39 (2-2)

Michael Carter-Williams’s shooting struggles are bordering on obscene. Since coming to the Bucks, the sophomore is just 3-of-22 from behind the arc. These shooting charts and graphs detailing MCW’s Bucks production are borderline NSFW.

19. Boston Celtics


RECORD: 35-42 (3-1)

The Celtics own the fourth-best record in the East since the All-Star break (15-11) and continue to claw out big wins to stay in the playoff hunt. Boston might have a hodgepodge roster, but its head coach is squeezing out every ounce of talent it has to offer.

20. Indiana Pacers


RECORD: 34-43 (2-2)

Frank Vogel didn’t hold back when Paul George left the floor in his first game back, telling the star, “Damn, I missed you.” He spoke for an entire organization. Even a rusty George (13 points on 5-of-12 shooting, including one missed breakaway dunk) reinvigorated Indiana on both ends of the floor.

21. Charlotte Hornets


RECORD: 33-43 (2-2)

This time last season, Lance Stephenson was viewed as one of the biggest X-factors entering the playoffs, now he’s struggling to get off the bench on a team that is desperate to even sneak in. Born Ready received two DNP-CDs last week and played 20 minutes combined in Charlotte’s other two games.

22. Miami Heat


RECORD: 34-43 (0-4)

The deck is simply stacked against the Heat. Despite an admirable effort from Dwyane Wade, Miami is struggling to keep its head above water, losing five of its last six and falling out of the playoff picture. With four of their final games at home, the Heat have a chance—but Wade can’t do it by himself.

23. Detroit Pistons


RECORD: 30-47 (2-2)

Stan Van Gundy’s private meeting with Reggie Jackson paid immediate dividends: Jackson scored 15 of Detroit’s 27 fourth-quarter points in a comeback win over Miami on Saturday and finished with a game-high 29 points and 11 assists.

24. Denver Nuggets


RECORD: 28-49 (0-3)

The Nuggets own a defensive rating of 115.6 during their current four-game skid and and lost by 30 to the Spurs despite no San Antonio starter playing more than 25 minutes. The season can’t end soon enough in Denver.

25. Orlando Magic


RECORD: 24-53 (2-1)

Signing Channing Frye and Ben Gordon seemed like curious moves last summer and this season has done little to dispel the doubts. Both veterans have failed to find roles in Orlando’s rebuild and suffered sluggish seasons. The bow on Rob Hennigan’s strange signings? DNP-CDs to end the season.

26. Sacramento Kings


RECORD: 26-50 (0-4)

DeMarcus Cousins collected his 14th technical foul Sunday after vowing to only get five before the season. Cousins had just one technical foul in 24 games under Mike Malone this year, but has eight in the same amount of games under George Karl.

27. Los Angeles Lakers


RECORD: 20-56 (1-3)

When Byron Scott jokingly stated that Kobe Bryant should be in the MVP conversation, he pretty much made the most outlandish statement by a Laker since Wilt Chamberlain said this.

28. Minnesota Timberwolves


RECORD: 16-60 (0-3)

While Andrew Wiggins has shined amid the Wolves’ woes, this season marked another disappointing campaign for Ricky Rubio, who played in just 22 games and has been shut down for the remainder of the season. The former point guard prodigy—who entered the league with a whirl of buzz but no jump shot—shot a career-low 35.6% from the field and 25.5% from three-point range this season.

29. Philadelphia 76ers


RECORD: 18-60 (0-4)

The 76ers have used an NBA-high 38 starting lineups this season and given the starting nod to 18 different players. Last week against the Lakers, they started four players that weren’t even on the roster on opening night.

30. New York Knicks


RECORD: 15-62 (1-2)

Phil Jackson says he knows who he would take with the No. 1 pick. A roundtable of SI’s basketball experts recently voted Karl-Anthony Towns over Jahlil Okafor (5-4).