Let's face it — the best and most powerful teams in the NBA don't really change from week to week. A handful of results in the middle of winter can only mean so much to a franchise's championship hopes. What does shift regularly, though, is how much interest a squad can hold over the course of a season. Every week, BDL's Most Interesting Power Rankings track the teams most worthy of your attention.
THE TOP 15
1. Golden State Warriors (52-5, last week: 11): Holy hell, did you guys watch that thriller against the Thunder on Saturday night? I admittedly missed it live, but I decided that it was the best game of the season just off the box score. Stephen Curry's 12 three-pointers and incredible game-winner were the highlights, obviously, but Draymond Green's line — two points on 0-of-8 FG, 14 rebounds, 14 assists, six steals, and four blocks — is something like my Platonic ideal of a basketball player. And that doesn't even take into account what the Thunder did.
If it sounds like I'm rambling here, that's only because it's becoming increasingly difficult to discuss the Warriors as if they were any other basketball team. How should we talk about a team that's on pace to break the single-season wins record behind regularly unreal performances from a certain back-to-back MVP capable of making 35-foot buzzer-beaters as if they were normal shots? The only conversation to have pertains to their place in the history books, but that issue won't be settled until the postseason.
It looks increasingly likely that the only sensible reaction is to watch as many games as possible and enjoy a uniquely satisfying and mind-expanding basketball experience. Sometimes it's enough to have fun and conceive of new limits for the sport. We can figure out what it all means later.
2. Oklahoma City Thunder (41-18, LW: not ranked): On paper, the Thunder have had a rough go lately — Saturday's tough loss was their fourth of a five-game run against four playoff teams and the Pelicans. Nevertheless, it was hard to come out of the Warriors game without thinking that they've given the Warriors their toughest tests of the year against any potential title-winner. If Curry had not gone supernova in key moments, we'd likely be talking about how the Warriors would struggle to guard both Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook effectively over seven games. OKC looks like the only team that can even contemplate beating Golden State in a high-possession game.
A shiny runner-up medal won't be enough to placate the Thunder or their fans, of course, and it's easy enough to look at Saturday's result as a win surrendered rather than a loss issued solely by Curry. The Thunder made several mistakes in crunch time, including Durant's turnover that allowed Andre Iguodala's free throws at the end of regulation and Westbrook's foul on Klay Thompson's and-one lay-up with 29 ticks left in overtime. OKC has plenty of talented but seems especially prone to these kinds of lapses.
That question is which tendency wins out in the playoffs. We'll spend the next few weeks trying to figure it out.
3. Cleveland Cavaliers (41-17, LW: 6): The Cavs have seemed a little too concerned with winning a title this season, to the point where they've often appeared more anxious than focused. That certainly looked to be the case in the wake of Sunday’s LeBron-less loss to the Washington Wizards, after which J.R. Smith, of all people, felt confident enough in the opinion to proclaim that the Cavaliers are not playing at a championship level. Michael Lee of The Vertical made the same observation in his post-game column, and it’s hard to deny that it’s a very accurate take. Lacking LeBron is an excuse for losing one game, but Cleveland has looked well below the other top-level contenders for some time now.
A two-game lead on a Raptors team that still needs to win a single playoff series should inspire optimism that the Cavs can make it out of the East without much problem, but that won’t be enough to consider this season a success. Cleveland has put itself in a bind by virtue of its own expectations — continually talking about the importance of winning a title means that every misstep looms even larger. The truth is that the Cavaliers have time to get into championship form, just as they did last season, when they didn’t hit their stride until the postseason. It remains to be seen if they’ll get out of their own way long enough to find it.
4. San Antonio Spurs (50-9, LW: NR: The Spurs remained under the radar this week, especially now that the Warriors and Thunder are the two teams on everyone's mind. Yet San Antonio deserves plenty of attention, because they just finished up a 7-1 road trip that proves they're road bona fides (something of a question mark before the extended trip) and makes it nearly certain that they will finish with no worse than the second-best record in the league. Plus, they still have one of the best point differentials ever (it's more than a point above that of the Warriors).
However, concerns over potential playoff matchups with the Warriors and Thunder are not going to disappear until they beat one or both of those teams in a series. No matter what they accomplish this regular season, it looks like many fans and pundits will consider them a secondary contender behind Golden State. That may be fair, but it's not a reason not to give the Spurs credit for an all-time great 82-game stretch.
5. Boston Celtics (35-25, LW: 5): The Celtics' initial ascent to the No. 3 spot in the East looked like a byproduct of scheduling more than it did an indicator of quality, but they've held strong and now even hold a 1 1/2-game lead on the Heat, who they beat handily on Sunday, for that position. It's still hard to rate the Celtics ahead of battle-tested teams like Miami in the second tier of East playoff squads, but continued success and a strong record at home — they've won 10 in a row at TD Garden — will make a top-4 finish much more meaningful.
6. Toronto Raptors (39-19, LW: 15): Friday's thrilling win over the Cavs on an impressive jumper from Kyle Lowry is the latest signal that the Raptors are for real. They're a team with two backcourt stars and continue to receive contributions from players up and down the roster. At just two games behind the Cavs and with more left at home than on the road, the Raptors can contemplate finishing with the East's best record.
A franchise-best season would not assuage many concerns that the Raptors won't make quite so much noise in the postseason, but teams in this position can benefit from ongoing regular-season success more than those who have already shown they belong on the shortlist of contenders. Home games this week against the Jazz, Blazers, and Rockets should prove a solid test of Toronto's resolve.
7. New York Knicks (25-36, LW: NR): Resident Knicks fan Dan Devine and I have spent many nights this season remarking on the fact that his favorite team, while not very good, has shown signs of progress without the creeping sensation that the front office will become so impatient as to make rash moves for mid-tier players, like execs have in the past. So it was pretty sad this week to read that owner and blueshammer James Dolan is reportedly angry that his team is bad. Never mind that preseason predictions had the Knicks solidly out of the postseason, or that adding good players and future assets takes time in the contemporary NBA. Sadly, the rest of this season feels like an opportunity to see when Dolan and Phil Jackson will trade in the rebuilding process for a few rolls of duct tape and several dozen mismatched screws.
8. Portland Trail Blazers (32-28, LW: NR): Portland blew a big lead to the Rockets on Thursday, a problem less for that result than for the fact that it ended a six-game winning streak right before a tough road stretch against several East playoff teams. Whatever. Damian Lillard and Co. just beat the Bulls and Pacers by a combined 17 points to reaffirm their standing as a legitimate playoff squad that can anticipate challenging for the No. 5 seed. The team's raft of capable role players has received a great deal of attention, but it's time we acknowledge Lillard as a legitimate challenger for a spot on the All-NBA Second Team alongside the likes of Russell Westbrook, Chris Paul, and Kyle Lowry (one of whom will probably join Curry on the First Team). Portland's front office fully committed to Lillard as the face of the franchise this summer, and they look to have made a wise choice.
9. Charlotte Hornets (30-28, LW: NR): The Hornets were my early-season darling, a genuine surprise both in terms of their record and the style they played — in an era where analysts attempt to explain every aspect of the team in the preseason, this group seemed to be discovering the limits of its new perimeter-oriented attack along with the rest of us. Unfortunately, Charlotte fell back in the standings following several injuries and looked in deep trouble once Michael Kidd-Gilchrist reinjured his shoulder two weeks ago.
So it's been genuinely heartening to see Coach of the Year candidate Steve Clifford and his team thrive after many, including me, had given up on their playoff chances. They're 8-3 in their last 11 (with all losses coming against top-five East teams) and appear just as secure in their identity as they were during those joyful first two months. A playoff berth is no certainty, but we can talk about the Hornets as a pleasant surprise once again.
10. Detroit Pistons (31-29, LW: 3): The Pistons took a five-game losing streak into last week and now leave it with four wins in a row, two of which came against the Cavaliers and Raptors. That's been enough to put Detroit even on record with both Charlotte and Chicago for the last two playoff spots in the East, although they're technically out of the postseason via tiebreakers. Teams in the bottom half of the playoff race have gone through enough ups and downs this season that we shouldn't put too much stock in one nice streak, but the Pistons can take solace in knowing that they have played well without big deadline acquisition Tobias Harris having shown his full abilities. The talented forward has topped neither 22 points nor eight rebounds in any of his five games with the Pistons.
A run of six road games in seven overall starts Wednesday at the Spurs, so we might see some downs before another up. But the Pistons seem like a reasonable bet to stay ascendant through the end of the season.
11. Miami Heat (33-26, LW: 2): The Heat remain an odd team, because they consistently play elite teams well — like, say, the Warriors last week — but don't beat enough of them to seem like anything more than a postseason also-ran. To put it another way, they have the image of a dangerous team more than the resume of one, especially now that Chris Bosh's long-term availability is in doubt.
Even if the Heat are no better than good, Hassan Whiteside is still one of the more intriguing players in the league. Rob Mahoney of SI.com has written the most balanced consideration of Whiteside's long-term value I've seen, and it doubles as a fascinating look at how versatility can be just as important as holding a collection of elite skills.
12. New Orleans Pelicans (23-35, LW: 26): I can't really recommend watching the Pelicans, a pretty bad team that can entertain a run at a playoff berth because Anthony Davis is a great individual talent and the rest of the West has been bad enough to keep them on the periphery of the hunt. Still, a few more wins like Thursday's over Oklahoma City can serve to convince analysts (and the Pelicans) that they're due for a return to ascendancy next season. That scenario could lead to a decision to hold on to players who currently look expendable, or it could force the front office into moving for a high-impact player. At any rate, the Pelicans' future decisions could depend on the course of the next six weeks.
13. Los Angeles Clippers (38-20, LW: 7): At this point, the Clippers season has become largely about the extent to which the team can keep up their fine play when Blake Griffin finally returns from injury and suspension. That's odd to type considering his talent level, but the current setup of Chris Paul dominating with J.J. Redick and DeAndre Jordan serving as co-stars has put the Clippers only 2 1/2 games behind OKC for third in the West. It's readily apparent why L.A. has not been discussed as a potential challenger to Golden State, but they could set themselves up for a rematch with the San Antonio Spurs in the conference semis. They just have to hope Griffin doesn't distract from what's been working so well.
14. Minnesota Timberwolves (19-41, LW: NR): It's hard to say that the Wolves are appreciably better than they were a month ago, but they're now winning enough games that it doesn't feel like a waste of time to tune into one of their contests. That's meaningful, because it's a pleasure to watch Karl-Anthony Towns, Andrew Wiggins, and Ricky Rubio play in a competitive game. Plus, Gorgui Dieng has looked very good lately and could factor into their future plans more than previously thought.
15. Washington Wizards (28-30, LW: 9): Sunday's win over the Cavaliers puts the Wizards two games behind the Hornets, Bulls, and Pistons for the last two playoff spots in the East, and it's now time for Washington to make a season-salvaging run. They don't want to put themselves in a position to make up several games and jump several places in the final weeks. Randy Wittman is coaching for his job, various key players could be playing to stick on the roster, and John Wall could be considering his future options.
THE BOTTOM FIVE
26. Los Angeles Lakers (11-49, LW: 27): I don't care how many gifts Kobe gets or how many times he says he's done with his rap career — a team that loses eight in a row and 18 of 20 is going to be in our bottom five. This team is essentially unwatchable right now and only gains our interest when Kobe does something blog-worthy or the front office suggests it isn't connected to reality. Then again, Kobe's last game in Denver is on Wednesday, so we'll probably be watching that one. These posts don't click themselves!
27. Houston Rockets (29-30, LW: 1): The Rockets sit a half-game ahead of the Utah Jazz for the West's last playoff spot, so they're not totally embarrassing as we sit on the precipice of March. On the other hand, they're now so difficult to trust that it was hard to get too enthused about Thursday's otherwise pretty great comeback against the Blazers. Naturally, Houston followed that one up with an uninspiring home loss to San Antonio.
Things are not good when it's difficult to get excited about a comeback from 21 down and a 34-point half for James Harden. We cannot pretend to be interested in a group that snuffs out joy to this extent.
28. Phoenix Suns (15-44, LW: 10): The Suns won Saturday for the first time in 34 days. That is two times longer than it took me to lose a wallet, visit the DMV, and receive a new driver's license in the mail.
My new picture is terrible. Thanks for asking.
29. Philadelphia 76ers (8-51, LW: 30): The Sixers are so bad that they cut JaKarr Sampson after the Donatas Motiejunas trade with the intention of re-signing him, only to lose him to the Nuggets because he had no interest in going back to Philadelphia. Then, when the trade was rescinded by the Pistons, the Sixers didn't even get a consolation prize. It's hard to say that any of these moves really matter, but they fit the Sixers experience nonetheless.
30. Brooklyn Nets (17-42, LW: 29): Three nominations and no wins. Nothing for Saoirse Ronan. Nothing for Nick Hornby. Nothing for the producers who allowed this dream to become reality. I guess we'll have to wait for the sequel.
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