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 Monday, BDL's Most Interesting Power Rankings track the teams most worthy of your attention.
THE TOP 15
1. Golden State Warriors (46-4, last week: 1): Chin up, Stephen Curry. Your beloved Carolina Panthers may have fallen to Von Miller and the rest of the Denver Broncos on Sunday, but there's at least the consolation prize of you and the Warriors now becoming the no-doubt biggest story in American sports. With the NFL out of the way, Golden State's stylish pursuit of 73 wins and back-to-back titles should capture even the most casual basketball fans' attention until their season ends.
This week's results made reaching those lofty goals seem considerably more likely. Wins over the Knicks and Wizards were no less exciting for being rather predictable — 11 Curry three-pointers in the latter helped, of course. The big matchup of the week was obviously Saturday's victory over the Thunder at Oracle Arena, which showed that they are just as capable of grinding out a win in crunch time against a contender as they are at decimating them from the opening tip until the final buzzer.
If that's not enough to hold interest, then rumors abounded this week that the Warriors have a plan at hand to obtain free agent Kevin Durant this summer. It's not a question of if the Warriors are the most interesting team in the league — the issue is increasingly if any other team can even challenge them as a national story.
2. Oklahoma City Thunder (38-14, LW: 7): Congratulations to the Thunder, whose narrow loss to the Warriors makes them the latest team to look like the top challengers to the league's best team. While their questionable late-game offense will inspire the same questions as ever, Kevin Durant looks like as much of a matchup nightmare for Golden State as Steph Curry is for everyone else — his game-high 40 points were in keeping with what he's done to this group over his career.
It's possible that the Warriors will mimic their play against the Cavs and obliterate the Thunder when they meet again on February 27. Until then, we can dream of a highly competitive thrill-a-minute playoff series.
3. Sacramento Kings (21-30, LW: not ranked): And now for something completely different. The Kings have dropped seven of their last eight (with a matchup at the Cavs looming Monday) to fall 4 1/2 games behind the Jazz in the race for the West's final playoff berth, a spot that fairly recently seemed theirs to lose. The defense is horrendous, enough so that DeMarcus Cousins can suggest that the issues go way beyond effort without much blowback and the front office may be considering firing George Karl. Even if Sacramento's fortunes change, it seems like only a matter of time until they encounter a new crisis or controversy. The organization is as unstable as any in recent memory.
At the same time, I am legitimately thrilled to see Cousins participate in the Skills Challenge and jack threes throughout the All-Star Game. He's the biggest reason that the Kings remain compulsively watchable through good times and bad.
4. Toronto Raptors (34-16, LW: 2): Warriors aside, no team has more reasons to be happy this week. The Raptors have won 13 of 14 to open up a 3 1/2-game lead for No. 2 in the East and now sit only two games behind the Cavs for the conference's best record. Topping Cleveland is perhaps too much to ask, but it's in the realm of discussion.
Oh, and Toronto hosts its first-ever NBA All-Star Weekend starting Friday. The game will feature meaningful contributions from both Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan, which would be a source of pride in itself. But the Raptors also have the chance to present their team (and their city) as a legitimate destination for top-tier talent.
Plus, who isn't ready to rock out to "Fields of Gold" during the halftime show?
5. Cleveland Cavaliers (36-14, LW: 3): Ty Lue's second full week in charge didn't show many signs of progress — they split four games against three merely good East teams and the Pelicans, a group most would expect them to sweep regardless of form. The new-coach bounce has not been especially apparent, although Lue seems to think a busy schedule is part of the problem. From Dave McMenamin for ESPN.com:
“A lot of times when teams score, we kind of walk the ball up the court and then we don’t really flow into anything,” Lue said after the Pelicans game. “... I don’t think we’re in great shape. Also, we can’t really flow. I tried to call ‘Slice’ a few times tonight, we couldn’t run it right. Tried to call ‘Punch,’ we couldn’t run it right. What’s happening after makes is we’re just flowing into random. We’re just playing random basketball. We hold the ball, the ball sticks, because we’re in random because we don’t know what we want to run because we don’t have anything to flow into. That’s going to come with more practice.
“We’ve only had two practices since I’ve taken over, so we just got to get better -- a lot better.”
It's an understandable problem that also explains why most teams don't attempt to change philosophies at the midway point of the season. McMenamin cites more serious impediments, including nagging injuries, but it's hard to sympathize with Cleveland's plight when schedule congestion poses problems for every team in the league at this point in the season.
The All-Star break could afford the Cavs the perspective necessary to make their reset work, but that break is intended for rest, not sustained thought about work. The good news is that they're one hot stretch from opening up a more sizable lead over the Raptors. Last spring also proved that a team this talented is perfectly capable of hitting its peak in the midst of the playoffs, when focus and specificity push existential dilemmas to the background. Whether that's enough to beat the West champion is another issue altogether.
6. Los Angeles Clippers (34-17, LW: 9): What's weirder? That Blake Griffin could leave the Clippers, the embarrassing franchise he turned into a viable destination, or that it's not clear they would do any worse without him?
7. San Antonio Spurs (43-8, LW: 6): The annual Rodeo Road Trip starts Tuesday in Miami and continues through the end of the month. These eight games against beatable opponents figure to determine if the NBA's second-best team continues to challenge the Warriors for the conference's top spot, holds steady at a strong No. 2, or even falls back closer to the Thunder to create a race for homecourt advantage in what would be a very tricky second round series.
The smart money would be on the Spurs doing pretty well if only because they're on pace for one of the best records in NBA history. But last season's 4-5 road trip raised concerns that their veterans now struggle to hold up over a lengthy road trip (even with an eight-day break in the middle), a challenge that doesn't figure to get any easier with Manu Ginobili out for a month (we feel for you, man) and Tim Duncan having missed the team's last seven contests. The Spurs have also been merely very good (i.e. 15-8) on the road this season, which means that playing to form would still result in two or three losses. In other words, we can probably start planning for that Spurs-Thunder series relatively soon.
8. Boston Celtics (31-22, LW: 8): Winning nine of 10 with a dramatic road win over the Cavs has been enough to vault the Celtics over their peers and into the No. 3 spot in the East, which would be a genuinely fantastic finish for a group that Danny Ainge assembled to be broken up in a trade for a star. It's not clear that the streak-prone Celtics can keep that position when they're only 3 1/2 above the No. 8 Pistons, but maybe that shouldn't matter right now. Let's just enjoy a very hot team with a worthy first-time All-Star in Isaiah Thomas.
9. Chicago Bulls (27-23, LW: 10): When Jimmy Butler left Friday's game with what looked like a very serious knee injury, our resident Chicago fan Kelly Dwyer sent out an email that expressed a not insignificant amount of dread over potentially having to write about a crippling knee injury to a Bulls All-Star for the fourth Saturday in his life. Butler escaped with a mere knee strain, thank heavens, but Kelly's reaction basically sums up where this franchise is right now. It's easy to fear the worst whenever a cloud begins to form.
10. Portland Trail Blazers (25-27, LW: 4):
I cannot claim to be a convert to the ranks of basketball diehards who love watching Portland for aesthetic reasons. They're simply not my sort of team, which is a reflection of matters of taste I don't entirely understand. There's nothing wrong with enjoying the Blazers. I'd love nothing more than for a great writer to tell me what's so beautiful about them.
Instead, I'd like to highlight a more obvious positive — the value of an old-fashioned rebuilding process. When high-profile free agents left this offseason, the Blazers took steps to develop a coherent on-court identity and built for the future without viewing every player and pick on hand as an asset to be discarded the second an object of greater value came into view. That plan has already yielded successes — Portland is just a game (two losses and zero wins) behind the Jazz for a playoff berth. Apart from wins, though, it's fun to watch the Blazers sometimes merely because they don't appear to be waiting until they get lucky in the draft. They're rebuilding in real time, not carrying out a plan they outlined in detail months ago.
Forget tanking. A bad team's greatest sin is often forgetting that a season can be used for creating something more tangible than an organizational culture.
11. Los Angeles Lakers ( , LW: 27): There's something hilarious about Kobe Bryant putting up a vintage 38-point performance to lead the Lakers to a very fun win that only mattered to their record only insofar as it helped them to avoid setting a new franchise-worst losing streak of 11 games. It was really great in the moment and mostly useless otherwise. This season's best Kobe moments are great because they remind us of better Kobe moments.
It's a safe bet that his final All-Star Game appearance will provide more of the same. If he doesn't finish with the most shot attempts we should all demand a refund.
12. Memphis Grizzlies (30-21, LW: NR): The Grizzlies are best enjoyed in the playoffs, because commitment and tenacity are most apparent with prolonged exposure. Nevertheless, we should acknowledge that a team that seems lessened would hold possession of third place in the other conference. Pay attention before they frustrate a contender in April.
13. Utah Jazz (25-25, LW: 12): A six-game winning streak is notable no matter the opposition, especially when Rodney Hood is playing well enough to make fans forget about their glut of backcourt injuries. More neutrals would find them fun in Quin Snyder ever looked happy.
14. Detroit Pistons (27-25, LW: NR): Reggie Jackson is probably going to put up good stats without convincing everyone of his true talent level for at least another season. Whatever. As long as it involves more nights like Thursday vs. the Knicks I'm OK with it.
15. Charlotte Hornets (25-26, LW: NR): Charlotte sports fans probably don't want to think about the Panthers for at least a few days. The healing can begin with a Hornets win on Monday vs. the Bulls.
THE BOTTOM FIVE
26. Denver Nuggets (21-31, LW: NR):
The Nuggets are an easy team to ignore, but they're usually good for a competitive game or two on a night without many Pacific or Mountain starts.
That doesn't matter right now. No one in Denver is focused on the Nuggets right now. The Broncos won the Super Bowl!
27. Milwaukee Bucks (20-32, LW: NR): Other than a failure to meet expectations, the Bucks have been a bummer this season in part because their future looks just as questionable as the present. This group figures to be together for some time unless the front office sells low on previously valuable commodities or trades one or two of their best names. At least the uniforms look nice.
28. Philadelphia 76ers (8-43, LW: 30): Each of the next three teams should be in last place — I list them separately only because they're different enough to treat as such. The Sixers have won four of their last 10 and "lead" the Lakers in the race for the highest lottery odds by only two games, which would seem to rate as a failure for their season given that they would inherit L.A.'s pick if it falls outside the top three. The idea of failing at the entire goal of this awful season suggests that trusting the process makes no sense if the people in charge picked a process open to such a pathetic mistake.
29. Phoenix Suns (14-38, LW: NR): The Suns have followed up last Monday's firing of Jeff Hornacek by running their losing streak to seven, which is as good a sign as any that there's little point in watching this team the rest of the way. Devin Booker can only attract so much attention.
30. Brooklyn Nets (13-39, LW: 29): At some point we have to come to terms with reality. We all know that Saoirse Ronan gave the best performance of the year as Eilis. But Brooklyn just isn't as big a story as Room and they've already crowned Brie Larson. No one ever said awards season was fair.
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