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Injuries and the trade deadline are shaking up the NBA Power Rankings — the Bucks are climbing, while the shorthanded Lakers are losing and falling. Though it all, Brooklyn just keeps winning games and looking like the team to beat in the East.
1. Nets (30-14, Last Week No. 1). Weird stat of the season: Brooklyn is 22-3 in weeknight games and just 8-11 on Friday/Saturday/Sunday games. The Nets are without Kyrie Irving on the current three-game road trip, and Kevin Durant remains out (but is getting closer, Steve Nash said), so it remains the James Harden show — and he has played his way into the MVP conversation. However, Nash has admitted concerns about all the minutes and load on Harden and the long-term impacts. Blake Griffin hadn’t dunked in a couple of years, but how did he get his first bucket as a Net?
2. Bucks (28-14, LW 4). The hottest team in the land, having won 12-of-13, and Giannis Antetokounmpo is playing like an MVP again during this stretch. However, the real key to the run is Milwaukee got back to being an elite defensive team — second-best in the NBA over the last six games. They are doing it differently than years past, switching more, but this is still an elite defensive team. P.J. Tucker will help on that end (particularly in the non-Antetokounmpo minutes), but will he hit open shots (he didn’t in Houston)? Will Tucker close games?
3. 76ers (31-13 LW 2). Philadelphia has gone 5-1 without Joel Embiid, a sign of the depth of this roster (and a credit to Tobias Harris). This run also is a boost to Doc Rivers’ Coach of the Year candidacy. Still, GM Daryl Morey knows this team could use one more steady hand and shot creator, which is why they continue to go hard after Toronto’s Kyle Lowry as the deadline nears, trying to bring the Philly native home. But Lowry makes $30 million, which means surrendering real value and depth to make a trade work.
4. Suns (29-13 LW 3). Phoenix keeps on winning and has been quiet heading into the trade deadline — they are going to ride with Chris Paul and Devin Booker. The concern with Phoenix is the lack of easy points: Their 18.4 free throw attempts a game are the lowest in the league (they have the lowest free throw rate, too), and they are 20th in the league in points added in transition per 100 possessions (they don’t get a lot of fast break buckets). They will need those easy points in the playoffs.
5. Jazz (31-11, LW 6). Utah has not looked dominant the past few weeks, at least compared to how they did earlier in the season. The biggest difference in those early games and the recent one is defense — the Jazz are 16th in the league defensively over their last six games. Some big nights from Donovan Mitchell helped cover things up, but the concern is real. There has been very little trade buzz around Utah, but this is a tight-lipped organization where leaks are rare anyway.
6. Nuggets (26-17 LW 7). Denver has quietly been one of the more active teams heading into the trade deadline, having reportedly been in conversations for Harrison Barnes and Aaron Gordon at the four, and about Evan Fournier. Nikola Jokic racked up another triple-double on Tuesday night and — with LeBron and Embiid out — he has the chance to take the lead in the MVP race with a strong couple of weeks. If Denver can move past the Lakers in the standings to the top four, that will help with some voters.
7. Clippers (28-16, LW 9).The Clippers need a shot creator at the trade deadline — meaning someone who can get to the rim. The Clippers get 20.4% of their shots at the rim, third lowest in the league, and they don’t shoot the three like Utah to make up the difference. Los Angeles also is pretty average at getting to the free throw line and the easy points there. They need some non-midrange buckets. Lonzo Ball helps (but a trade would be hard to put together), George Hill could be a good backup plan, but right now this jump-shooting Clippers team does not look like a title threat, even with Paul George and Kawhi Leonard healthy.
8. Lakers (28-16, LW 5). The Lakers have dropped three straight without both LeBron and Anthony Davis, and the question becomes how many wins can the role players steal while the two stars are out? Los Angeles has struggled on both ends of the court without their stars (as expected), and suddenly landing Andre Drummond on the buyout market — as they are favorited to do — seems almost imperative because of the boost he can bring on both ends of the court.
9. Trail Blazers (25-18, LW 8).Damian Lillard‘s MVP candidacy — which could see a boost while LeBron and Embiid are out injured — rests on the fact he has led Portland to an 18-7 record in clutch games (games within five points in the final five minutes). The problem is the Blazers are 7-11 in the other games; they are not just blowing the doors off teams and getting easy wins (which is what elite teams do). CJ McCollum is back and Portland needs a few of those wins as they head out on the road for four in a row and 6-of-8.
10. Mavericks (22-19, LW 11).Luka Doncic is playing at an MVP level of late and is hitting his threes again, while Kristaps Porzingis has looked like a quality rim protector in recent wins, all of which gives Dallas fans hope their team could climb up the West standings. The Mavs sit eighth in the conference as you read this, but just two games out of sixth (and avoiding the play-in games). Not a lot of trade deadline buzz around Dallas; they may be more likely to make offseason moves.
11. Hawks (22-21 LW 16). Atlanta deserves credit for its recent eight-game winning streak, with a lot of people patting interim coach Nate McMillan on the back. That streak came as the roster got healthy through a soft part of the schedule, something that changed with the loss Monday to the Clippers as part of an eight-game road trip through the Western Conference. Lots of trade buzz about John Collins, but with Atlanta driving a hard bargain for the young forward, many teams are thinking more about an off-season sign-and-trade rather than a deal now.
12. Spurs (22-18, LW 10).Keldon Johnson has become the latest in the lengthy “where did the Spurs find this guy?” history. He was taken 29th out of Kentucky a year ago, and he has had breakout moments in his second season (including 23 points and 21 rebounds against Cleveland last week), averaging 13.9 points in almost 30 minutes a night. Johnson is a quality rotation player the Spurs found and developed. After hosting the Clippers for a two-game set starting Wednesday, the schedule softens up for San Antonio over the next week, facing some of the lesser teams in the East plus Sacramento twice.
13. Knicks (22-22, LW 17). It may be a quiet trade deadline for the Knicks, patience remains the watchword under Leon Rose. They may have interest in Lonzo Ball and Victor Oladipo, but not as much as has been reported, and not enough to surrender what the Pelicans and Rockets are asking in deals (a first-round pick). If New York wants, it can chase both as free agents. In the short term, Julius Randle is doing his best to lock down the Most Improved Player award — he hit seven 3s against the Wizards “defense” on Tuesday night.
14. Warriors (22-22, LW 15). Suddenly, Jordan Poole — back from a stint in the G-League — is playing like a guy who should be a core part of the Warriors’ future. Since his return to the big club, he is averaging 19.9 points a game in the seven games, shooting 39.2% from three and with an impressive 637 true shooting percentage. He’s gotten more of an opportunity, but he’s taken advantage of it. With Stephen Curry out for another week with a bruised tailbone, the Warriors are going to need more Jordan Poole.
15. Grizzlies (20-20 LW 18). Memphis’ offense continues to be pedestrian but Memphis appears headed to the play-in games thanks to a quality defense — coach Taylor Jenkins deserves a lot of credit for that. The offense will improve as guys get healthy. How special is Ja Morant? How about “drive from half court with Jimmy Butler in my jersey and still hit the game winner” special.
16. Celtics (21-22, LW 13). Boston needs an upgrade and the Aaron Gordon trade talk has been hot and heavy around the team for a week now, but whether the sides can reach a deal (Orlando is talking to multiple Gordon suitors) remains to be seen (as of this writing). Boston needs to do something, this is not a contending team as constructed — the Celtics are 2-5 since the All-Star break, with the 25th-ranked defense in the league during that time, and next up on the schedule is a two-game set against the red-hot Bucks.
17. Heat (22-22 LW 12). Losers of four in a row as the offense continues to stumble — bottom 10 in the league and playing worse of late — Miami is another team in need of a shake-up at the trade deadline (there have been a lot of Kyle Lowry rumors). If nothing else, the Heat are considered the heavy favorites to land LaMarcus Aldridge on the buyout market. Three important road games are coming up starting Friday: Charlotte, New York, and Indiana — all teams in the bottom half of the East playoff bracket, all looking to move up.
18. Hornets (21-21, LW 14). Losing LaMelo Ball to the fractured wrist, likely for the season (he wants to get back on the court for the play-in/playoffs, but Charlotte needs to think long-term and not let the player be his own worst enemy), is a punch to the gut. He still likely will win Rookie of the Year just because he is so far ahead of the field. No LaMelo also should keep the Hornets quiet at the trade deadline, no reason to make a short-term move. Not that Mitch Kupchak ever makes in-season trades anyway.
19. Pelicans (19-24, LW 20). One of the few sellers at the trade deadline, there is a lot of Lonzo Ball buzz, in part because the Pelicans don’t want to pay him starting point guard money starting next year ($18 million a season or more). New Orleans has pushed to get a first-rounder for Lonzo but may end up having to settle for less. J.J. Redick could help some contending/playoff teams, but he is headed for the buyout market (and then likely Philadelphia or another team in the Northeast close to his Brooklyn roots).
20. Bulls (19-23, LW 18). The Bulls were outscored by Utah in the fourth quarter on Monday night, but that is part of a troubling trend — Chicago has been outscored in the fourth in 14 of their last 17 games. The Bulls remain an interesting team on the eve of the trade deadline — what do they really think of Lauri Markkanen and do they want to pay him as a restricted free agent this offseason? While they would seem ripe for a trade, the buzz around the league is they want to make moves that help them in the playoffs this season, not making long-term moves.
21. Pacers (19-23, LW 21). Coach Nate Bjorkgren seems to be trusting and testing Caris LeVert more and more as he returns to form — he had the ball in his hands as the primary shot creator against the Heat in overtime recently. Malcolm Brogdon has been balling out of late as well, which has been interesting as the trade deadline approaches and rumors swirl about the Pacers listening to offers for him (a team would have to blow them away to make that deal happen). Indiana also has had teams call about Myles Turner, but can they afford to send out the anchor of their defense and a guy playing at a Defensive Player of the Year level?
22. Kings (18-25, LW 24). Maybe the most-watched team at the trade deadline as sellers, with teams calling about Harrison Barnes, Nemanja Bjelica, and Buddy Hield. Of those three, Bjelica seems the most likely to be on the move, in part because of the demand for help at the four across the league. However, the sense around the league is that Vivek Ranadive sees a team just 3.5 games out of the play-in games and would rather push for that than make a big trade. Marvin Bagley is available, but the offers are now second-round picks for him.
23. Thunder (19-24, LW 23). In addition to the obvious brilliance of Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, every game it seems some other Thunder player is turning heads. Luguentz Dort is blocking a John Wall shot to preserve a win one night, Moses Brown is putting up solid numbers another night (a few in a row for him), and even Svi Mykhailiuk had a 15 point game Sunday. Expect Oklahoma City to trade George Hill by the deadline; other teams know it’s not the Thunder/Presti way to buy a guy out after the deadline. Teams will have to give up a pick for him.
24. Wizards (15-27 LW 25). Washington seems to rise up to the level of their opponents: The Wizards have 10 of their wins this season against teams over .500 and they have gone 10-8 against the deeper Western Conference (5-19 against the East). The recent win against Utah is an example of that, but it’s the Wizards only win in their last eight games. Russell Westbrook keeps racking up triple-doubles this season (14) but it’s not leading to wins.
25. Raptors (17-25, LW 22). Kyle Lowry trade talk is heating up again. This has always been in Lowry’s court, if he wants to leave the Raptors will work to get him where he wants to be — Lowry is a Toronto icon and they will treat him with the respect he deserves. Toronto has lost nine in a row and hit a new low for the season on Monday night, losing to the stumbling Rockets while shooting 15-of-45 in the second half, missing 17 three-point attempts. The one silver lining this season in Toronto is Norman Powell, who is averaging 22.8 points a game while shooting 44.6% from three since moving into the starting lineup (teams are calling about him in a trade as well, he may be more likely to be traded than Lowry).
26. Pistons (11-30 LW 28). How well is rookie Saddiq Bey playing? When the Pistons beat the Raptors last week, Nick Nurse pulled out the “box-and-1” defense and Bay was the one. That’s respect. Bay had 48 points in wins against Toronto and Houston, but the rookie returned to earth against Chicago with three points on 1-of-9 shooting. Still, he’s making progress and that’s a good sign for a Detroit team looking for pieces for its future.
27. Timberwolves (10-33, LW 26). Chris Finch has had an impact — the Minnesota offense has gotten better. It is 11th best in the NBA since the All-Star break (it was bottom five in the league before that), and Anthony Edwards is showing signs going off for 42 against the Suns this week (third-youngest player ever to score 40+ in an NBA game, behind some guys named LeBron and Durant). Edwards and Karl-Anthony Towns are starting to show some chemistry.
28. Cavaliers (16-27, LW 27). Andre Drummond is likely headed to the buyout market (despite the trade rumors), and then likely the Lakers. The trade to watch is JaVale McGee, Cleveland is looking to find a new home for him as well. Coach J.B. Bickerstaff has started to take a long look at a Collin Sexton, Darius Garland, Isaac Okoro, Larry Nance Jr., Jarrett Allen starting lineup, but so far that group is -16.3 points per 100 possessions.
29. Magic (14-29, LW 29). What will the Orlando roster look like in 48 hours with trade rumors swirling around Aaron Gordon (he asked for a trade), Nikola Vucevic, Evan Fournier, and more. Expect to see more Chuma Okeke going forward as Orlando looks for players that can be part of a future with Jonathan Isaac (once he gets healthy next season). If all these trades come together it could be a rough rest of the season for the Magic, but one that sets the team up better for the future.
30. Rockets (12-30, LW 30). Houston snapped the ugly 20-game losing streak thanks to a triple-double from John Wall (8-of-30 shooting, but he put up points), and some ice-cold second half shooting from Toronto. The Rockets will take it. Lots of trade buzz around the Rockets, but teams are not willing to give up much for Victor Oladipo (Houston reportedly was asking for a player and a pick, if that’s a mid-first-round pick it would be a huge win).
NBA Power Rankings: Nets still on top, Bucks climbing fast, Lakers slide originally appeared on NBCSports.com