The All-Star break is here and so it is naturally a perfect time for teams to look ahead at what they can still make of this season while also reflecting on what they’ve done over the course of the first two-thirds of the season to end up where they are. All of the award races and final playoff spots look like they are going to go down to the wire, so we should be in for a treat in these final two months.
In this week’s Power Rankings, I’m going to revisit where I ranked teams at the start of the season and discuss what their futures could hold post break while also looking at what I might have miss calculated prior to the season getting underway.
30. Knicks | Last Week: 1-2 | Overall: 11-47 | Previous Ranking: 30
Preseason Ranking: 29
Everything is going according to schedule in New York. Nothing much to discuss here besides shouting out an end to 18-game losing streak.
29. Suns | Last Week: 0-1 | Overall: 11-48 | Previous Ranking: 29
Preseason Ranking: 26
28. Bulls | Last Week: 1-1 | Overall: 14-44 | Previous Ranking: 27
Preseason Ranking: 27
The Bulls have gone through a lot of shake ups in the first two-thirds of the season. Jim Boylen and Otto Porter Jr. are the latest long-term GarPax investments and those two will have the chance to lay the framework for a better tomorrow in Chicago as the season closes out.
27. Grizzlies | Last Week: 0-2 | Overall: 23-36 | Previous Ranking: 24
Preseason Ranking: 17
For the time being, Mike Conley is around to help Jaren Jackson Jr. usher in a new era of Grizzlies basketball. It likely won’t be as fun as Grit ‘N Grind, but who knows. Seeing how JJ closes the year could be telling for what the future holds in Memphis.
26. Cavaliers | Last Week: 1-1 | Overall: 12-46 | Previous Ranking: 28
Preseason Ranking: 19
I was really banking on Kevin Love to be around this season to keep Cleveland almost relevant. Instead, the Cavaliers are thinking about getting another No. 1 pick in light of losing LeBron. Maybe with Love in action they’ll rise in the standings over the final third of the year.
25. Pelicans | Last Week: 1-1 | Overall: 26-33 | Previous Ranking: 25
Preseason Ranking: 11
The Pelicans did not have the depth necessary to withstand injuries, as they already were too thin on the wing from the start. Now instead of thinking about building off the success from last year’s playoff series victory as the 2019 postseason approaches, the team and fans will be focused on making sure Anthony Davis doesn’t get injured and damage his trade value. It’s wild how much can change in one year.
24. Hawks | Last Week: 1-1 | Overall: 19-39 | Previous Ranking: 26
Preseason Ranking: 28
The Hawks have been one of my favorite teams to watch over the last month. They aren’t going to pull away from the bottom of the back after the All-Star Break, but they could establish themselves as one of the best among the league’s bottom feeders. More wins like the one Tuesday over the Lakers might hurt their draft stock, but they do wonders for helping a young core grow together.
23. Wizards | Last Week: 0-2 | Overall: 24-34 | Previous Ranking: 20
Preseason Ranking: 15
It would have made all the sense in the world if the wheels just fell off in Washington, but they haven’t. The car isn’t moving that well. And it needs a lot of work. But the wheels are still attached and this thing is moving. Not to the playoffs, but moving nonetheless.
22. Hornets | Last Week: 0-2 | Overall: 27-30 | Previous Ranking: 19
Preseason Ranking: 24
The question in Charlotte remains to be, “How much more can we get from everyone not named Kemba Walker?” Maybe after hosting All-Star Weekend, guys will be a bit more inspired to lock up a playoff spot to see if that’s enough to keep Walker around long-term.
21. Heat | Last Week: 1-1 | Overall: 26-30 | Previous Ranking: 22
Preseason Ranking: 16
I was expecting the Heat to come off of last year’s playoff run and at least cement themselves as one of the top eight teams in the East this season. Instead, Goran Dragic missed heavy time and now Miami will spend the back end of its campaign fighting it out with the Hornets, Pistons and Magic to see if Dwyane Wade can get one last postseason.
20. Lakers | Last Week: 0-1 | Overall: 28-29 | Previous Ranking: 17
Preseason Ranking: 10
I thought simply having LeBron would make this a top-10 team. And up until Christmas, that seemed to be the case. But after a loss in Atlanta, the playoffs are looking way further away than they were supposed to for Los Angeles. But maybe LeBron has something after the break to avoid the embarrassment of leaving Cleveland just to have a longer offseason. Although, now that I think about it, that actually does sound like a win off the court even if it does mean the Finals streak ends.
19. Timberwolves | Last Week: 2-0 | Overall: 27-30 | Previous Ranking: 23
Preseason Ranking: 18
The Timberwolves got rid of the two former Bulls pieces that were expected to be the most helpful. Now with Ryan Saunders in Tom Thibodeau’s role and Derrick Rose functioning as third option next to Karl-Anthony Towns and Andrew Wiggins, Minnesota gets 25 more games to officially turn the chapter on what was an awkward season to say the least.
18. Magic | Last Week: 2-0 | Overall: 27-32 | Previous Ranking: 21
Preseason Ranking: 30
I didn’t think the Magic had much in the tank going into this season and was expecting them to just fade into oblivion throughout the season. Instead, Orlando is looking at ending its six-year playoff drought as the regular season races toward its conclusion.
With one of the league’s top-10 defenses on the year, the Magic have just as good a shot as any of the teams fighting for one of the last two playoff spots in the East.
Steve Clifford doesn’t have too much experience when it comes to finishing out a season to lock up a spot in the postseason, but he has done it before. Then again, this was the thought with Frank Vogel, and he has significantly more playoff coaching experience.
Although Clifford will need to lead a helping hand to make this season go beyond 82 games, the bulk of the Magic’s success will fall on it’s starting unit.
D.J. Augustin and Evan Fournier are not the most sought after backcourt duo in their own division, but they have an opportunity to make the Magic the only team from the Southeast in the postseason if they continue to hold their own on a nightly basis. Nikola Vucevic has to ride the wave from making his first All-Star appearance and continue to dominate down the stretch.
If he and Jonathan Isaac can hold things down in the middle like they have been these last couple weeks, Orlando might be able to bank on having an advantage inside in practically every game remaining—especially if Aaron Gordon can improve his finishing inside of 10 feet. Add in Terrence Ross stretching the floor from off the bench, and the Magic have a squad that can make a run to close out the year in the playoffs.
Winners of seven of their last eight, the Magic are also on a five game winning streak. Their biggest issue going forward in addition to their 22nd-ranked offense is just that they’ve played either two or three more games than the other teams in the playoff hunt. So making up ground in the loss column will be a bit of a struggle.
17. Pistons | Last Week: 1-1 | Overall: 26-30 | Previous Ranking: 18
Preseason Ranking: 20
I hoped the Pistons would have had a slightly better record and Dwane Casey would have made a more positive impact at this point. But with such a veteran group, maybe everything will just click on the back end. As long as the offseason comes after at least four additional games, this year won’t be a complete wash for the Pistons.
16. Mavericks | Last Week: 0-2 | Overall: 26-31 | Previous Ranking: 16
Preseason Ranking: 22
The Mavericks have one last stab at making the playoffs if they can get one big winning streak before April. But these final games will be mostly about watching Luka Doncic finish up a terrific rookie season. If we just so happen to see him playing meaningful games in the season’s final weeks, that’ll just be a cherry on top.
15. Nets | Last Week: 1-1 | Overall: 30-29 | Previous Ranking: 14
Preseason Ranking: 23
When Caris LeVert went down, D’Angelo Russell and Spencer Dinwiddie went over the top to turn this ship around and get the Nets headed toward the playoffs. Thanks to some stellar guard play and quality veteran leadership, Brooklyn is all set to become the sixth team in the East to essentially lock in playoff spot. But, they aren’t in the clear just yet.
A seven-game road trip in March could have the Nets pushed into the mix with the Hornets, Pistons, Heat and Magic if they don’t take care of business in these first few weeks coming out of the break. When a team has a chance like the Nets to really make the leap from lottery squad to perennial playoff team, it can leave the door open for anything bad to happen.
Ask last season’s Nuggets. Brooklyn had lost six of eight before escaping Cleveland with a triple-overtime win to head into All-Star Weekend and that needs to be the end of that stretch of play. Although that run of losing did include a near win in Toronto, that was only after a 19-point loss to the Bulls.
With everybody getting close to healthy for the Nets, the opportunity is there to solidify themselves as a playoff team with much more to come in the future. But they need to come out of the gates hot once games resume.
14. Spurs | Last Week: 1-0 | Overall: 33-26 | Previous Ranking: 15
Preseason Ranking: 7
Injuries suck. And for this year’s Spurs, Dejounte Murray’s torn ACL lowered the ceiling for San Antonio’s season. If Murray was out there, DeMar DeRozan wouldn’t be quite the facilitator that he’s proven to be this season, but he might have been able to avoid some wear and tear that appears to have been slowing him up over the past month.
But, with Gregg Popovich leading and LaMarcus Aldridge putting together another All-Star season, San Antonio has been able to prevail. Barring a wild finish to the year, Popovich will have to experience losing more than 32 games for third time of his career, but he is likely headed for his 22nd consecutive playoff appearance.
If they can go in with DeRozan and Aldridge healthy, the Spurs will pose a threat to anybody that’s not the Warriors in a first-round matchup. And if the cards fall the right way, San Antonio could easily be making a trip to the second round, or maybe even the conference finals depending on just how things shake up.
Shockingly, the thing that is going to hold back a Popovich squad from getting the most out of its season is poor defense.
Maybe there is still time to turn it around and create a situation where the Spurs steal even more out of this season than most expected them to after Murray went down. Maybe the ball will bounce the right way and Popovich will get a chance to demonstrate his playoff prowess and this tem gets a chance to make a classic San Antonio deep run into May.
Or maybe, DeRozan and Aldridge will keep playing at the high level that they have while the accompanying pieces continue to fill their roles, but everything breaks just the wrong way one more time. There’s a big difference in what a team can do with the six seed or the seven seed vs. the four, five or eight seeds with the way things seem to be shaking out in the West. Maybe that’s the break San Antonio catches this season.
13. Kings | Last Week: 0-1 | Overall: 30-27 | Previous Ranking: 10
Preseason Ranking: 25
I could not have been more wrong about what the Sacramento Kings had in store for this season. Maybe I was just jaded because I thought last season was going to be Buddy Hield’s breakout season and he started all year for my horrible fantasy basketball team. Either way, I have no problem making an about face on the Kings thanks to what Dave Joerger has done and the strides the young guys on this team have made.
De’Aaron Fox is ready for whatever challenge you put in front of him, Marvin Bagley III will always find a way to be useful while on the court and Bogdan Bogdanovic has proven to be a big help off the bench.
Now comes the hard part of the season. The Kings had no trouble defying expectations and staying in the playoff hunt prior to the All-Star Break. What will they do after? The chance to break a 12-year playoff drought is right there in front of them. But LeBron James and the Los Angeles Lakers are right there behind them.
A win in Denver Wednesday would have gone a long way. Instead they need to hope they can get one or two W’s in either Golden State, Oklahoma City or Minnesota when they get back in action. A win against the Lakers when they meet in Staples Center in March could also drastically improve the course of this season. It would tie the season series with the Lakers and put the Kings one step closer to seeing the playoffs.
What does this team have left to give for these final weeks?
12. Clippers | Last Week: 1-1 | Overall: 32-27 | Previous Ranking: 11
Preseason Ranking: 21
The Clippers have avoided fatal injuries so far this season and that alone is an accomplishment.
With Tobias Harris out, the playoffs don’t seem likely for the Clippers. However, they might just accidentally play their way in anyway. Depending on what the Lakers and Kings do, the Clippers might not have what it takes to slip into the lottery and completely mini-tank to save their first-round pick and get in better position for Anthony Davis.
Lou Williams and Danilo Gallinari are going to keep putting up points to keep the Clippers in almost every game they play in. The key is going to be how much more can the key young pieces on this team supply down the line. If Shai Gilgeous-Alexander and Landry Shamet and Ivica Zubac and Montrezl Harrell contribute at high levels, particularly late in games, the Clippers could be looking at a postseason spot.
Doc Rivers isn’t going to just stop coaching to win even if the team appears to be setting itself up to purposely miss the playoffs. And the job he’s done this season makes it hard to believe he’s going to somehow fumble this away, whether on purpose or by mistake. Whether they land AD or Kawhi or Kevin Durant or whoever, Doc has to coach a decent amount of this group next season, and he will be using the remainder of this year to help get them even better for next year.
So now Jerry West and Steve Ballmer need to hope the team comes up short a few more times than it did before the break. There is no guarantee the Lakers or Kings make a run, and this team is still too well put together to think it will just rack up a ton of losses. But no matter what happens, it was a successful season for the Clippers. And that feels really weird to say.
11. Pacers | Last Week: 1-1 | Overall: 38-20 | Previous Ranking: 12
Preseason Ranking: 9
With Victor Oladipo on the court, this team had the chance to make a run to the Eastern Conference finals. Now the most they can do with the season is hold onto third and see if they can cause some drama in the playoffs by throwing off seeding or forcing one of the other top four teams into a bad matchup. But hey, at least that is still something valuable to play for.
10. 76ers | Last Week: 1-1 | Overall: 37-21 | Previous Ranking: 4
Preseason Ranking: 4
Joel Embiid and the Sixers have had more than enough of the Celtics. They might be able to prove they’re too dog in a meeting in April or May, but for right now, they are drifting toward the bottom of the East’s upper echelon.
9. Celtics | Last Week: 2-0 | Overall: 37-21 | Previous Ranking: 13
Preseason Ranking: 2
The players might not be having fun, but the Celtics sure have been entertaining to the rest of us. And if all else fails, they can at least hang their hats on the fact that they own the 76ers right now. I wonder how much Al Horford pays in rent for the space he has in Joel Embiid’s head?
8. Trail Blazers | Last Week: 1-1 | Overall: 34-23 | Previous Ranking: 9
Preseason Ranking: 12
If the Trail Blazers can avoid the slide down the standings they seem to be destined for and instead pick up more crucial wins like Thursday’s over the Warriors, they might avenge last year’s first-round sweep. But if they do fall, they might be looking at another 86-game season.
7. Jazz | Last Week: 0-1 | Overall: 32-25 | Previous Ranking: 6
Preseason Ranking: 6
A win in Oracle would have been a great way to go into the All-Star Break. Instead the Jazz will just have to go into the break with the understanding that they are still in a prime position to snag the four seed and get home court for at least one playoff series this season.
6. Rockets | Last Week: 1-1 | Overall: 33-24 | Previous Ranking: 8
Preseason Ranking: 5
In case you were wondering, James Harden is probably shooting free throws right now. If he can somehow find a way to shoot close to the same amount throughout April and May, he could finally get the Rockets over the hump this season. But they need to get Clint Capela back healthy and make sure Chris Paul stays healthy in the interim.
5. Raptors | Last Week: 2-0 | Overall: 43-16 | Previous Ranking: 5
Preseason Ranking: 3
It’s looking like the worst-case scenario for the Raptors is going to be the two seed. With Kawhi leading the way and with the Bucks so inexperienced, that wouldn’t be the worst spot to be in. And if the Pacers could somehow hold on to the three, it might actually be a better spot to be in. What’s home court in the Eastern Conference finals compared to avoiding two of the Celtics, 76ers and Bucks in the playoffs?
4. Nuggets | Last Week: 2-0 | Overall: 39-18 | Previous Ranking: 7
Preseason Ranking: 14
The defense has tailed off a bit from the start of the season, but the Nuggets still keep getting wins. Maybe one day they can finally get entirely healthy. But even if they don’t Mike Malone and Nikola Jokic will have all the answers they need to get through the regular season at least.
3. Thunder | Last Week: 1-1 | Overall: 37-20 | Previous Ranking: 3
Preseason Ranking: 8
With Paul George playing like an MVP candidate, the Thunder have a great chance to avenge last season’s first-round playoff exit and potentially make another run to the Western Conference finals. As long as Russell Westbrook’s shooting touch continues to improve from where it was in the middle of the season.
2. Warriors | Last Week: 1-1 | Overall: 41-16 | Previous Ranking: 2
Preseason Ranking: 1
There might be more noise on the outside than ever before, but on the court, it’s business as usual for the Warriors. Now they got 25 more games to work DeMarcus Cousins into the mix before their season actually starts.
1. Bucks | Last Week: 2-0 | Overall: 43-14 | Previous Ranking: 1
Preseason Ranking: 13
I would spend more time bloviating on how unbelievable the Bucks have been this season, but since I spent last week praising Giannis for his MVP season that he’s been putting together, I’ll keep it short. So instead of going on and on about Brook Lopez and Malcolm Brogdon being such potent three-point specialist or the defense being so impenetrable, I’ll just say Mike Budenholzer has a strong claim for his second Coach of the Year for the work he’s done. And at least for the remainder of the regular season, it’ll be hard to bet against the squad with the MVP and Coach of the Year.