Week 21 of the NBA season is here, and I’m excited to see how the league will top a week in which a player was suspended for throwing soup at a coach. On the court, while nine teams are blatantly tanking at this point, so much of the league is bunched together it should make for an exciting playoff race (though the bunching does make it hard to separate teams when you’re trying to rank them.)
Five teams are on win streaks of at least five games, all of which are in the Western Conference. Meanwhile, the East appears to have a pretty clear top eight, but the order in which they’ll finish seems totally up for grabs.
Oh, and before we dive in to the rankings, here’s a shameless plug for the latest episode of Crossover TV. Now let’s take a look at where each team stands headed into Week 21.
30. Memphis Grizzlies (18–44)
Last Week: 29
29. Phoenix Suns (19-46)
Last Week: 30
28. Dallas Mavericks (19–45)
Last Week: 26
27. Atlanta Hawks (20–44)
Last Week: 25
26. Brooklyn Nets (20–44)
Last Week: 28
25. Sacramento Kings (20–44)
Last Week: 24
24. Orlando Magic (20–43)
Last Week: 27
This group is still tanking hard. I almost ranked the Grizzlies at the top of this list, simply because they are doing the best job at gunning for the No. 1 pick, having lost 13(!) in a row. Memphis did a great job last week of gaining some lottery ground by losing to the Suns and Magic. Phoenix had a good showing against OKC, but forfeited any good will by losing to Atlanta.
Something we aren’t talking enough about (and I want to keep stressing) is how painful it is watching Dirk Nowitzki play for such a woeful team at the end of his career. Sure, Dirk can’t carry a contender, but he deserves to go out better than this. The NBA community still loves celebrating Nowitzki’s achievements—imagine if they happened in meaningful games!
On an unrelated note, I wish the Magic could loan their sweet City edition jerseys to a good team. If you’re looking for positives here, at least De’Aaron Fox is still really cool.
23. New York Knicks (24–40)
Last Week: 22
22. Chicago Bulls (21–41)
Last Week: 23
These two teams are rapidly approaching the tankstravaganza taking place with the bottom seven squads in the league. A troubling sign for the Bulls? Chicago has a –20.4 net rating in 158 minutes when Kris Dunn, Zach LaVine and Lauri Markkanen share the court. The front office should at least hope for some improvement out of that group. There’s not much to say about the Porzingis-less Knicks. New York has only one win over a team with a winning record this calendar year.
21. Detroit Pistons (29–34)
Last Week: 20
The Pistons have lost five of their last six, including a devastating defeat to the Magic in overtime on Friday. A loss to Miami the next night may have pushed Detroit out of the playoff race for good. The Andre Drummond-Blake Griffin frontcourt has been underwhelming at best. The Pistons have a –0.9 net rating when those two are on the floor together.
20. Charlotte Hornets (28–36)
Last Week: 18
After a five-game win streak, the Hornets ran into some stiff competition, dropping three in a row against Boston, Philly and Toronto. Charlotte’s faint playoff hopes are all but extinguished, but good for this team for fighting until the bitter end.
19. Milwaukee Bucks (34–29)
Last Week: 14
The Bucks had lost four in a row before a much needed win over the 76ers on Sunday. Milwaukee should be better, and I wonder if or when the Bucks will commit to playing more often with Giannis at center. A Bledsoe-Middleton-Snell-Jabari-Giannis lineup sure as hell sounds fun on paper.
18. Miami Heat (33–30)
Last Week: 19
The Heat suffered an ugly loss to the Lakers on Thursday but rebounded with a win over the Pistons two nights later. Miami is maybe counting on Dwyane Wade too much, and Erik Spoelstra has played some weird lineup combinations over the last few weeks. Injuries have been a factor here, but Spo needs to find more time for the Kelly Olynyk-BamAdebayofrontcourt, and for Justise Winslow, whose becoming something of a plus-minus phenomenon for the Heat.
17. Washington Wizards (36–28)
Last Week: 5
The Wizards faced a dose of reality to close Week 20, losing three in a row to the Warriors, Raptors and Pacers. Still, this team has more than stayed afloat in the absence of John Wall. When the Wizards go small—with Markieff Morris at center, flanked by Beal, Sato, Oubre and Otto—they have a net rating of 28.1. That’s a very fun group to watch.
16. Minnesota Timberwolves (38–28)
Last Week: 16
The Wolves have lost two in a row, and their next six games are against teams with winning records, including matchups with Boston, Golden State and Houston. The starting lineup has actually been decent without Jimmy Butler, but it will take a herculean effort to succeed in their upcoming gauntlet.
15. Oklahoma City Thunder (37–28)
Last Week: 15
The Thunder’s last win over a playoff team came nearly a month ago on Feb. 6, when they defeated the Warriors. Since then, OKC has lost to all winning teams its played and eked out wins over lottery opponents. The Andre Roberson injury is a serious problem here, and it’s one Corey Brewer may not be able to fix.
13. Cleveland Cavaliers (36–26)
Last Week: 7
The Cavs’ new-look starting lineup of George Hill, LeBron. Cedi Osman, J.R. Smith and Tristan Thompson is already their second-most used lineup of the season—and it has a –6.0 net rating. Cleveland’s best lineups of the season aren’t replicable because of the trades they made, and the defense is still really bad. This team is far from out of the woods, and the honeymoon is officially over.
12. Los Angeles Lakers (28–34)
Last Week: 21
The Lakers are on a five-game win streak, so they get a huge bump this week. Los Angeles has lost only three times since the start of February, while notching wins over the Thunder, Heat and Spurs in that timespan. Lonzo Ball is shooting well and playing fun basketball, and Brandon Ingram looks like he could be a significant part of the future as well. It’s hard to discern what’s sustainable here, but it’s exciting to see this team flash its potential.
11. Utah Jazz (33–30)
Last Week: 6
The Jazz have a higher net rating than the Wizards, Blazers, Pelicans, Bucks and Cavaliers. It’s remarkable how this team has bounced back this season. Donovan Mitchell deserves a lot of love, but so does Rudy Gobert. The Stifle Tower is putting together another fine season, and he still has stretches in which he thoroughly dominates a game on the defensive end. Gobert’s game will never be sexy in the pace-and-space era, but he’s a huge factor in Utah’s success.
10. Los Angeles Clippers (34–28)
Last Week: 17
The Zombie Clippers may be my favorite story of the season. They keep rolling along toward the playoffs, including a huge come-from-behind win over the Nuggets last week. The Clips’ top-three most-used lineups from the season still feature Blake Griffin. Their fourth most-used lineup has played only 62 minutes together. Doc Rivers is legitimately patching together units game-by-game this season, and yet this team still has a very realistic chance at the playoffs.
9. Philadelphia 76ers (34–28)
Last Week: 12
The East’s sleeping giant has a big three-game road trip this week, with cupcakes against Charlotte and Brooklyn sandwiching a final matchup with Miami. If the season ended today, the 76ers would face the Cavaliers in the first round of the playoffs. I’m not sure who I would pick in that series, but it could easily go seven games.
8. Denver Nuggets (35–28)
Last Week: 11
The Nuggets came away with a great road win in Cleveland on Saturday on the second night of a back-to-back. Denver has won seven of its last 10, and will probably be favored to win its next six games. Stacking wins now will be important, because the Nuggets have a treacherous seven-game road trip looming at the end of March.
7. Indiana Pacers (36–27)
Last Week: 8
The Pacers inexplicably lost two in a row to Dallas and Atlanta last week, but rebounded with two impressive wins against the Bucks and Wizards. The Pacers have the fourth-best net rating in the East, and they play a fun brand of basketball. I’m not sure what impact he can make this late in the season, but I hope Glenn Robinson III works his way into the rotation. He could be a nice little injection of energy for the season’s final stretch.
6. Boston Celtics (44–20)
Last Week: 4
Tough loss for Boston in Houston on Saturday in one of the best games of the season. The C's are now three games behind Toronto in the loss column for the No. 1 seed in the East.
5. New Orleans Pelicans (36–26)
Last Week: 10
This week’s big winner is the Pelicans! Let’s bring David Kinch back to town, fire up some Po’ Boys and party in the bayou! Without Boogie Cousins, New Orleans has still managed to win eight games in a row. This is honestly a remarkable story. Anthony Davis is absolutely wrecking opponents and single-handedly keeping this team from going away quietly. Can the fun times last? Something to note about the Pelicans’ win streak—three wins have come in overtime, and five have come against sub–.500 teams. So let’s just celebrate while we can.
4. Portland Trail Blazers (37–26)
Last Week: 9
Meanwhile, the Blazers have won six in a row and entered Week 21 with the fifth-best record in the league. This is a surprising development for a team that struggled for much of the early season. And shockingly, Portland’s success stems more from its No. 7 defense then its No. 16 offense. That’s right, the Blazers are scoring on par with the Hornets and Celtics but defending only 0.8 points per possession worse than the Warriors. Portland’s net rating would indicate the team has room to improve, but the Blazers are peaking at the right time.
3. Toronto Raptors (45–17)
Last Week: 3
The Raptors have lost only twice since the start of February by a combined six points. Toronto deserves to be the favorite to make the Finals in the East.
2. Golden State Warriors (49–14)
Last Week: 2
Draymond Green admitted last week the Warriors have been complacent at times this season. They still have the best offense in the league, and a top-five defense. I’m not sure we really know what it’s going to look like when this team finally decides to try.
1. Houston Rockets (49–13)
Last Week: 1
The Rockets have won 15 in a row—their second win streak in the teens—and are still looking over their shoulder at the Warriors. The race for the No. 1 seed in the West could be very fun over the last six weeks of the season.