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. Cleveland Cavaliers (47-18; last week: 4): Y'know, when they're not stumbling against also-rans and wounded bears, not bristling about the 13th man they didn't sign or getting weirdly woke online or in interviews, the Cavs can be really good.
Cleveland's now won six of seven after stomping through a three-game Cali swing, capped by a 24-point whitewashing of the Los Angeles Clippers in which the Cavs incinerated a defense that entered Sunday ranked fifth in the NBA in points allowed per possession, and third since Blake Griffin got injured.
Time and again, the threat/promise of LeBron James driving past Luc Richard Mbah a Moute, Wesley Johnson, Jeff Green or whichever other L.A. defender drew the short straw capsized the Clips, creating openings that led to wide-open shots either directly or after a ball swing; James finished with five assists and four secondary or "hockey" assists, according to SportVU, to go with his 27 points. Cleveland's shotmakers feasted on scrambled D, with J.R. Smith and Channing Frye combining for 10 of the Cavs' season-high-tying 18 3-pointers.
On the other end, Tyronn Lue's club held the Clips to just 90 points (their fifth-lowest point total of the season) on 40.5 percent shooting, which was more than enough to both win and remind us that, as CBSSports.com's Matt Moore put it, "When firing on all cylinders, this Cavs team remains in an elite tier, even if they're at the bottom of it." The East still runs through Cleveland, not by default, but because the Cavaliers are really freaking good. With all the mysterious messages LeBron and company seem to be trying to send these days, it's nice to see that one communicated so clearly.
2. Golden State Warriors (59-6; LW: 1): I don't have much more to say about the Warriors than I said last week — they're interesting whether they're roasting dudes or finally regressing past the mean. Even so, decorum dictates not dropping a team on pace to set a new single-season win record too far ... especially considering, since last writing, they've dropped 81 points in a half and extended their NBA-record home winning streak to 48 games with a flourish. Perhaps the most interesting thing about the Dubs right now, though: whether the loss of vital sixth man Andre Iguodala for the next two weeks scuttles their run to 73, and whether his left ankle sprain lingers into the postseason.
3. Charlotte Hornets (37-28; LW: 7): Steady as she goes for the hottest team in the NBA. Charlotte owns a league-best seven-game winning streak after dispatching the Houston Rockets on Saturday, and continues to boast the East's best record and point differential since the All-Star break.
Rich Cho and Steve Clifford should earn some Executive of the Year and Coach of the Year votes, respectively, for the jobs they've done in overhauling a once-punchless offense without sacrificing the defensive identity that's defined Clifford's tenure. The Hornets continue to receive key contributions from players previously regarded as overhyped or underperforming, including the engine of their recent run: Kemba Walker.
In October, I wondered whether the 25-year-old UConn product with the vicious handle and lightning-quick first step could ever knock down enough perimeter shots to lead an improved Charlotte attack. Through tireless work and unshaken confidence, he's silenced us, posting career-high shooting percentages across the board en route to his most productive and efficient pro campaign.
Walker's one of just six players this season averaging better than 21 points, five assists, four rebounds and one steal per game; the other five (Stephen Curry, Russell Westbrook, LeBron James, Kyle Lowry, James Harden) will likely dominate the MVP leaderboard and All-NBA rosters. He's been even better since the All-Star break, averaging 25.3 points, 6.3 assists and 4.5 rebounds per game while shooting 49.5 percent from the floor and 43.3 percent from deep on a decidedly unbashful 7.5 triple tries per contest. And these aren't just empty numbers — Charlotte has been 3.5 points per 100 possessions better with Kemba on the floor than off it this season, and a whopping 11.4 points-per-100 better in his minutes since Jan. 1, with the Hornets' O clicking at a top-10 clip when he plays and plummeting to the league's basement when he sits.
Walker has been a top-five point-producer in "clutch" situations, behind the likes of Curry, James, Kevin Durant and the Detroit Pistons' Reggie Jackson. ESPN's Real Plus-Minus ranks his contributions as more valuable than those of Damian Lillard this year; Basketball-Reference.com's Value Over Replacement Player metric pegs Walker as a top-15 player this season. He's been "Cardiac Kemba" for years, but now, Walker truly has proven himself to be the heart and soul of a Hornets team playing dynamite basketball.
4. Oklahoma City Thunder (44-22; LW: 2): It's harsh to call a club that's won two-thirds of its games disappointing, but it's also hard to call the Thunder — now 4-8 with a bottom-10 point differential since the All-Star break — anything else right now. After blowing fourth-quarter leads to fellow Western powers three times in four games, Oklahoma City talked about the importance of bouncing back and showing its character, which it did in gaining a measure of vengeance over the Clippers ... before coughing up two more fourth-quarter leads in weekend losses to the Minnesota Timberwolves and San Antonio Spurs.
The Thunder have now lost 12 games this season when they led entering the 4th quarter, 2 more than any other team. pic.twitter.com/AQNT9wFwPH— ESPN Stats & Info (@ESPNStatsInfo) March 13, 2016
With Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook in their primes and capable contributors dotting the roster — though shooting guard remains a concern, with Andre Roberson, Dion Waiters and Anthony Morrow all having their warts and Randy Foye shooting just 30 percent since coming over at the trade deadline — OKC is still a fearsome opponent whose best game can legitimately challenge Golden State, San Antonio and
Cleveland whoever comes out of the East. Once the Thunder reach that ceiling, though, they struggle to sustain it; as our Eric Freeman wrote Friday, "it is increasingly hard to trust that the Thunder won't encounter another unexpected slip-up eventually." Make too many mistakes against the wrong team, and they'll take an early summer vacation that could have franchise-shaking consequences.
5. San Antonio Spurs (56-10; LW: 3): Speaking of ill-timed mistakes: Russell Westbrook probably wants this one back.
On one hand, if you adopt Russ' gambler's mindset, it makes sense: LaMarcus Aldridge has been killing us all night, he doesn't see me coming, and if I'm quick and disruptive enough to get home — which, duh, I'm Russell Freaking Westbrook — that's a blown-up possession and a fast-break dunk.
Focus too much on the reward, though, and you ignore the risk: if you don't get home, you've left a wide-open shooter in the strong-side corner, just one pass away from a practice shot. And when you're struggling like Danny Green's been, a practice shot looks pretty good.
Green knocked it down, Kawhi Leonard hit another 3 on the next trip to put the Spurs up six with 6:30 to go, and OKC never got closer than four the rest of the way. After the game, San Antonio coach Gregg Popovich spoke about why Green — who's shooting just 37.4 percent from the field and 33.1 percent from 3-point range after signing a new four-year deal, and who had missed his first eight shots on Saturday — kept firing, offering another example of why people rave about Pop's approach to his players:
Why Pop is one of the best at his job: pic.twitter.com/E8XOhS1T08— Paul Garcia PS (@PaulGarciaPS) March 13, 2016
It's one of the season's great under-the-radar possibilities: as unbelievable as the Spurs have been, they might have another offensive gear to hit if Green can get back to knocking down the in-the-flow shots he sees. Either way, as Pop reminds us, neither his life nor the Spurs' chances seem all that bad.
6. Memphis Grizzlies (39-27; LW: 5): I've got it. I know what kind of gatekeepers the Grizzlies are.
With Marc Gasol and Mario Chalmers lost for the season, Brandan Wright and Jordan Adams gone indefinitely, and Zach Randolph out with a sore right knee, the last thing the Grizzlies needed was more injuries. So, naturally, Memphis announced Saturday that Mike Conley will miss at least three to four weeks with Achilles tendonitis, and that Chris "Grizzzilla" Andersen's partially separated left shoulder will shelve him indefinitely. The Grizzlies added three players on 10-day contracts this weekend, with D-League point guard Briante Weber logging 71 total minutes in his first two NBA starts while guard Ray McCallum and big man Alex Stepheson each saw rotation minutes in Saturday's loss to the Atlanta Hawks, which came on the second night of a back-to-back after an overtime win in New Orleans.
The Grizzlies are now officially dependent on the production and playmaking of Tony Allen, Matt Barnes and Lance Stephenson, a rollercoaster ride that has its peaks ...
... and valleys:
But with a 4 1/2-game lead over the Portland Trail Blazers for the West's No. 5 seed, a six-game edge over the eighth-seeded Dallas Mavericks, and just 16 games remaining, it seems not even this brutal collection of injuries will derail the Grizzlies. Come mid-April, there they'll be, impeding the path of a top-four seed and trying to bite some legs off.
7. Atlanta Hawks (38-29; LW: not ranked): They haven't been particularly flashy, but the Hawks have won seven of nine, capped by an impressive 104-75 Sunday pasting of the Indiana Pacers. Atlanta's defense — already stout earlier in the year, ranking fifth in defensive efficiency heading into the All-Star break — has been absolutely suffocating of late, giving up only 93 points per 100 possessions since the break despite five meetings with top-10 offenses (Golden State twice, Charlotte, the Clips, the Raptors).
Mike Budenholzer's offense has yet to reclaim last season's form, function or efficiency, but the monster 28-2 third-quarter run that knocked Indy out — 11-for-15 shooting, 6-for-9 from 3, eight assists on 11 buckets, seven different players scoring — had to leave fans feeling, however briefly, like the magic was back:
That vise-grip defense travels, the Paul Millsap-Al Horford frontcourt remains dynamite, and Kyle Korver's shooting 46 percent from 3 since Feb. 1. If Atlanta can keep its point guards rolling — Jeff Teague and Dennis Schröder have combined for 26.7 points and 11.8 assists per game since the All-Star break, and Kirk Hinrich is there to backstop as needed — a late-season push could be coming. After last season's shaky playoff run, many wondered if the Hawks peaked too soon; now, they might be peaking at just the right time.
8. Dallas Mavericks (33-33; LW: 12): After being done in by ex-Mav Monta Ellis on Saturday, Dallas has now dropped five straight to fall to the No. 8 spot in the West. Dirk Nowitzki keeps popping one-legged fadeaways over Father Time, averaging 24.6 points per game during the losing streak, but cold shooting by multiple vets and typically iffy defensive work have the Mavericks limping toward the stretch run.
Dallas has the West's second-toughest slate ahead, including four games — two more with the sixth-seeded Portland Trail Blazers, one more with the seventh-seeded Rockets and one more against the ninth-seeded Utah Jazz — that could prove pivotal for tiebreaking purposes. Six of the Mavs' next eight games come on the road, and the two home games will feature visits from the Blazers and Golden State. Rick Carlisle's one of the league's best tinkerers and tacticians; can he push the right buttons to shock the Mavs out of stasis?
"We're close, but we just aren't good enough right now," Carlisle said Saturday, according to Eddie Sefko of the Dallas Morning News. "I have to look at everything. I'll look at the film closely, have the staff look at it, and we will look at everything."
If they can't find the answers that have eluded them, Dallas could find itself sliding to a disappointing finish ahead of a stormy summer without a draft pick in which Chandler Parsons could skip town.
[Follow Dunks Don't Lie on Tumblr: The best slams from all of basketball]
9. Los Angeles Clippers (42-23; LW: 10): After months of excellent play sparked "are the Clippers better off without Blake?" chatter and trade rumors, Sunday's loss to the Cavs offered a data point in the other direction. As it turns out, against opposition that reach elite levels on one or both sides of the ball — like the Cavs, Thunder, Hawks, Warriors and Boston Celtics, the authors of five of L.A's last six losses (the Denver Nuggets also randomly got 'em) — it's better to have an All-NBA bull commanding double teams in the post, drilling shots from midrange and making plays for teammates all over the court.
Quoth Chris Paul, according to ESPN.com's Andrew Han: "[Playing without Blake] gets real tough. [The Cavs] have three, four guys out there that [in a] low shot clock can bail you out. Just all that tension that he brings opens it up for all of us." When defenses can more determinedly deny J.J. Redick and sell out to blow up the Paul-DeAndre Jordan pick-and-roll, the other Clippers must come through; they shot 16-for-53 on Sunday. (Green finished with seven points on 2-for-10 shooting, two days after Doc Rivers said he wants the trade-deadline addition to "be more consistent." Who could have seen that coming?)
So, yes, even if the overarching no-Blake numbers still look great, the Clippers can't get him back soon enough. They're going to have to wait a couple more weeks, though, and the later Griffin returns from both injury and suspension, the less time he'll have to get reacclimated before the postseason.
10. Denver Nuggets (28-38; LW: 13): No sideline defense this week, but Michael Malone's Nuggets continue to be the best kind of young team — one that's getting better and more fun as the season moves along. They've won five of six, with their one loss coming in overtime to the Brooklyn Nets, and they're outscoring their opponents by more points per 100 possessions than the Warriors and Toronto Raptors in March. Granted, they haven't exactly played a murderer's row — the only decent team they've beaten is Dallas — but still: pretty good job, Nuggets!
After struggling mightily with his jumper earlier in the season, Emmanuel Mudiay is above league-average from 3-point range since the All-Star break and has topped 20 points in three of his last six games, including a career-high 30 to beat Phoenix. Rookie center Nikola Jokic continues to impress, and sophomore bruiser Jusuf Nurkic finally broke through after a disappointing return from offseason knee surgery to knock off the Washington Wizards. Sitting in 10th place in the West, 2 1/2 games behind No. 9 Utah and five behind eighth-seeded Dallas with 16 games to go, a playoff push remains an exceptionally long shot. That it's even a "wouldn't this be crazy?" topic of conversation, though, is a testament to the job GM Tim Connelly has done in collecting young talent, that Malone has done in shaping it, and that the Nuggets' players have done in pushing to get better now rather than simply focusing on tomorrow.
11. Sacramento Kings (25-40; LW: NR): The Kings remain interesting for the wrong reasons. Losing nine of 10 is bad enough, but with the beef between George Karl and DeMarcus Cousins again broiling and no real hope of a playoff spot, the situation in Sacramento could get much more volatile over the final 17 games.
12. Detroit Pistons (34-32; LW: NR): Remember when I wrote that trading for Tobias Harris might be a helpful-later, harmful-now move because it "detracts from Detroit's depth — already a weak point — and introduces a potentially difficult new element to integrate?" Silly Past Dan. Worrying for nothing!
Harris has averaged 17.7 points, six rebounds and 2.4 assists in 34.2 minutes per game since joining the Pistons, shooting 51.6 percent from the field, 42.9 percent from 3-point land and 85 percent from the line. Detroit has outscored its opposition by 4.6 points per 100 possessions with Harris on the floor, and has been outscored by 10.4 points-per-100 when he's sat. The Pistons' new-look starting lineup — Harris and Marcus Morris alongside center Andre Drummond, with Jackson and Kentavious Caldwell-Pope in the backcourt — has outpaced the competition by five points-per-100 in 213 minutes since the deal, a strong number, and it's scoring like crazy.
Rather than disrupting Detroit's flow, Harris has locked right into the groove, helping Stan Van Gundy's team go from a half-game out of the playoffs to a game up on the Chicago Bulls in the race for the eighth seed. In fact, the Pistons sit just one game behind the seventh-place Pacers and, after wrapping up their current road trip with a visit to slumping Washington on Monday, they head back for a mammoth nine-game homestand, a huge opportunity to climb up the bracket.
Pretty good news, right, Coach? Hey, Coach? Coach. COACH. COACH!
13. Milwaukee Bucks (29-38; LW: 14): At the risk of repeating myself: have you seen what the young Bucks have been doing?
Giannis Antetokounmpo's latest attempt to slip loose the surly bonds of our physical universe came Sunday in Brooklyn, and included getting from his own free throw line to the Nets' basket with three dribbles, a gather, a ball-fake and a launch:
The 21-year-old phenom torched the Nets for 28 points on 12-for-16 shooting, 14 assists, 11 rebounds, four steals and two blocks in 41 minutes, leading the Bucks to a 109-100 win:
That's Antetokounmpo's fourth triple-double in the last 11 games after having none in the first 212 of his career; he's the first Buck ever to post four triple-doubles in one season. He's advancing as a scorer and playmaker before our very eyes, progressing in quantum leaps and bounds and then dunking with ferocity whenever he feels like it. Add in Jabari Parker (23 points on 11-for-17 shooting against Brooklyn) and Khris Middleton (19 points, seven assists, five rebounds, five steals) trying to join Giannis stride for county-clearing stride, and you've got a team worth checking in on every single night.
14. Utah Jazz (31-35; LW: 28): After starting the week with losses to the Hawks and Warriors, Utah bounced back with wins over the Wizards and Kings to get within two games of No. 8 Dallas with 16 games left. The Jazz will need much more of what they got from Derrick Favors (28 points, 14 rebounds, four assists, three steals and a block) and Gordon Hayward (27 points on 9-for-19 shooting) against Sacramento when welcoming Cleveland and Phoenix before embarking on a five-game road trip that could make or break their postseason hopes.
A weird note, which is appropriate, as jazz is a collection of those: Utah's new starting lineup — Favors, Hayward, Rudy Gobert, Rodney Hood and Shelvin Mack — has been the NBA's best five-man unit since the All-Star break (minimum of 100 shared minutes), outscoring opponents by a killer 15.7 points per 100 possessions. Mack, who had fallen out of Atlanta's rotation, is averaging 11.9 points, 4.5 assists, 3.3 rebounds and a steal in 28.6 minutes per game in Utah, shooting 42.9 percent from 3 and stabilizing the point guard spot ahead of Raul Neto and Trey Burke.
Utah's been 6.1 points per 100 possessions better with Mack on the court than off it since his arrival, all the Jazz gave up for him was the Nuggets' 2018 second-round draft pick, and they can keep him around just by guaranteeing the $2.43 million he's owed in the final year of his current deal. In terms of bang for the buck, adding Mack might have been the most immediately effective move of this trade deadline.
15. Indiana Pacers (35-31; LW: NR): The Pacers got rocked in the second game of a road back-to-back on Sunday, getting carved up and choked out by Atlanta to fall 2 1/2 games back in the race for the East's No. 6 seed. Frank Vogel's club now finds itself just one game ahead of the eighth-seeded Pistons and facing a daunting five-game homestand that will feature visits from the Celtics, Raptors and Thunder. With George Hill, Rodney Stuckey and Ty Lawson all hobbled, the Pacers need Paul George to produce more than the seven points on 15 shots he managed Sunday to hold off Detroit and Chicago.
THE BOTTOM FIVE
26. Washington Wizards (30-35; LW: NR): The Wiz have lost five straight to fall 3 1/2 games out of eighth place, dropping their last two "must-win" affairs against Utah and Denver by a combined 37 points. Bradley Beal's still out after spraining his pelvis. Markieff Morris has been, on balance, less productive than Kris Humphries was. It remains staggering that a team led by John Wall feels this boring and lifeless; Wall might not want to "waste a season," but with Washington unwilling or unable to respond to Randy Wittman and seeming content to let Mack and D.J. Augustin pick-and-roll them to death, that's exactly what he's doing.
27. Orlando Magic (28-37; LW: NR): While Tobias Harris flourishes in Detroit, Brandon Jennings and Ersan Ilyasova are both coming off Scott Skiles' bench, and neither's averaging more than 19 minutes or shooting above 40 percent. Orlando's 5-8 since the All-Star break with losses to the Lakers, Suns and Knicks, and sits 5 1/2 games out of the eighth seed with 17 games left. Rob Hennigan better hit a home run or two this summer with that cap space he saved.
One positive note: the young-core lineup of Nikola Vucevic, Aaron Gordon, Mario Hezonja, Victor Oladipo and Elfrid Payton has impressed in limited burn, outscoring its opposition by 21 points in 55 minutes since the break. Another positive note: Gordon's dunks even look cool on "Ellen."
28. Los Angeles Lakers (14-52; LW: NR): During Sunday's last-second loss to the Knicks, Bill Oram of the Orange County Register wrote a tweet that I very much enjoyed:
Not exactly a polished sequence leading up to that Hibbert jumper.— Bill Oram (@billoram) March 14, 2016
You don't have to know anything about what actually happened leading up to the play to appreciate it, because of course the sequence couldn't have been polished if it resulted in Roy Hibbert taking a jumper. Even in Byron Scott's playbook, that's filed under Plan W for "Whoops!"
And yet, it all worked out, thanks to Kobe Bryant going too early and coming up just shy on his attempted game-winner, and Jose Calderon doing a bit better with his.
Lakers keep it close, entertain their fans & ultimately lose, giving themselves a better chance at keeping their pick. Ideal circumstances.— Baxter Holmes (@BaxterHolmes) March 14, 2016
Just one month left in the farewell tour, y'all. What will we even do with ourselves with Kobe gone?
29. Phoenix Suns (17-49; LW: NR): Last week, I wondered whether Suns managing partner Robert Sarver might've been better served holding onto his "I'm taking responsibility" open letter to fans until after Phoenix lost to a bad Knicks team by 31 points. No worries, though: in a new chat with Paul Coro of azcentral sports, he renews his insistence that he feels Suns fans' pain: "I go to bed sometimes after games and just can't get to sleep." He should just do what Suns fans do: try to count all the times Earl Watson has unsuccessfully run out the Alex Len-Tyson Chandler combo. He'll be out like a light well before reaching the actual number!
30. Philadelphia 76ers (9-57; LW: 30): Remember how bad the 76ers were two seasons ago, when they tied an NBA record for the longest losing streak ever? Remember how bad they were last season, when they started 0-17? Well, on March 14, 2014, the 2013-14 Sixers were 15-50, and on March 14, 2015, they were 15-51. This year's Sixers are six games worse than two of the worst teams we've ever seen, and now, they'll be without Jahlil Okafor for the rest of the season.
Oh, well. At least Philly has Villanova, St. Joe's and Temple to watch in the tourney.
More NBA coverage:
- - - - - - -