I know, I know, we’re all focused on college basketball this week, so let’s not waste too much time on the intro here. We’ve got a month left of NBA season and quite a bit of playoff jockeying left to go. There’s injury-related uncertainty among the top teams, and this was the first week all year where it was legitimately difficult to parse out who belonged in first.
Well, here we are. Scroll on down.
(All stats and records through Mar. 13)
30. Brooklyn Nets (12–53)
Last Week: 30
Net Rating: -7.5
Positive Nets fact of the week: They just beat the Knicks somewhat comfortably and ended a 16-game losing streak at Barclays Center. Baby steps.
29. Los Angeles Lakers (20–46)
Last Week: 29
Net Rating: -7.0
28. Philadelphia 76ers (24–42)
Last Week: 28
Net Rating: -6.3
The Sixers diminished their chances of stealing the Lakers’ pick while also decreasing their own chances of winning the draft lottery by beating L.A. firsthand on Sunday. Oh well.
27. Orlando Magic (24–43)
Last Week: 27
Net Rating: -6.7
The Magic are headed for the draft lottery once again, and after an unsuccessful all-defense, all-the-time gambit backfired, Orlando finds itself in much the same position as it was a year ago. There will be some cap space to try and improve the team this summer, with Aaron Gordon and Elfrid Payton still the building blocks and Mario Hezonja still due for bigger minutes (probably). This has not been the season anyone hoped for, and Frank Vogel is still preaching the cultivation of a winning culture with 15 games to go. They should probably tank.
That said, Payton and Gordon are both playing markedly better since Serge Ibaka was dealt for Terrence Ross and a first-rounder. Payton posted two triple-doubles last week, and while he’s not likely to evolve into a go-to scorer, he remains a valuable player when at his best. Consistency has been a challenge, but playing small and surrounding him with shooters is the optimal recipe. Gordon’s also a valuable player in those types of lineups, able to guard both forward spots and operate off ball with less of a burden. Barring a massive shakeup, these are the guys Orlando is building around for the immediate future. As for Hezonja, he needs confidence and perhaps a longer leash before we can say anything sweeping.
When this team scores more than 100 points, they’re 18–13, and when they don’t, they’re 6–29. Maybe that doesn't say a ton, but it suggests that with just some type of offensive oomph, perhaps in the form of a shot creator, Orlando would be much closer to a .500 team. There are a decent number of players in this year’s lottery that fit that bill. Dennis Smith, anyone?
26. Sacramento Kings (25–41)
Last Week: 25
Net Rating: -4.2
Make it eight losses in a row and just one win since trading Boogie. Are there Vivek truthers still out there?
25. Phoenix Suns (22–45)
Last Week: 26
Net Rating: -4.7
Devin Booker doing more Devin Booker-y things.
24. New York Knicks (26–41)
Last Week: 23
Net Rating: -3.8
The Knicks keep sliding down these rankings, but in the greater interest of the franchise, losing actually helps with 1) draft picks and 2) maybe, just maybe persuading Carmelo to accept a trade in the off-season.
23. Charlotte Hornets (29–37)
Last Week: 22
Net Rating: +1.3
After winning just four games in January and a measly three last month, Charlotte’s 3–3 to open March. They’ve dropped out of the playoff pack, but things appear to be moving back in the right direction for now. The ceiling is the roof.
22. New Orleans Pelicans (26–40)
Last Week: 24
Net Rating: -2.6
DeMarcus Cousins sat in crunch time, Anthony Davis finished with 46 points and 21 rebounds, the Pelicans won a rather meaningless overtime game against the Hornets, and there are gonna be at least seven stupid narratives springing from Boogie’s temporary benching.
21. Chicago Bulls (31–35)
Last Week: 16
Net Rating: -1.9
The Bulls had just 26 points on 3-of-22 shooting in the first half against the Celtics on Sunday on their way to a fifth consecutive loss. Say no more.
20. Minnesota Timberwolves (27–38)
Last Week: 21
Net Rating: +0.2
No matter what you think about Minnesota’s rebuild, there’s no denying that lately, the Wolves have looked more Thibs-like. In eight games since the All-Star break, the Wolves have put up the league’s second-best defensive efficiency and gone 5–3, clinging to an outside shot at the playoffs and floating 3.5 games out with 17 left to play. Zach LaVine is hurt, but Karl-Anthony Towns has averaged 28 points and 15 rebounds since the break. Andrew Wiggins has struggled a bit with less perimeter help, but Wolves fans will and should take what they can from this stretch: Minnesota’s figuring it out slowly, but will return next fall better poised to handle what will undoubtedly be significant expectations.
The hype for this Wolves was always premature (see our first Power Rankings of the season), as many overlooked a patchwork roster in favor of prodigious, elite talent and the arrival of a proven coach. It’s not fair to say they failed this season. They’ve taken their lumps, and thankfully for all parties, nobody’s anointing them this second. Some more change will be in order this summer. It’s worth pointing out, however, that a Ricky Rubio trade wouldn’t shock anyone, but Kris Dunn can’t get much tick off the bench as constituted. Thibodeau hates playing rookies anyway, but this isn’t rookie–year Derrick Rose we’re talking about. Give him a mulligan, but don’t expect a third superstar overnight.
The second-half strides Towns has made are as critical as anything this season (although I do wish Thibs would scale back the minutes a bit). In an extremely for-what-it’s-worth stat, he recently became the first player since Charles Barkley to put up 20 and 14 in seven straight games. Wiggins’s shooting has dipped, but his improvement has also been tangible. Throw in a healthy LaVine, another lottery pick, and whatever they get from Dunn, and the idea of the future Wolves is about as sexy as it was six months ago. Patience is just hard.
19. Dallas Mavericks (28–37)
Last Week: 18
Net Rating: -0.9
Seven of the Mavs’ next 10 games come against safely playoff-bound opponents. Dirk’s 30,000th point was dope, but Dallas has little time to breathe if they want to complete an improbable eight-seed run.
18. Portland Trail Blazers (29–36)
Last Week: 20
Net Rating: -1.7
Read Andrew Sharp on Jusuf Nurkic. I’m just generally here for the breathless Nurk takes.
17. Denver Nuggets (31–35)
Last Week: 17
Net Rating: -1.1
Gonna go on a limb and say it’s probably not great that Emmanuel Mudiay has been cut out of the rotation for an entire month. Add him to the list of young talents in need of new homes (and playing time, period).
16. Milwaukee Bucks (32–33)
Last Week: 19
Net Rating: +1.3
Don’t look now, but the Bucks have won six straight and are making the East very interesting. Khris Middleton has been terrific this month (18 points, four rebounds and four assists per game while shooting 54% FG, 46% 3P) and has been the supporting scorer Milwaukee sorely needs with Jabari Parker sidelined. Get Giannis to the playoffs, guys.
15. Indiana Pacers (34–32)
Last Week: 13
Net Rating: -0.7
C.J. Miles has been sneaky good for Indiana this season: since the All-Star break, the swingman’s averaging 12.4 points per game in just 26.4 minutes, hitting 42% of threes and playing a critical floor-spacing role. The Pacers need the most out of their smaller parts to hold onto a playoff spot.
14. Memphis Grizzlies (36–30)
Last Week: 9
Net Rating: +0.3
Oy vey. The Grizzlies have lost five in a row, including three games in four days topped off by a bad one against the Nets, and have dropped into a potential first-round matchup with the Spurs or Warriors. When their defense slumps, so do the Grizz—badly.
13. Detroit Pistons (33–33)
Last Week: 15
Net Rating: -0.7
Non-basketball aside here: I did not know Tobias Harris was extremely fashionable until reading this article from Rohan Nadkarni.
12. Toronto Raptors (38–28)
Last Week: 8
Net Rating: +4.3
There are 16 games left for the Raptors, and they’ve struggled to stay afloat sans Kyle Lowry during a travel-heavy stretch to open March. From here, they’re basically jockeying with Atlanta for 4/5 home–court advantage. They’ll need one last push to get it done.
11. LA Clippers (40–26)
Last week: 14
Net Rating: +3.2
With and without injuries, the Clippers have been one of the league’s streakiest teams all season. Now healthy, the needle’s begun to push back in their favor, with four wins in five games buttressing their position in the standings. Two huge games against Utah remain, with Monday night’s tilt potentially giving L.A. a head-to-head tiebreaker.
10. Miami Heat (32–35)
Last Week: 10
Net Rating: +0.6
No, the Heat aren’t in playoff position, but yes, they’re 21–5 since Jan. 17 and have been the league’s best three-point shooting team (and allowed the fewest three-balls per game) over that span. There’s some luck involved, but the Heat are currently capable of making somebody sweat in the first round. If they get there.
9. Atlanta Hawks (37–29)
Last week: 13
Net Rating: -0.4
Atlanta’s been rather up and down, but they’ve won three in a row and are challenging Toronto in the standings. A beefier bench has helped a bit, with Ersan Ilyasova and Tim Hardaway Jr. producing big, balancing lineups and letting Thabo Sefolosha move into the starting unit for defense. They’re just tricky to peg right now.
8. Oklahoma City Thunder (37–29)
Last Week: 11
Net Rating: -0.8
Victor Oladipo is back and looking healthy, which gives the Thunder ample time to get him in the mix before the playoffs. They’re 11–3 in games where he scores more than 20 points this season. Pass the ball, Russ!
7. Boston Celtics (42–25)
Last Week: 6
Net Rating: +3.0
Just being real, Boston’s title hopes totally died when players inexplicably decided to do the wave on the bench. Ugh.
6. Utah Jazz (41–25)
Last Week: 5
Net Rating: +5.0
Don’t forget that there’s a sense of urgency for the Jazz, with George Hill, Gordon Hayward and Joe Ingles all headed for free agency and potentially shaking up what’s been a very, very good thing in Utah. Windows only last for so long and the Jazz have plenty at stake this season.
5. Washington Wizards (41–24)
Last Week: 7
Net Rating: +2.8
Winners of five straight and seven of eight, the Wizards have a chance to go undefeated on a five-game, weeklong trip out west that included two back to backs. Things have by and large broken right for Washington. The East finals are distinctly within reach, and I sure hope John Wall and Bradley Beal are friends again.
4. San Antonio Spurs (51–14)
Last week: 1
Net Rating: +8.9
I was almost going to write about the Spurs last week, when they peaked in the top spot. A whole lot has changed since then, with LaMarcus Aldridge now out indefinitely due to an irregular heartbeat, Kawhi Leonard concussed and Tony Parker also nursing some knocks. San Antonio is just a game behind KD-less Golden State for the best record in the league and was playing some of its best basketball before the injury bug struck last week. Leonard—no longer a sneaky MVP candidate—shouldn’t be out long, but it’s the health of Aldridge that changes the scenario here.
Aldridge is set for more heart tests Monday. The good news is, the team announced his arrhythmia is “minor.” But it’s not a thing you mess around with, no matter who you are, and it’s worth remembering Aldridge was diagnosed with Wolff-Parkinson-White Syndrome as a rookie in 2007, another condition that impacts heartbeat and which sidelined him for the last nine games of that season. As the Spurs’ second-leading scorer and a player who’s adjusted to become a massive part of the offense, any time without Aldridge (which means more Pau Gasol, David Lee and Dewayne Dedmon) is a massive loss.
The Spurs may not give that much ground in the standings in the meantime, but the potential gravity of the situation needs little explanation. It’s pointless and unfair to Aldridge to speculate further. But this is a situation that could alter his career and the arc of San Antonio’s season. Without him, they’re outside the top tier of teams.
3. Golden State Warriors (52–14)
Last Week: 3
Net Rating: +11.1
Prior to last week, Golden State hadn’t lost three games in a row since November 2013 (except for, well, you know.) We don’t often consider the Warriors’ longevity as much as we do their peak (or the pre-Kerr period), but it’s a significant testament to the pairing of Steph Curry and Klay Thompson.
2. Cleveland Cavaliers (43–22)
Last Week: 4
Net Rating: +3.5
Sunday night’s exhilarating Cavs-Rockets game in Houston felt like the playoffs. With the Warriors and Spurs reeling, it also decided who got the top spot this week. So…
1. Houston Rockets (46–21)
Last Week: 2
Net Rating: +6.4
Houston is on the verge of clinching a playoff berth with its massive win over Cleveland and becomes just the fifth team to sit in the top spot of the rankings over the last two seasons, joining Golden State, San Antonio, Cleveland and the LA Clippers. I’ll say it again: they’ve got a real chance.