NBA Power Rankings: One final list as regular season comes to a close
With several postseason berths and seeds still undecided, the NBA playoff race is giving us reason to watch the final few days of the regular season.
For a regular season that stretches almost six months, it's hard to stomach the idea of one or two games deciding a team's fate, but the next few days will do just that. Russell Westbrook's costly 16th technical foul almost doomed the Thunder before being rescinded. Boston, Brooklyn and Indiana are going down to the wire in their battle for the final two spots in the East. San Antonio is clinging to the No. 2 seed in the West, which would delay a showdown with the conference-leading Warriors. And the Knicks...just kidding. They haven't played a meaningful game since November.
While we're happy to say goodbye to the cellar-dwellers who have played out the season strictly due to obligation, it's sad to bid adieu to the Jazz, who have been one of the five best teams since the All-Star break. Utah's deficit was simply too much to overcome, but reminded us that the 16 best teams don't always make the playoffs.
With that in mind, here are the final NBA Power Rankings of the regular season. SI.com's playoff Power Rankings will come out later this week.
(All stats and records through April 12)
Can Golden State be considered the postseason frontrunner despite a lack of conference finals experience? Absolutely. As Jeff Van Gundy told me last week, “Great players trump experience every time.” Golden State is stocked with talented, disciplined, versatile, two-way players—the exact kind that excel in the playoffs.
The Spurs have been methodically picking apart the rest of league since late March, winning 11 straight games and looking exactly like the team that steam-rolled the competition en route to an NBA title last spring. They’ve won 21 of their last 24 games and now hold a half-game lead for the No. 2 seed, potentially setting up a West finals clash with the Warriors.
The Cavaliers sent a loud and clear message over the weekend: They want to face the Celtics in the first round. Cleveland gift-wrapped back-to-back games to Boston (the latter a 39-point traveshamockery), helping the C’s chances of locking up the No. 7 seed and a first-round date with LeBron and Co.
Atlanta has endured off-the-court distractions before this season, but the timing of Thabo Sefolosha’s injury is also a blow to the team’s on-the-court product. Sefolosha had struggled with his shot this season, but is a proven defender with valuable postseason experience, playing in the last five playoffs with OKC.
We’ve gone hoarse raving about James Harden this season (and you’re already plenty familiar with Dwight Howard), but Houston GM Daryl Morey deserves credit for his less heralded moves as well. The Rockets revamped their bench in the middle of the season, catching Josh Smith after he was dropped out of the sky, stealing Corey Brewer from the Wolves and landing Pablo Prigioni at the deadline. All three have been key contributors and will be memebers of Kevin McHale’s slimmed-down postseason rotation.
C.J. McCollum might be one of the biggest X-factors entering the playoffs. Portland has a void to fill after losing its third-leading scorer (Wes Matthews) for the season, and with Arron Afflalo now sidelined as well, McCollum has stepped up for Portland. The second-year guard is averaging 17.3 points on 55.8 FG% and 44 3P% this month after being sparsely used all season. McCollum has played at least 25 minutes in six straight games after reaching that mark just three times before all year.
The return of Derrick Rose gives the Bulls a reason for optimism heading into the playoffs. Chicago has gone just 11-10 since March 1 and seen its offense bounce back and forth between passable and putrid. But with Rose back in the mix—and Aaron Brooks back in a more appropriate role on the bench—the Bulls can return to their elite form. Chicago is 16-5 when it has its full starting lineup.
I’m hesitant to like the postseason chances of any team that features Raymond Felton, Richard Jefferson and Charlie Villanueva in their playoff rotation, but Dallas continues to get production from the veteran trio. Chandler Parsons has missed four straight games, leading to more playing time for the vets. Rick Carlisle says he's confident Parsons will be ready for the playoffs, but it appears he's confident in his second-unit if forced to turn there.
Washington topped 45 wins for the first time since 1978-79, but it’ll have a tough time getting out of the first round. The Wizards will face either the Raptors or Bulls, both of whom present challenges, as the lower seed in the opening series. Washington is 0-3 against Toronto and split its season series with Chicago, while giving up the most points to Derrick Rose (25.3) of any Eastern Conference team.
DeMar DeRozan is averaging 24.3 points per game since March 1, a huge spike from the 16.7 he was averaging before the All-Star break. Toronto’s offense has been among the best in the league all season, but it’ll need second-half DeRozan in order to make noise in the playoffs and get out of the first round for the first since 2000-01.
Oklahoma City has been run through the gauntlet this season, but it almost endured its fatal blow Sunday. The Thunder suffered their fifth loss in six games and nearly lost Russell Westbrook, whose 16th technical foul was rescinded, in the process. With their season on the line, OKC will have to win Monday against Portland. Luckily for the Thunder, it'll have Westbrook on hand.
As if shattering expectations in his first season in Milwaukee wasn’t enough, Jason Kidd seized sweet revenge against his former team Sunday. The Bucks beat the Nets to clinch the No. 6 seed, win the season series 3-1 and deal a blow to Brooklyn's playoff hopes in the process.
Indiana would lose tiebreakers to Brooklyn and Boston, meaning it has to make the playoffs outright to play in the postseason. With Paul George on the court, the Pacers are likely the most feared opponent of the three and are peaking at the right time of the year, winning five straight.
The decline of Deron Williams has been sudden—he’s shooting a career-low 39% this season—but Joe Johnson’s fall has been slow and steady. Johnson is averaging his fewest points (14.5) in 12 seasons and has seen his scoring average decline in each of the last four seasons (18.8 to 16.3 to 15.8 to 14.4). Did I mention these guys earned more than $40 million combined this season?
The Suns have set quickly this season, losing nine of their last 10 and officially being eliminated from playoff contention Wednesday. Phoenix never quite recovered from its midseason blockbusters—trading away Goran Dragic and Isaiah Thomas, acquiring Brandon Knight—taking a step back from its first-half start and playing for the future rather than the present.
Dwyane Wade is right when he says the Heat “ have nothing to be ashamed of” for the their efforts this season. After losing LeBron James, the Heat did their best to replace him, signing Luol Deng, re-discovering Hassan Whiteside and trading for Goran Dragic. Unfortunately, injuries crippled the team’s chances from start to finish, leaving a proud but helpless bunch to fight.
Andre Drummond may realize that his days alongside Greg Monroe are numbered. In an interview with SI.com last week, Drummond noted the most successful NBA teams are the one’s who space the floor. “Look at us, when Greg got hurt and we were able to try something different and put (Anthony) Tolliver in there. It spaced the floor and really freed me up and got our shooters more open looks.”
It’s hard to imagine Lance Stephenson coming back to Charlotte next year after such a tumultuous season. Barring an unexpected return from a toe injury, Stephenson will end the season averaging 8.2 points on 37.6% shooting from the field and 17.1% from three-point range. The Hornets management will have its hands full finding a taker.
It went unnoticed in the anonymity of Orlando, but Nikola Vucevic had a monster season worthy of much more praise than it's received. Vucevic is averaging 19.4 points and 11 rebounds while shooting 52.2% from the field and boasting a PER of 21.6. All of those are career highs and few NBA players can match them. DeMarcus Cousins is the only other player averaging at least 19 and 11 and trails the Magic center in FG% (46.7).
With Vlade Divac reportedly taking over basketball operations, your guess is as good as mine as to where the Kings are headed. Vivek Ranadive’s short tenure as team owner has been entertaining, but not successful. With DeMarcus Cousins entrenched as the franchise cornerstone, it’s time for the rest of the puzzle to start to come together in Sacramento. Divac is a strange way to start.
Tyson Chandler, after beating the Lakers on Sunday and handing them their franchise-worst 59th loss, “Uh, the Lakers aren’t having the best of seasons.” Chandler would go on to note that he thinks James Harden is growing out his beard and that LeBron James is above-average at basketball.
The 76ers can end their season on a fitting low note—an even 10-game losing streak—if they can lose to Milwaukee and Miami to wrap up the regular season. Something tells me I think they have it in them.
Mercifully, this is all over on Wednesday.