- The Bulls could be headed for the playoffs, the Cavs could be headed for disaster, and the Knicks are definitely headed for another off-season of questions.
There are just a few days remaining in the regular season. We did it, everyone! Real, meaningful basketball is right around the corner. Kevin Durant and Kyle Lowry are on the mend. Nobody knows what’s up with the Cavs. Some mediocre teams will play mediocre games this week to try and steal playoff spots, and some decent teams will play some decent basketball as they jockey for positioning.
We’re all ready for this thing to be over, and we’re all ready for everything to matter again.
Here’s how the Power Rankings shake out as the year winds down.
(All stats and records through April 2)
30. Phoenix Suns (22–56)
Last Week: 29
Net Rating: -5.6
Twelve straight losses and counting. It’s been a long, cold lonely winter.
29. Los Angeles Lakers (22–55)
Last Week: 30
Net Rating: -7.7
Confession: I’m having terrible nightmares involving Magic Johnson and LaVar Ball these days.
28. Philadelphia 76ers (28–49)
Last Week: 26
Net Rating: -5.4
With Robert Covington and Jahlil Okafor done for the year, Philly has now shut basically its entire team down with injuries. Process.
27. Orlando Magic (27–50)
Last Week: 25
Net Rating: -6.4
T-Mac going into the Hall of Fame is the best Magic-related news of the month. But they’ve also been playing better, and Elfrid Payton has made a solid case for Orlando to draft something other than a point guard in June.
26. Brooklyn Nets (18–59)
Last Week: 29
Net Rating: -6.1
Honestly, it wasn’t clear if the Nets were gonna win another game a month ago, so this month, with no lottery odds in the balance (sadly), is gravy.
25. New York Knicks (29–48)
Last Week: 27
Net Rating: -4.0
Just when you thought it was safe to go outside again, Derrick Rose tears his meniscus. The Knicks started Sasha Vujacic and Ron Baker on Sunday and are hurtling toward another off-season full of uncertainty. It was clear from the outset that last summer’s patchwork spending would solve few of New York’s problems, and the late-season tanking has been about the only cause for optimism (if you can put it that way).
We should assume Rose is gone in free agency and hope New York answers their point guard questions through the draft, with five legitimate options at the position expected to fall among the top selections. This season’s bright spots were 1) nothing terrible happening to Kristaps Porzingis, 2) Willy Hernangomez being pretty good, and 3) their incredible bromance dating back to their days as teammates in Spain. Joakim Noah’s aging on a big contract and will start next season on a suspension, leaving the door open for Hernangomez to firmly seize real minutes for himself next year. New York’s international scouting deserves some credit, and if we trusted Phil Jackson to sit through a full rebuild, we could all feel OK about the Knicks. Alas...
The cupboard is otherwise bare, and Carmelo trade rumors aren't going anywhere. Carmelo may not either, but we can dream. The Knicks know the defense has to improve, and—surprise—dealing Melo and finding a replacement for Rose are two obvious places to tinker. It’s hard to feel great about losing, and it’s always hard to be patient, but this franchise consistently makes things harder than they need to be.
24. Minnesota Timberwolves (30–45)
Last Week: 24
Net Rating: -0.4
In case you missed it, read Rob Mahoney on the state of Minnesota’s rebuild. Next year is pivotal.
23. Dallas Mavericks (32–44)
Last Week: 20
Net Rating: -2.0
The Mavs are officially eliminated, but this season was significantly better than we expected. And for some perspective, it’s just the second time in 17 years Dallas will miss out on the postseason (but also the second in five). Also, we get Dirk back for another year.
22. Sacramento Kings (30–47)
Last Week: 20
Net Rating: -4.9
If, as rumored, Sam Hinkie actually winds up running this team alongside Vivek and Vlade, we have potential for the greatest basketball reality show of all time.
21. Detroit Pistons (35–42)
Last Week: 22
Net Rating: -2.1
On March 11, the Pistons were at .500 with a chance to dictate their playoff fate. Since then, they’ve dropped nine of 11 and scored 100 points in regulation just once. It’s going to be a long, long summer.
20. Atlanta Hawks (39–38)
Last week: 17
Net Rating: -1.3
This entire collapse is really, really embarrassing for Atlanta, and now they have to play Boston, Cleveland twice and playoff–hopefuls Charlotte and Indiana to try and get in. Don’t forget Paul Millsap is headed for free agency…
19. New Orleans Pelicans (33–44)
Last Week: 18
Net Rating: -1.2
Overall, this second half has been good for the Pelicans, who with the appropriate tinkering should certainly be in playoff contention next season. The question is whether this was enough to keep Alvin Gentry in place. Boogie Cousins, for one, might appreciate some coaching continuity, but the stakes are especially high with this experiment.
18. Indiana Pacers (37–40)
Last Week: 16
I wanted to write exclusively about Lance Stephenson, but the Pacers are clinging to dear life and have lost four straight, including Sunday’s double-OT heartbreak against the Cavs.
But we’ll also include some Lance.
17. Denver Nuggets (36–40)
Last Week: 15
Net Rating: -1.0
Looks like Denver let Emmanuel Mudiay out of the doghouse at the exact right time, with his 17 points and nine assists in Sunday’s huge win in Miami. Unfortunately, the Nuggets' playoff fate is mostly out of their hands, and they’ve got two road back-to-backs in their last six games.
16. Charlotte Hornets (36–41)
Last Week: 18
Net Rating: +1.2
It’s mostly been too little, too late for the Hornets, who basically need to win out and get a lot of help to sneak into the playoffs. Their draft position is suffering accordingly.
15. Chicago Bulls (38–39)
Last Week: 21
Net Rating: -1.0
It really pains me to say this, but the Bulls are probably going to make the playoffs. Do they deserve this dubious position? Not one bit. But a four-game winning streak—with Dwyane Wade out, no less—has brought them back to life and renewed the potential for a wildly frustrating yet somehow inevitable first–round sweep. But let’s not get ahead of ourselves: as inept as this team has been this season, Chicago has still wound up basically where we expected. There’s a neat trope here about how there’s more than one way to get someplace, but it’s escaping me.
It’s a testament to Jimmy Butler that the Bulls are winning games with Nikola Mirotic and Paul Zipser in the starting lineup. Are we ready for playoff Zipser? The funny thing about this season is that we basically knew exactly what we going to happen: Chicago would feel and play like a .500 team, perform erratically, have some fun moments, butt heads a lot, and somebody wasn’t making it out alive. The biggest shocker is that both Rajon Rondo and Fred Hoiberg are still around. Most Bulls fans I know don’t even want to see these guys in the playoffs. Whatever happens, it won’t mask the dysfunction.
But as much fun as it is to bash the front office, the Bulls are still competitive, depending on how you define it. They are sitting on the easiest schedule left of any team in the NBA: at New Orleans, at New York, at Philly, at Brooklyn, vs. Orlando, vs. Brooklyn. Why tank when the eating’s this good? Chicago also conveniently holds season tiebreakers over the Pacers and Heat. Barring a total collapse, they’re getting into the postseason. But then again, it’d be so Bulls, wouldn’t it?
14. Portland Trailblazers (38–38)
Last Week: 14
Net Rating: -0.1
Portland’s triumphant run in the West's playoff race has been marred somewhat by Jusuf Nurkic’s minorly broken leg. Get well soon, Nurk.
13. Miami Heat (37–40)
Last Week: 11
Net Rating: +0.8
I still don’t know how I feel about the fact this very-fun Heat team has been playing well even without Dion Waiters, but I do know that I’m down with LeBron possibly coming back to Miami in the playoffs.
12. Milwaukee Bucks (40–37)
Last Week: 12
Net Rating: +1.1
They’re growing up before our eyes.
11. LA Clippers (47–31)
Last week: 13
Net Rating: +3.7
L.A. still seems bound for a tough off-season, but its won three straight (thanks, Suns and Lakers) and play its last four games over a merciful 10-day period. The R&R should help a little, but conference finals or bust ought to be the attitude.
10. Memphis Grizzlies (42–35)
Last Week: 9
Net Rating: +0.4
This is a very, very bad time for a Marc Gasol foot injury, but the Grizz are in the playoffs and have the right to be cautious. I’m down with a Marc-Pau first–round tilt if we’re lucky enough to get it.
9. Washington Wizards (46–31)
Last Week: 8
Net Rating: +1.6
This season has been a breath of life for the franchise, but how good are the Wizards actually? It’s been a banner year across the board, with Washington returning to playoff relevance, Brad Beal and Otto Porter taking major steps forward, and Scott Brooks quietly doing a Coach of the Year-worthy job with these guys. Remember when everyone was preemptively worrying about Beal’s relationship with John Wall? This team started the season 2–8! It seems like that’s been figured out. And from here, the Wizards are going to go as Wall goes.
Wall just set the Wizards’ single-season record for assists, and hopefully can no longer be regarded as underrated in any way. He’s gone from one of the league’s best athletes to one of its best players, and his grasp of the game and knack for controlling the tempo gives the Wiz a chance at winning a series or two. I don’t think enough people are taking Washington seriously as a threat to reach the conference finals, and that’s because I’m willing to bet on Wall at this point. The Wizards’ starting five has been one of the best in the league as a unit all season, and a short bench will matter less as opponents start to shorten their rotations, too. They have a lot of shooting, tough interior pieces, and a guy in Wall who can be the best player on the floor on any given night, no matter the opponent. He’s an extraterrestrial, or perhaps a literal Wizard.
Washington has a soft-ish schedule from here (vs. Hornets, at Knicks, vs. Heat, at Pistons, at Heat) and has a legitimate chance to nab the No. 3 seed and leap over the Raptors. Whether the Wizards would rather play the semi-reeling Cavs or flawed-but good Celtics in the second round is a fair debate. I, for one, am hoping for a Wizards–Celtics funeral series. Regardless, it feels like it's time for Washington to take another leap. At the least, they have a chance.
8. Oklahoma City Thunder (43–33)
Last Week: 7
Net Rating: -0.3
I imagine watching Russell Westbrook slug out a seven–game series against the Spurs or Rockets will feel a lot like the ending of Logan, which is all I’ll say without spoiling the movie. This is going to be emotional for a lot of us.
7. Utah Jazz (47–31)
Last Week: 10
Net Rating: +4.8
The Jazz still have first-round home court to play for, and so losing to the Spurs, who were resting six players Sunday, is not a great look.
6. Cleveland Cavaliers (49–27)
Last Week: 5
Why do these guys always give us so many reasons to worry late in the season? We know they fundamentally understand how to play defense. We’re just gonna be in this super-awkward zone until Playoff LeBron pops up.
5. Toronto Raptors (47–30)
Last Week: 6
Net Rating: +5.1
Don’t look now, but the Raptors look pretty threatening. Kyle Lowry is almost back. Never answer Masai Ujiri’s calls, guys.
4. Houston Rockets (52–25)
Last Week: 2
Net Rating: 5.9
I know the MVP race is still basically in the balance, but James Harden has the flu and a bum wrist and nobody can really blame the Rockets for holding him out. Just shut it all the way down. It’s been too fun of a year.
3. Boston Celtics (50–27)
Last Week: 4
Net Rating: +3.2
I don’t think anyone outside of Boston is fully convinced the Celtics can take the Cavs in seven games, but the C’s are playing great ball to close out the season and look like they can secure home court. Wednesday’s Cavs-Celtics tilt is as close to a must-watch as a regular season NBA game can get.
2. San Antonio Spurs (59–17)
Last week: 3
Net Rating: +8.5
Though altogether unsurprising, the Spurs slowed down Russell Westbrook as well as anyone this week, came back from down 21, and sent a reminder why they’re going to be such a difficult playoff out. Kawhi is the MVP of my heart.
1. Golden State Warriors (63–14)
Last Week: 1
Net Rating: +12.1
Still no Kevin Durant and they've won 12 straight, including the Rockets twice and the Spurs on the road. Sounds like a team that’s hitting its stride at the right time.