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 (55-6; last week: 1): Warriors games matter in a micro sense because they're the 2016 NBA's most exciting nightly spectacle. They matter in a macro sense because, three-quarters of the way through the season, Golden State remains ahead of the pace set by the 1995-96 Chicago Bulls; each night, watching the Warriors means you might literally be seeing history in the making.
Warriors games matter because their best ones feel like a beautiful idea realized: that greatness requires discipline and dedication, but doesn't have to be marked by drudgery. Leave the grim, gritty reboots for Zach Snyder and Cleveland. Peak Warriors is Richard Donner and Christopher Reeve promising you'll believe a man can fly, then actually leaving you breathless.
Warriors games matter because their worst ones remind you this is unscripted drama, an unbound game teeming with possibility, and that the whole thing about the Warriors in the first place is how Steph renews your belief that anything can happen. Having been reminded of that at Staples Center, I'm eager to see what the Warriors have in store for the Orlando Magic at Oracle on Monday.
2. Oklahoma City Thunder (43-20; LW: 2): After four losses in five games, with three coming to the Warriors and Los Angeles Clippers after fourth-quarter collapses that have now become all-too-common, how do the Thunder bounce back? Sunday's win over the Milwaukee Bucks helps, but only so much; OKC must re-establish itself as a team capable of beating elites, rather than just "matching up well" with them.
Kevin Durant thinks the time for wake-up calls is over, and that this stretch of hardship is "when you've really got to show your character." Well, there's no time like the present. OKC will renew acquaintances with the Clippers, who now sit two games behind the Thunder for third place in the West, on Wednesday, and on Saturday will visit the San Antonio Spurs, whom they haven't seen since opening night.
3. San Antonio Spurs (53-9; LW: 4): Speaking of the Spurs, they're now a perfect 30-0 at AT&T Center, the third-best home start in NBA history. They're poised to blow away their franchise record for victories (63, 2005-06) and have a real shot at 70-plus now that Manu Ginobili is back in the fold to give Gregg Popovich a fully healthy roster for the final 22 games — a roster that includes veteran scorer Kevin Martin, imported after the Minnesota Timberwolves bought him out.
But while Kawhi Leonard continues to amaze and LaMarcus Aldridge looks like a certified monster again, the Spurs' road home after clinching their 19th straight postseason berth remains daunting. San Antonio has the West's toughest stretch-run schedule, with 16 of their final 20 games coming against teams currently in playoff position, headlined by three meetings each with the Warriors and Thunder.
The Spurs have matched the Warriors nearly stride for stride throughout their historic seasons, sitting just 2 1/2 games behind Golden State with 20 games remaining. To finally close the gap and topple the champs, they'll have to successfully navigate the league's most brutal home stretch.
4. Cleveland Cavaliers (44-17; LW: 2): After consecutive losses elicited grumbling and concerns, the Cavs responded with three straight wins, including wins over the Wizards and Celtics that helped fortify Cleveland's blah blah blah who cares TWEETS IS WATCHING, y'all:
It's ok to know you've made a mistake. Cause we all do at times. Just be ready to live with whatever that comes with it and be with.....— LeBron James (@KingJames) March 1, 2016
those who will protect you at all cost!— LeBron James (@KingJames) March 1, 2016
Can't replace being around great friends that reciprocate the same energy back to you in all facets of life— LeBron James (@KingJames) March 3, 2016
Control what you can control. Sounds so cliche, but its the bold truth.— Kyrie Irving (@KyrieIrving) March 7, 2016
As was the case during last year's "fit-in/fit-out" fiasco, LeBron James' not-naming-any-names tweets have sparked speculation on where the King's head is at ... especially considering they came during a week that saw LeBron take a trip to his old stomping grounds to work out with his old teammate and reportedly express displeasure that the Cavs' franchise-record cash-splashing didn't include a deal for "enforcer" Kendrick Perkins.
Chris Haynes of the Northeast Ohio Media Group says James is just having fun with these "Da Vinci Code" tweets. But in a season in which James has bristled at Cleveland's success being merely estimable rather than unparalleled, that has featured two losses to a Warriors team that seems to haunt LeBron's dreams, and that has seen David Blatt jettisoned because very good isn't good enough, it feels reasonable to wonder what about the Cavs is actually "fun" right now. Maybe it's lifting weights?
... Maybe not?
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5. Memphis Grizzlies (37-25; LW: not ranked): I know — I'm a weirdo. But I'm kind of fascinated by the Grizz, who are 7-3 since losing Marc Gasol to a season-ending foot injury.
Six of those wins have come after a trade deadline widely viewed as a capitulation, with Jeff Green and Courtney Lee swapped for expiring contracts and draft picks. Two of the losses have come against the Phoenix Suns, who often look like they'd rather just simulate the rest of the season, if that's cool.
Coach Dave Joerger is scrambling to find lineups that work — no five-man unit has logged more than 52 total minutes over the last nine games — with little seeming to stick, and yet somehow Memphis has the league's sixth most-potent offense since the All-Star break. Old favorites have stepped up, with Zach Randolph mauling defenders and Mike Conley manning the controls. Reserves Mario Chalmers and JaMychal Green have contributed and, as it turns out, those expiring contracts came attached to NBA players! Chris Andersen — "Grizzilla," if you please — has added some spark on both ends. Swingman P.J. Hairston has offered supplemental scoring in several wins.
And Lance Stephenson has proven every bit as wild a card as expected ...
Tony Allen turned to press row and yelled about Lance Stephenson... "He crazy!" 😂😂😂— Chris Vernon (@ChrisVernonShow) March 5, 2016
... while actually helping as a secondary scorer and ball-handler who adds rim-attacking daring to units that have lacked inspiration and playmaking juice.
This recent run has come largely against a slew of iffy teams, and Memphis' upcoming schedule features lots of tough competition, including four games against the Spurs and Warriors. The big-picture understanding remains the same: even at full strength, Memphis was a gatekeeper, not a contender. Still, losing your best player with two months left in the season would capsize a lot of teams, and watching Memphis fight to stay afloat has been fun.
6. Portland Trail Blazers (33-31; LW: 8): After winning nine of 10 and earning widespread recognition as one of the season's best stories behind MVP-chant-inducing play from Damian Lillard, the Blazers have slumped, dropping three straight road games to the Boston Celtics, Toronto Raptors and Detroit Pistons. They're now two games ahead of the eighth-seeded Houston Rockets and three up on the ninth-place Utah Jazz.
Led by Lillard, rising star C.J. McCollum and a slew of capable young contributors, the Blazers (seventh in the NBA in offensive efficiency, and third since the All-Star break) can fill it up with just about anybody. But after giving up 116 to Boston, 117 to Toronto and 123 to Detroit, and with nine of their final 18 games coming against top-10 offenses, it remains to be seen whether Portland can hold fast often enough to stay firmly entrenched in the West's top eight. Lots of shootout potential with the Blazers; consider that in your nightly League Pass decisions.
7. Charlotte Hornets (33-28; LW: 9): Quiet as it's kept, the Hornets own a share of the East's best point differential over the last 10 games, outscoring opponents by 9.8 points per 100 possessions — only the Spurs (10.4-per-100) have been better of late. Once again, Charlotte has responded to the loss of Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, this time for good, by rallying the troops. Kemba Walker just keeps getting better; Nicolas Batum keeps doing everything; and the Hornets' bigs keep producing inside (Cody Zeller, Al Jefferson) and out (Marvin Williams) under head coach Steve Clifford.
Charlotte sits three games behind the Miami Heat for the East's No. 4 seed and just two games ahead of the ninth-place Detroit Pistons in the tightly packed conference, with a six-game homestand full of winnable games beginning Monday against the Wolves. To cement themselves as a playoff squad, the Hornets must make the most of this stretch, because they'll close the season with nine of 12 on the road, where they've gone just 12-19. The next 10 days could determine whether the Hornets wind up fighting for home-court advantage or just hoping for a ticket to the dance.
8. Toronto Raptors (41-20; LW: 6): Impressive wins over the Jazz and Blazers helped the Raptors keep pace with the Cavs in the Eastern race. But a disappointing Sunday loss to the Rockets in which Toronto led by as many as 18 points before collapsing in the fourth leaves a bad, and familiar, taste in the mouths of many who wonder if these Raptors have the mettle to win once the weather warms up.
It's tempting to look at the Raptors' romp to a third straight division title and a franchise-best record and say there's nothing they can do to convince observers they're for real until the playoffs, where they've yet to survive the first round under Dwane Casey. But there are real things that Casey and company can try to work out over the next month and a half:
• finding a path to points that doesn't rely on Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan being hot or getting the benefit of the whistle;
• finding a new, hopefully better-performing starting five after shaking up the old one by replacing veteran James Johnson with rookie Norman Powell;
• clamping back down on defense, where Toronto's a bottom-five outfit since Feb. 1;
• and figuring out what they can expect from DeMarre Carroll, who has just resumed one-on-one work at practice nearly two months after undergoing arthroscopic knee surgery and has no return timetable.
Finding answers now could help Toronto make a real run this spring; you get the sense that another first-round knockout could mean a looooot of changes in the 6.
9. Miami Heat (37-26; LW: 11): Don't look now, but Miami's got the East's longest winning streak at five games and has won eight of 10 since the All-Star break, with the losses coming at home when the Splash Brothers went nuts and on the road in a Saturday matinee to the rolling Celtics. Even without Chris Bosh, whose status continues to be shrouded in mystery, the Heat seem to be rounding into form.
After a year of on-court awkwardness in which neither seemed comfortable sharing space and the ball, Goran Dragic and Dwyane Wade seem to have found a rhythm. In 162 minutes over eight games since the break, lineups featuring the Wade-Dragic combo have outscored the opposition by 70 points, working out to a whopping 20 points per 100 possessions. Some credit belongs to floor-opening addition Joe Johnson, whose shooting (60.4 percent from the field, 66.7 percent from 3-point land in his first five games in Miami) and threatening offensive presence has been just what Miami needed. Lineups featuring Johnson, Wade, Dragic, Luol Deng (beasting as a small-ball power forward) and either Amar'e Stoudemire or Hassan Whiteside have outscored opponents by 63 points in 78 post-ASB minutes.
Whiteside, in particular, has been excellent. He accepted (by all accounts graciously) his move to the bench last month, in part to avoid disrupting a flow Miami found while he was sidelined due to injury in late January and in part to accommodate a tempo jolt that has seen Miami jump from averaging 94.27 possessions per 48 minutes through its first 43 games (which would rank 29th among 30 NBA teams in pace factor this season) to 98.4 possessions-per-48 minutes over the last 20 (which would rank 14th). Rather than grousing about a demotion months before hitting unrestricted free agency, Whiteside has made the most of making mincemeat out of reserve units, averaging 18 points, 15.2 rebounds and 4.2 blocks in 31.4 minutes per game over his last nine outings while shooting 57.5 percent from the field and 78.4 percent from the foul line.
While concerns that Whiteside's block-chasing and at-times spotty positional work harmed Miami's defense held statistical water earlier in the season, the Heat have been giving up about three fewer points per 100 possessions with Whiteside on the floor than off it since Christmas. He's a rare, devastating two-way weapon off the pine, giving Erik Spoelstra enticing options to deploy in the race to overtake Boston for the East's No. 3 seed in the East.
10. Los Angeles Clippers (40-21; LW: 13): So, this is a weird reversal: since the All-Star break, it's the Clips' defense that has looked elite, allowing just 96.2 points per 100 possessions and a 41.9 percent opponent field-goal percentage, both third-best in the NBA.
Granted, L.A.'s best recent defensive work has come against the Kawhi-less Spurs and some NBA lesser-lights. But if Doc Rivers' squad can get and keep the defense consistently cranked up against top-flight competition, as they did in holding OKC to 35.6 percent shooting with 10 turnovers after halftime last Wednesday, and if they can weather Hack-a-DeAndre, which they couldn't in Saturday's loss to Atlanta, the Clips could have the balance to make things interesting against Golden State or San Antonio in a second-round matchup. As we've been saying for two months, though, that probably depends on how Blake Griffin looks after returning from injury and suspension, a return he says he's "very close" to making.
Also, Chris Paul likes French fries so much that he almost gets emotional thinking about them. Here's what I bet that looks like:
11. Boston Celtics (38-26; LW: 5): Five teams have top-10 units on both sides of the ball this season: Golden State (No. 1 in offensive efficiency, No. 6 in defensive efficiency), San Antonio (No. 3, No. 1), Cleveland (No. 4, No. 8), the Clippers (No. 6, No. 7) ... and the Celtics (No. 10, No. 4). They're one of the deepest, most balanced and best-drilled teams in the league, capable of playing fast without losing control, and of protecting the ball while forcing opponents to cough it up. They create clean looks through activity and execution, even without a signature star around whom to build an attack, and prevent opponents from doing likewise, even without an elite rim protector inside to instill fear.
They're relentless, smart and best appreciated through consistent exposure over a long haul; if you haven't watched them much this season, it's worth your while to take a look at how Isaiah Thomas slices and dices in the pick-and-roll, how Avery Bradley locks down, how Jae Crowder always seems to be moving to exactly where he needs to be, how Amir Johnson helps guide and foster possessions without touching the ball, etc. I'm still curious how effective Boston will be come playoff time — yes, Brad Stevens is excellent and they won't be an underdog seventh seed this time, but lengthy defenders can stifle Thomas, which can stall the Celtic offense — but I believe that if they go down, they'll go down swinging, and in entertaining fashion.
12. Dallas Mavericks (33-30; LW: NR): It feels perfect that David Lee — relegated to the scrap heap by forward-thinking outfits in Golden State and Boston who want power forwards to shoot 3s, credibly defend in space or both — has found a home at Rick Carlisle's cozy bed and breakfast for flawed but smart veterans who know how to play. After logging 21 DNP-CDs in 2016 with the Celtics, Lee's averaging 20 minutes a night for Dallas, scoring 11.3 points with nine rebounds and 1.8 assists per game while shooting 67.4 percent from the floor; the Mavs have been nearly 13 points per 100 possessions better with Lee on the floor than off it since his arrival.
But as brilliant as Carlisle's offense looks running around Dirk Nowitzki and through Chandler Parsons, with the ball ping-ponging to Lee and the rest of Dallas' heady vets, the Mavs still struggle to get stops, ranking 22nd in points allowed per possession since the All-Star break. Dallas allowed 116 points to the Denver Nuggets on Sunday, with 39 coming after the third quarter and four coming in the final 10 seconds of regulation, as Denver snatched victory in overtime. Portland falling to Detroit means Dallas didn't drop from the No. 6 spot, but that's still a bad loss for the Mavs, who face the Clippers Monday in the second game of a back-to-back and who now sit 4 1/2 games behind the fifth-place Grizzlies. If seeds hold, Dallas would open Round 1 on the road in Oklahoma City; the Thunder swept the Mavs 4-0 this season.
13. Denver Nuggets (25-38; LW: 29): One time for Mike Malone, who showed Sunday that his reputation as a defensive-minded coach isn't just talk, talk, talk:
Whether the sixth-man effort (which didn't appear to run afoul of league rules) had any impact on Parsons' errant inbounds pass is anybody's guess. What's clear, though, is Malone's passion, which seems to have rubbed off.
Emmanuel Mudiay, Nikola Jokic, Gary Harris and Most Improved Player candidate Will Barton have all taken big steps forward this season. Kenneth Faried has stepped up his defensive work while continuing to impact games with energy and athleticism. Before his recent injury, Danilo Gallinari had proven capable of acting as an offensive anchor. Up and down the roster, Denver competes, a marked difference from the dire last days of the Brian Shaw era. The Nuggets are getting better, thanks in part to the influence of the coach who "can't contain [him]self on the sidelines" as he watches them work.
14. Milwaukee Bucks (26-37; LW: NR): After falling to OKC on Sunday, Milwaukee's now 4-5 since the All-Star break. They're six games out of the No. 8 seed with 19 games remaining; both Basketball-Reference and FiveThirtyEight peg the Bucks' playoff chances at less than 1 percent. I don't care about that, though; have you seen what Giannis Antetokounmpo and Jabari Parker have been doing?
Through his first 212 NBA games, Antetokounmpo hadn't logged a triple-double. After Jason Kidd threw him the keys as the Bucks' starting point guard, he has three in his last seven, and is averaging nearly 20 points, 11 rebounds, eight assists and four combined blocks/steals per game over his last nine Games. Parker, whose rookie season was cut short after 25 games due to a torn ACL, is fully healthy and feasting, averaging just under 22 points, seven rebounds and three assists per game since the break while shooting 52 percent and moving like someone who sure as hell doesn't look worried about his knee.
Combine that with Khris Middleton's consistently sharp work on the wing, and you've got the beginnings of what many expected the Bucks to offer at the start of this season: a team worth getting excited about. That might be cold comfort for those hoped for contention in Year 2 under Kidd, but while development isn't a linear process, fans can take solace in the recent evidence suggesting that it does seem well underway.
15. Houston Rockets (31-32; LW: 27): The Rockets are like that kid you knew in college who was smart but aimless, who partied a bit too much for his own good, and who screwed around so much at the beginning of the semester that he wound up needing to ace, like, every final to wind up with a GPA that wouldn't get him killed when he went home for vacation.
Check out how Houston's offensive and defensive efficiency change over the course of the game this season:
("OffRtg" means points scored per 100 possessions. "DefRtg" means points allowed per 100 possessions. "NetRtg" means whether you score more than you give up, or vice versa.)
Damn near every night, it seems, the Rockets laze through the start of the game, dig themselves a hole, and then have to try to explode out of it in the second half with some combination of frantic activity (that's you, Chaos Agents Corey Brewer and Patrick Beverley) and brutal offensive efficiency (that's you, James Harden):
Houston's got enough talent and enough high-variance players to win a surprising amount of games that way. It's really hard to do it, though, and with the Rockets just a game and a half up on the Jazz for the No. 8 spot, J.B. Bickerstaff has to find a way to generate better starts before his team flunks out of the playoffs.
The early returns on starting not-actually-traded power forward Donatas Motiejunas alongside also-not-actually-traded center Dwight Howard, Harden, Beverley and Trevor Ariza haven't been great; that group's a -12 in 39 minutes since the All-Star break. But after attempts to roll with Clint Capela, Terrence Jones, Josh Smith and Montrezl Harrell all failed to make a meaningful difference in the snooze-button starts, giving D-Mo a chance to knock off the rust makes as much sense as anything. And hey, if that doesn't work, there's always SuperCoolBeas.
THE BOTTOM FIVE
26. New York Knicks (26-38; LW: 7): I get why folks find the latest round of MSG tabloid fodder compelling. From James Dolan finally rearing his fedora'd head to the subtweet relitigation of Linsanity's souring, to Carmelo Anthony dealing with hecklers in the midst of "a rough patch" that's included 16 losses in 20 games, including seven of 10 since firing Derek Fisher and elevating Kurt Rambis, whose main contributions thus far have been dirty joke material and a belief that Kristaps Porzingis shouldn't play crunch-time, there's plenty worth gawking at. As a lifelong Knicks fan, though, I'm all set on "the owner's angry, the coach has the wrong idea, the star player's getting blamed for stuff that's not his fault and please don't ruin the rookie." I've already had quite enough of that, thanks.
27. New Orleans Pelicans (23-38; LW: 12): After an impressive win over OKC, the Pelicans have lost four straight and now sit seven games out of the West's last playoff spot with 21 games left. Coach Alvin Gentry said New Orleans was out of the playoff race (he was right) and then apologized (for being realistic?). Now, though, he's back to saying "it would be a miracle almost for us to make the playoffs," meaning the time is now to plug Jrue Holiday, the team's second-best player, back into the starting lineup for a longer look at how he jells with Anthony Davis. Better way late than never.
28. Utah Jazz (29-33; LW: NR): Generally speaking, I'm into Utah. I love Rudy Gobert and Derrick Favors up front alongside Gordon Hayward and Rodney Hood on the wing. I enjoy the no-B.S. Trevor Booker, the rec-league craftiness of Joe Ingles, the skills bursting from the seams of rookie Trey Lyles, and so on. But responding to Gasol's injury and the Rockets' struggles by losing seven of 10 — albeit against tough competition — marks a disappointing missed opportunity. Utah's got one of the softer closing schedules in the West, but still has to face Cleveland, Oklahoma City, San Antonio, the Clippers and Golden State twice. If the postseason remains the goal, the bottom-five offense and middling defense Utah's turned in since mid-February won't cut it.
29. Brooklyn Nets (18-45; LW: 30): The Nets' starting five in Saturday's loss to Minnesota: Thomas Robinson, Willie Reed, Bojan Bogdanovic, Wayne Ellington, Donald Sloan. Someone send Gerard Butler in to save Ian Eagle, Mike Fratello, Jim Spanarkel, Sarah Kustok and the rest of YES' delightful broadcast team, please.
30. Philadelphia 76ers (8-55; LW: 29): Today in "Sixers Stats That Barely Seem Possible, And Yet Here We Are":
76ers have lost 11 straight games, their third losing streak of at least 11 games this season. The rest of the NBA has one.— ESPN Stats & Info (@ESPNStatsInfo) March 5, 2016
No wonder Bob Cooney of the Philadelphia Daily News recently wrote that coach Brett Brown is "sometimes bordering on insanity."
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