NBA Power Rankings Week 21

by Dan M | Posted on Saturday, March 28th, 2015

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The Warriors and Hawks have controlled the league for the first 70 games, but this season’s field is still more open than it’s been in years. As good as Golden State has been, you can make a case for every West team to be considered a contender. That’s in stark contrast to the East, where a Cleveland vs. Atlanta conference finals seems inevitable. Thanks to an East that continues to fold and the West’s non-playoff teams competing for lottery odds, these rankings get real ugly after the top 12 teams.

1.Warriors (58-13) HIGH: 1 / LOW: 7
Let’s flip it: The Warriors are an incredible defensive team that also has a fantastic offense. Golden State’s offense offers ‘roided-up box scores led by MVP favorite Stephen Curry, but what sets the Warriors apart are their league-best defensive rating and league-low opponents field goal percentage allowed. The Warriors held the Wizards to one basket in the third quarter Monday night, the second time they’ve done it this season (the other was vs. Toronto on Feb. 27). It’s all part of why the Warriors have won their first Pacific Division title in 39 years.

2. Cavaliers (46-26) HIGH: 2 / LOW: 18
No one will care that LeBron James and Kevin Love aren’t best friends if the Cavs win a title. If they bring a ring to that city, a statue of the two trading barbs in media scrums will go up in Cleveland. To win a championship, they’re going to need each other. Love came to Cleveland to win, and James is the reason he is doing that. But for Cleveland to win this postseason, when defenses are keying on James and Kyrie Irving, Love is going to need to play hero too.

3. Hawks (53-17) HIGH: 1 / LOW: 20
You know things are going well when your first three-game losing streak doesn’t come until the end of March. But there is actually some real reason to worry for Atlanta right now. The Hawks don’t have the same depth of talent as the Warriors or even the Cavs, so their success requires a perfect cohesion of offense and defense. During this brief stretch of losing, Atlanta has allowed opponents to shoot above 50% in all three games, including 56% by the Spurs. Kyle Korver returned with a mask in Atlanta’s last loss but took only four shots.

4. Grizzlies (50-21) HIGH: 1 / LOW: 14
This recent run of Grizzlies basketball will go overlooked if they don’t win a title. It’s their third consecutive 50-win season, a mark they reached only once before in their first 17 years as a franchise. But this season offers a better opportunity in what’s perhaps a more open field than in years past. Memphis is so tough at home and, other than the Warriors, should be considered the team to beat in the West.

5. Rockets (47-23) HIGH: 1 / LOW: 11
This MVP debate is going to leave at least three fan bases disappointed. The four-way race between James Harden, Stephen Curry, Russell Westbrook and LeBron James is only getting tighter, and Harden’s numbers are rising along with Houston’s wins. Harden has totals of 50 and 44 points in his past three games, and he’s averaging 32.2 points, 6.2 rebounds and 5.4 assists in his past five games. Harden promises to maintain this pace with this week’s return of Dwight Howard.
6. Clippers (46-25) HIGH: 2 / LOW: 16
Now is the time for Chris Paul. His Clippers have been hiding near the bottom of the West, but they’ve now won four in a row and Paul just won Western Conference Player of the Week for 26 points, 11.3 assists, 4.8 rebounds and 2.0 steals during the streak. Paul is still just 29 years old, but there’s some wear on those legs and his window to win a championship is shrinking. Despite Paul’s incredible postseason stats, he’s never made it to the conference finals.

7. Spurs (44-26) HIGH: 1 / LOW: 13
The Spurs’ marathon version of an NBA dynasty is fractured only by the fact they’ve never won back-to-back titles in their run of five titles since 1998-99. A strong finish in its final 12 games will give San Antonio an easier path to changing that. The Spurs are currently in the seventh spot, but they still can easily earn home court in at least the first round, trailing the Blazers by only a half-game for the fourth spot.

8. Trail Blazers (44-25) High: 1 / Low: 8
Coming home to the sprinting Warriors wasn’t a great relief after losing the last four of a five-game East Coast road trip. The Blazers are splintering and ailing at a dangerous time, just weeks before the playoffs and with a tough schedule to finish the season. Portland isn’t going to slip out of the playoff picture, but this recent slide has the Blazers just a half-game ahead of the No. 7 spot. Of the Blazers’ last 13 games, seven are on the road: at Utah, Phoenix, L.A. Lakers, Brooklyn, Golden State, Oklahoma City and Dallas.
9. Thunder (41-30) HIGH: 4 / LOW: 28
Seriously, just throw a Nike logo on that mask and let’s make this a thing. Kids already love superheroes, right? Russell Westbrook first started wearing the clear mask on 3/4, and has since averaged 31.5 points,11.2 assists and 8.9 rebounds in 11 games. When you think about Westbrook’s great performances with a mask combined with his distaste for the media maybe Russ is just a bit shy, perhaps?

10. Mavericks (45-27) High: 4 / Low: 10
Don’t be like everyone else and write off the Mavericks just because they didn’t catch fire after Rajon Rondo came over. The Mavericks already were impressive without him. Rondo was 1-of-5 for two points (and five assists, nine rebounds) in Tuesday’s win against San Antonio, but don’t worry: “Monta Ellis have it all.” Ellis had 38 points and five assists in the win. There are still signs Nowitzki has another monumental playoff run in him too.

11.  Bulls (43-29) HIGH: 5 / LOW: 15
Sometimes it just takes a national highlight to make a name for yourself in the NBA. Nikola Mirotic’s long-armed throwdown over the Hornets may have grabbed the casual fan’s attention, but a deeper dig into his production reveals what Chicago fans already know: The 24-year-old Serbian has become incredibly valuable in the absence of Derrick Rose. He’s averaging 21 points and 8.2 rebounds in March.

12. Suns (38-33) HIGH: 9 / LOW: 20
Steve Nash deserves a statue in Phoenix. Nash won two MVP awards with the team that drafted him, where he spent 10 seasons over two separate campaigns and played in 75 playoff games. He brought back a flair that had gone missing from the game. It’s a shame his Suns never made it to the Finals despite reaching the conference finals three times, but it was still a special run for Phoenix. And speaking of runs, these Suns aren’t dead yet in the hunt for the No. 8 seed.

13. Wizards (40-31) HIGH: 6 / LOW: 16
The Wizards may be a top-three team in the East, but going West ended with three straight losses in California. Washington’s offense averaged just 87 points, highlighted by an embarrassing third quarter in Golden State in which the Wizards managed just one basket.

14. Pelicans (37-33) High: 10 / Low: 18
There’s no time for hiccups right now if New Orleans hopes to catch OKC. The Pelicans lost two games without Anthony Davis this month and dropped three in a row even after he returned. Injuries are haunting New Orleans at the worst time, as Ryan Anderson, Omer Asik and Tyreke Evans are all dealing with ’em.

15. Raptors (42-29) HIGH: 2 / LOW: 17
Luckily for the Raptors, the East is graded on a curve. Toronto has fallen into the fourth spot behind Chicago, but the Raptors probably will still finish with homecourt in the first round thanks to a bottom half of the East playoff picture that’s equally spiraling. Toronto is living off that 36-17 record before the All-Star break. Since then, the Raptors are just 6-12 even after winning four of their past seven.

16. Heat (32-38) HIGH: 7 / LOW: 21
The Heat have lost two in a row, but they’re still playing better than the Bucks, Celtics, Hornets and definitely the Pacers. Dwyane Wade took player of the week honors in the East for 24.5 points (53.2 FG%), 4.0 assists and 2.25 steals as the Heat went 3-1. As far as entertainment goes, it’d be great to see the Heat earn a No. 7 seed and face LeBron’s Cavs in the first round. It’d be equally entertaining to see Wade go all out in the postseason as the clear No. 1 option again.

17.  Jazz (31-39) HIGH: 13 / LOW: 27
It’s hard not to jump on the bandwagon with Jazz fans. The franchise has been down for so long, and even though playoffs are out of the question, it’s incredible how much this team has turned around (even despite the home loss to Minnesota). Quin Snyder deserves some votes for Coach of the Year and Rudy Gobert could win Most Improved Player.

18. Bucks (35-36) HIGH: 12 / LOW: 29
The Eastern Conference is worse than it’s been all season. Milwaukee’s fall below .500 means we now have three teams that are likely to make the playoffs with a losing record. Jason Kidd didn’t need it in Tuesday’s win against Miami, but you know he is saving his “spilled drink” move for the right time.

19. Celtics (31-39) HIGH: 16 / LOW: 28
The worst part about the Eastern Conference is that teams that are so obviously rebuilding are also still technically in contention for winning a title. Of course, “contention” is being used quite liberally here, since there’s no way these Celtics could pull off a seven-game series let alone multiple ones. Either way, it gives Boston fans a bit of fun this spring since the Bruins actually might not make the playoffs.

20. Pacers (30-40) HIGH: 12 / LOW: 27
This year’s Pacers are the first date you wish you never went on. Conversation over drinks was awkward and atrocious, and just when you thought about getting up and walking out, bam, things started to click. Small talk led to a great dinner and it seemed like things would progress, but then that date showed its true colors again. The Pacers aren’t worth the heartache. Don’t root for dessert; you don’t want this team in the playoffs.

21. Nuggets (27-44) High: 12 / Low: 28
It’s hard to know whether or not this will make Denver fans feel better or worse: The Nuggets were 20-39 (.339) when they fired Brian Shaw on March 3 and they are 7-5 (.583) since. That winning percentage under Melvin Hunt, extended out all season, would be good enough for a playoff spot in the West. Of course, that’s a bit of a stretch considering Nuggets players in this scenario would have to not quit on Hunt too.

22.  Pistons (27-44) HIGH: 17 / LOW: 30
Detroit has rallied for four wins in their past five games, but it’s not going to be enough to undo that 10-game losing streak that wiped away their dark-horse hopes of a postseason. Detroit is 4.5 games behind Boston for that No. 8 spot and also trails Charlotte, Indiana and Brooklyn.

23. Kings (25-45) HIGH: 9 / LOW: 27
What’s sad is that Sacramento is pacing for 29 wins, and that would make it the Kings’ best season since 2007-08. This year marks the ninth consecutive lottery finish, and there’s little other than DeMarcus Cousins (maybe Ben McLemore and maaaaaybe Nik Stauskas) to show for it.

24. Hornets (30-39) HIGH: 16 / LOW: 28
Charlotte’s season is ending just as depressingly as it started. Playoffs are still possible though you wouldn’t know it by the losses stacking up. This season certainly won’t compete with last year’s unexpected surge into relevancy. The only hope is that the team will be healthier next season and potential moves this summer don’t resemble the Lance Stephenson signing.

25. Nets (29-40) HIGH: 13 / LOW: 26
Deron Williams isn’t the same athlete he was in a Jazz uniform. Blame turning 30 and ankle issues. He’s no longer a burly guard who can defend quicker guards nor is he a guy who can take defenders off the dribble and attack the rim. Now that he’s more limited, it makes it just that much more important that he knocks down shots. Unfortunately for the Nets, he’s shooting just 30.4% from 3-point range since the All-Star break.

26. Magic (22-50) HIGH: 19 / LOW: 29
Orlando’s talent is better than its 22 wins. There’s actually a framework there, even if it still needs a true superstar to emerge. Elfrid Payton, as witnessed in his 22-point (10-of-13 shooting), 10-assist and 10-rebound triple-double last week, can lead a promising backcourt alongside scorer Victor Oladipo. With a young frontcourt led by Nikola Vucevic and Tobias Harris at the wing, the Magic have some real nice pieces. Finding the superstar won’t be easy, but Orlando isn’t too far away from turning this thing around.

27. Lakers (18-51) HIGH: 23 / LOW: 30
March is a good reminder just how incredible Julius Randle was for Kentucky in last year’s NCAA Tournament. He looked like a Zach Randolph, paint-bully type but more nimble. He wouldn’t have been enough to change this lost Lakers season, but don’t forget how valuable he will be next season when he’s fully recovered from his broken leg.

28. T’wolves (16-54) High: 22 / Low: 30
Zach LaVine’s not going to steal the Rookie of the Year award from Andrew Wiggins, but the Wolves have to be happy with the slam dunk champion’s finish. The rookie point guard was 5-of-6 from behind the arc for 27 points in Monday’s win in Utah, and he’s averaging 16.6 points and 57.9% 3-point shooting in his past five games.

29. 76ers (17-54) HIGH: 23 / LOW: 30
Nerlens Noel could end up the perfect poster child for why tanking works. The young big that the 76ers gave up Jrue Holiday for is playing his best basketball this March (13.2 ppg on 49.6 FG%, 10.5 rebounds, 2.5 steals). Of course, if he keeps playing this well, Sam Hinkie will trade him this offseason.

30. Knicks (14-57) HIGH: 17 / LOW: 30
Only Knicks fans are watching the NCAA tournament and thinking: “Wow, finally some good basketball to watch.” However, it should be noted that New York actually should be excited that it’ll get its choice at some of these top players like Karl-Anthony Towns, D’Angelo Russell and Jahlil Okafor.

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