- The Celtics and Jazz both stood pat at the deadline, but are their current cores enough for them to be considered true contenders? We preview the NBA's stretch run.
With All-Star and the trade deadline in the rearview mirror, The Crossover’s Power Rankings are back. Feeling refreshed? It happened fast, but we’ve suddenly got just six weeks of regular season basketball left, and for a lot of teams that means time is running out. Accordingly, we’ve got burning questions for every franchise, and we’re keeping the intro short. Hold onto your hats.
(All stats and records through Feb. 26)
30. Brooklyn Nets (9–49)
Last Week: 30
Net Rating: –8.4
When will they win another game? The Nets last came out on top in a Jan. 20 win over New Orleans, in which they scored 143 points. Their games often turn into shootouts, and Brooklyn’s lacking for firepower. They’re two games into an eight-game road trip. It’s not good.
29. Los Angeles Lakers (19–41)
Last Week: 26
Net Rating: –7.2
From here on out, it’s about keeping that top three-protected first round pick. How effectively can the Lakers stealth (or just openly) tank? Dealing Lou Williams was a start. They’ll probably lose just fine. But Magic will need a little bit of magic to hit the ground running as head honcho.
28. Phoenix Suns (18–41)
Last Week: 28
Net Rating: –5.1
How good are these young guys, really? Tyler Ulis and Alan Williams seem to have replaced Brandon Knight and Tyson Chandler in the rotation after the latter pair stayed put at the deadline. If Phoenix has given up on reviving the interest in either player in the off-season, then it’s all about the kids, including the continually impressive Devin Booker, TJ Warren and a gradually improving Marquese Chriss.
27. Orlando Magic (22–38)
Last Week: 29
Net Rating: –6.3
Dealing Serge Ibaka enabled a shift in lineup philosophy. Is smaller better for Orlando? The Magic just thrashed the Hawks with Aaron Gordon at power forward and new acquisition Terrence Ross looking comfortable. It’s a worthwhile experiment.
26. Philadelphia 76ers (22–36)
Last Week: 25
Net Rating: -5.5
Should we still trust The Process? Joel Embiid’s dinged up again, Ben Simmons is predictably sitting out the year, and we’re now squarely focused on Bryan Colangelo. The Sixers are improving, and maybe the Nerlens Noel trade opens the door for Jahlil Okafor to create a better market for himself. But this first set of big decisions ends the Hinkie afterglow and puts management in the crosshairs. It’s a longer-term question, but there will be short-term clues.
25. Sacramento Kings (25–34)
Last Week: 20
Net Rating: -3.7
What now? It’s really that simple for the Kings after an ugly divorce ushered in the post-Boogie era faster than anyone expected. The trade wasn’t great, obviously. Now it’s Buddy Hield or bust. And so it was natural to be surprised when the Kings won handily in their first game without Cousins (box score below):
Anyway, the Kings are still not good. But there is a lot to prove for a lot of players, and for the franchise as a whole. All of the Kings’ recent draft picks, most of whom were not ready for the league, will get legitimate looks now. Skal Labissiere! Georgios Papagiannis! I respect Vlade Divac’s now-public intent to sink or swim with the ship. It’s gonna sink for a while. The good news is our long national nightmare is over, but the bad news is that a generally devoted Kings fan base is going to have to deal with how this was handled for a long time.
There is a slight possibility that the Kings could improve defensively thanks to this trade. For all the hankering over “big men with slow feet who can’t play defense don’t belong in the NBA,” we basically absolved DeMarcus Cousins from that conversation, mostly because he’s so damn good at everything else. He’s not particularly committed on that side of the ball, and his shortcomings on that end have been apparent during these first few Pelicans games. It stands to reason that this could be…a bronze lining (do people say that?) or something for the Kings, assuming they pick the right guys to move forward with. Eventually. For now, Sacramento mostly needs to be bad enough to land a top–10 pick (or else their first goes to Chicago). Here we go…
24. New Orleans Pelicans (23–37)
Last Week: 21
Net Rating: –3.1
How quickly can DeMarcus Cousins and Anthony Davis mesh? While I am willing to dub this team Boogie-Brow Productions for as long as it exists, if the Pelicans are serious about the playoffs, they have zero time to mess around. It’s really about next season for these guys, but the year-long audition to keep Cousins happy and in place has begun. It’ll be fascinating every step of the way.
23. Charlotte Hornets (25–34)
Last Week: 22
Net Rating: +0.6
Are the good Hornets ever coming back? Were the Hornets really that good? Maybe not, but Charlotte’s sudden mid-season collapse has been a relatively quiet one.
22. New York Knicks (24–35)
Last Week: 23
Net Rating: -3.7
I think it’s fairly safe to say the Knicks aren’t making the playoffs. After all the bizarre happenings and various PR disasters over the last couple of months, can this franchise win back some public trust? New York could stand to save some face before season’s end. There are like 75 different elephants in this damn room.
21. Minnesota Timberwolves (23–36)
Last Week: 24
Net Rating: -0.6
Will the Wolves end the season with a little consistency? They looked like they’d figured things out in January, but are now back to their up-and-down ways, commonplace for a young team, but rare for a Thibs team. Especially with Zach LaVine out, there’s not much pressure here, but finding positives on a road-heavy final stretch (they have eight games left at home and fifteen on the road) sure would be nice.
20. Milwaukee Bucks (26–31)
Last Week: 27
Net Rating: +0.7
The question here, of course, is whether the internet’s giant adopted Greek man-child can stretch far enough to carry this team to the playoffs. We all want Giannis to do it. He might be able to! And hey, getting swept in the first round by the Cavs would be a nice learning experience, anyway.
19. Dallas Mavericks (23–35)
Last Week: 17
Net Rating: -1.8
If I write something mean about the Mavs, will Mark Cuban email my editors about it and ask me to re-write this paragraph? Kidding. Sort of. I guess we’ll see if Dallas can make a late run with a weird, rag-tag young team that’s beginning to look like some semblance of a core. Credit is due for the Nerlens Noel heist.
18. Portland Trailblazers (24–34)
Last Week: 18
Net Rating: -2.4
Can Portland play enough defense to sneak into the playoffs? Eh…probably not. The Blazers just haven’t been as menacing as they used to be. And unless Jusuf Nurkic helps open up the offense…wait, let me stop myself there.
17. Denver Nuggets (26–33)
Last Week: 16
Net Rating: -2.1
Was holding onto all their chips the right move? The Nuggets kept Danilo Gallinari, Wilson Chandler and Kenneth Faried (again!) even with Gallo headed for free agency, Chandler itching to get out of Denver and Faried relegated to a bit role behind surprise star Nikola Jokic. If they hang onto the eighth seed, cool. But it’s gonna suck if they lose a guy like Gallinari for nothing.
16. Detroit Pistons (28–31)
Last Week: 15
Net Rating: -1.8
It’s nice to be transparent about trade rumors, but it’ll be curious to see how this group pushes forward knowing that literally everyone was on the block. The Pistons are caught in limbo, playoffs or no playoffs.
15. Indiana Pacers (30–29)
Last Week: 13
Net Rating: -1.0
The rest of Indiana’s season is about the playoff push, but it’s really about Paul George. The two items are intertwined. How will the events yet to transpire affect George’s feelings about the Pacers’ long-term outlook? Whether George makes an All-NBA team, which enables him to sign a big-money Designated Player Extension and wildly helps Indiana’s chances of keeping him is now the biggest subplot, and it’s possible that in a year of great individual seasons, he ends up on the outside looking in.
We’re going to find out whether Indiana’s ballsy deadline inaction was worth it, one way or another. Larry Bird not only hung onto George, but he also didn’t move to upgrade this year’s roster, holding on to their draft assets and hoping for a healthy team that can weather the stretch run. This could end up being fine. They can deal George in June or cut a different trade down the line. The Pacers have looked like a very solid team at times this season, but even at their peak, not like one ready to make a serious bid in May. So, here we are, with Thaddeus Young’s imminent return a serious factor in the arc of this franchise.
Despite the massive February skid, the Pacers should be able to make the playoffs with what they have. I love that Indiana didn’t trade George, or rather, that Bird didn’t hand him over to old buddy Danny Ainge. The mere idea of Larry Bird and a fresh-faced Magic Johnson negotiating a trade on the phone…man. George may walk to Los Angeles in 2018, and this might bite the Pacers hard in the end, but Indiana’s trying, and there’s something to be said for that.
14. Chicago Bulls (30–29)
Last Week: 19
Net Rating: -0.7
What is even happening in Chicago? The Bulls have won four straight, tied for their longest streak of the season. Meanwhile, they just traded two rotation players to OKC for Cam Payne and some deadstock Durant jerseys. The bread crumbs here do not indicate a plan. We’ll keep staring at them anyway.
13. Atlanta Hawks (32–26)
Last week: 9
Net Rating: -1.0
Will the real Hawks please stand up? Atlanta hasn’t resembled the defensive-minded unit we watched wreck most of the East in January. They’re playoff-bound, but still have to play Cleveland three times, Golden State, San Antonio, and a handful of other tricky games. I’m not convinced yet that this is a team with a chance to win a first-round series.
12. LA Clippers (36–23)
Last week: 10
Net Rating: +3.5
Is this the last ride for the Clippers?. Everyone’s finally back healthy, and after a brutal Warriors-Spurs back–to–back out of the All-Star break, it’s all on these guys to pull together, sharpen the sword and make a difference in May. First, they’ve got to survive six sets of back-to-backs and 18 games in 30 days in March. And then, we find out what happens with CP3 and Blake (and maybe Doc, too).
11. Miami Heat (27–32)
Last Week: 14
Net Rating: -0.4
How much room is there on Waiters Island? Asking for a friend. The Heat have won 16 of 18 games and aren’t showing much sign of slowing down. We all need Dion taking over games in the playoffs. The last few East spots are wide open. I can’t believe the Heat are this likable right now.
10. Oklahoma City Thunder (34–25)
Last Week: 11
Since “Can the Thunder tank a little bit, get the No. 8 seed and play the Warriors in the first round?” is off the table, the new question is probably "Can Russell Westbrook win a playoff series this season?" The Spurs and Rockets would be remarkably tough draws, but if OKC gets hot enough to land a four-five matchup, a second-round pairing with Golden State could be on the table. Just saying…
9. Washington Wizards (34–23)
Last Week: 7
Net Rating: +2.7
Will there be enough left in the tank come playoff time? The Wizards’ starters are shouldering the greatest load of any unit in the league, and no, Bojan Bogdanovic isn’t fully remedying that. I like what Washington’s shown us in the second half, but there’s a lot of travel left on their schedule and a lot of mileage on John Wall and Brad Beal. Proceed cautiously.
8. Toronto Raptors (35–24)
Last Week: 12
Net Rating: +5.0
The Raptors were winners at the trade deadline. Is this the year they push for a Finals berth? Toronto’s bigger and nastier with Serge Ibaka and P.J. Tucker on board, and once Kyle Lowry gets healthy, this is a roster that can hang with anyone in the conference. Their shot is realer than you might think.
7. Memphis Grizzlies (35–25)
Last Week: 6
Net Rating: +1.3
Can Chandler Parsons get back to being a useful player again? The injury-prone Parsons, who Memphis gave a max deal, was one of the summer’s most expensive gambles, and he’s yet to prove his worth as a legitimate answer on the wing for the Grizz. If he captures any semblance of his old form, it’s going to matter in the postseason. Memphis is fun this year and capable of making things interesting.
6. Boston Celtics (38–21)
Last Week: 5
Net Rating: +3.2
The biggest news-slash-non-news of the trade deadline was of course Boston’s decision to hold every single one of their copious player and draft assets and roll with what they have in the playoffs. Was that the right call? That’s what people will wonder, whenever the Celtics’ season ends. It’s a complicated question, too, and revisionist history will eventually determine how we view Danny Ainge’s choices. But it’s a fact that Boston should still run the trade market for superstars come June, and a real possibility that a deal goes down before 2017 ends.
As it stands, the Celtics are still a very good team in a pretty good position, with Nets first-rounders on the table for this year and the next, and a highly competitive roster. It’s a fact that the Cavs are a little bit vulnerable right now. The Raptors are going for it, and the Celtics will be in position to do the same. Boston will have decisions to make this summer both as buyers and as sellers of their own players, with one of Avery Bradley and Marcus Smart likely to be a casualty and Isaiah Thomas due for a mega-contract, whether he renegotiates upward this summer (leaving Ainge more cap space to play with) or waits a year and becomes unrestricted in 2018. From that standpoint, the Celtics have incentive to make a deal, which I suspect may complicate their trade negotiations for any star. Eventually, that interest should become mutual and create a price point. It remains an if. Gordon Hayward will be a free agent, and speculation of a reunion with Brad Stevens will get hotter.
For now, we get to watch what will likely be the last run with this group as constituted, with Al Horford the only piece that seems certain to be tied down long term, and Thomas seemingly likely to follow suit on a big deal. By holding assets, Boston’s simply delaying change, one way or the other. There’s some opportunity cost there and maybe some risk, but the Celtics still have all the cards. Whether or not Ainge was right, we won’t know the answer to this one for a while. For now, a playoff hero turn from Thomas, whose dominance this season remains a bit under-appreciated, would suffice. It’ll be a fascinating summer.
5. Cleveland Cavaliers (40–17)
Last Week: 4
Net Rating: +4.5
Can LeBron James catch his breath? The Cavs have a three-game lead on the rest of the conference, Kevin Love is out, and even though they found a "f—ing playmaker" in Deron Williams, there’s not much respite for Cleveland. LeBron picked a hell of a year to semi-waste an MVP case (it’s Harden or Westbrook), but keeping home court should matter to the Cavs, and winning matters to LBJ. He’s logging his most minutes per game since the Miami days, and keeping Cleveland afloat isn’t going to be a cakewalk. A strong team finish could make this one of his most impressive regular seasons ever.
4. Utah Jazz (37–22)
Last Week: 8
Net Rating: +5.8
The Jazz have held opponents to 100 points or less in each of their last nine wins. In a season where so many teams are pushing the pace and jacking threes, it’s a remarkable feat. So, how seriously should we take them in the playoffs? If Utah can avoid further injury woes and stay the course, it’ll be fascinating to see how they hold up. Rudy Gobert’s got quite a case for Defensive Player of the Year.
3. San Antonio Spurs (45–13)
Last week: 3
Net Rating: +9.2
There are no burning questions. There are only Spurs. It’s been more of the same, consistent dominance from these guys. Enjoy what’s probably going to be Manu’s last ride.
2. Houston Rockets (42–18)
Last Week: 2
Net Rating: +6.4
Can they really shoot 50 threes per game? With Lou Williams in the fold, it’s a definite maybe. The Rockets are the Warriors’ greatest playoff challengers in the West, if only because they can function and thrive while playing at a similar pace. Houston can’t match talent pound for pound, but they’re a well-oiled scoring machine and are going to bomb away until their final breaths. I’m buying.
1. Golden State Warriors (49–9)
Last Week: 1
Net Rating: +12.8
The only question left to ask is, of course, whether the Warriors are going to win the Finals this year or not. We found out what it looks like when Steph Curry and Kevin Durant get hot at the same time, and the answer was an acid trip of a 50-point third quarter against the Clippers. Put it this way: Golden State was not better last season. They remain prohibitive favorites.