NBA Stretch Run Power Rankings: Which title contenders have the best outlook?

Believe it or not, we are nearing the season's three-quarter point. What better time to power rank the NBA's championship contenders, examining what lies ahead on the stretch run of the regular season for each ...

15. Los Angeles Lakers (31-28, 10th in West)

14. Golden State Warriors (30-27, 9th in West)

Stretch run: In all likelihood, the Warriors and Lakers will meet as the ninth and 10th seeds in a play-in game, and one will eliminate the other. The winner would face another single-elimination situation on the road. There is a decent chance neither Stephen Curry nor LeBron James makes the playoffs. If either does, he will have to navigate three more series from the road to emerge from a loaded Western Conference.

The Lakers are not a very good team, despite the healthy presence of James and Anthony Davis. If you didn't know they were on the roster, and they were called the Southern California Avocado Toasts, you would cross them off solely on their net rating. A 39-year-old leading this group through the play-in and a single playoff round is a tall order. Two rounds is monumental. A return to the Western Conference finals, where the team that swept the Lakers last season likely awaits, is practically impossible, even for James.

Less so for the Warriors, who are two years removed from winning their fourth championship. It might feel longer to Klay Thompson, who was moved to the bench, but the emergence of Jonathan Kuminga (19.8 points per game on 56/39/76 shooting splits in his last 20 starts) and Brandon Podziemski (37.3% on 4.6 3-point attempts per 36 minutes) has fortified the rotation, and the return of Chris Paul should bolster Thompson's reserve unit. Then, there's Curry, still in his prime, the ultimate answer to the longest of shots.

13. New Orleans Pelicans (35-24, 5th in West)

Stretch run: Avoiding two must-win games is enough on its own to give New Orleans a better chance at the title than the two dudes who have won eight of the league's last 13 rings, and the Pelicans are on pace to do them one better, avoiding the play-in tournament altogether. They are deep and talented and maybe the most under-the-radar contender around. When's the last time we had a positive Pelicans conversation?

Maybe it's because they're so inconsistent, and they play to their level of competition. Maybe it's because we rarely see them fully formed, and when we do, there's still some figuring out to do. Zion Williamson, Brandon Ingram, CJ McCollum, Jonas Valančiūnas and Herb Jones are a lot to cover. Trey Murphy III and Dyson Daniels bring youthful energy off the bench. If they all figure it out in their final 23 games, good lord.

The Pelicans are leaning harder into Point Zion, and he appears capable of carrying the load, averaging a 27-6-7 on 55.2% shooting from the field per 36 minutes over the last dozen games. Crank his usage even higher in the playoffs, and New Orleans could have an All-NBA-level talent at the helm of a stacked rotation, partnered with an underrated Ingram, who posted an efficient 27-6-6 when last we saw him in the playoffs.

12. Philadelphia 76ers (33-25, 6th in East)

11. Miami Heat (33-25, 5th in East)

Stretch run: There are caveats to the contender candidacies of Miami and Philadelphia.

It is obvious for the 76ers, who need a healthy Joel Embiid to have any chance. He is three weeks removed from a second surgery on the meniscus in his left knee, and who knows what shape he will be in come the end of the regular season? Philadelphia is 4-8 with a dreadful -8.8 net rating and falling fast since Embiid suffered the injury. One loss stands between the Sixers and the play-in tournament. What was a promising response to last year's disappointing end could be over before the playoffs begin. Welcome to Philadelphia.

All the Heat have to do is replicate one of the most improbable playoff runs in league history — possibly as an eighth seed again. Even that ended in an overmatched five-game Finals loss to the Denver Nuggets. The Heat are greater than the sum of their parts in the playoffs, and that adds up to a fiery underdog. But the chemistry isn't the same this season, and that'll make flipping another playoff switch all the more difficult.

For both teams, there is a lot of work to do in seven weeks. Embiid has been ill-prepared for the rigors of the playoffs when he isn't recovering from surgery, and anything less than 100% requires support he has not yet received, regardless of the roster. Tyrese Maxey's defense has kept his stardom from translating to the playoffs, and beyond him, the Sixers are a collection of role players with long histories of inconsistency.

Meanwhile, the Heat need Terry Rozier (13.2 points per game on 37.3% shooting in 11 appearances since joining the Heat) to emerge as a legit weapon, given concerns about the existing core over defensive holes (Tyler Herro), floor-spacing limitations (Bam Adebayo) and ever-mounting injuries (Jimmy Butler's right leg).

NBA Stretch Run Power Rankings
(Taylar Sievert/Yahoo Sports Illustration)

10. Dallas Mavericks (33-25, 8th in West)

Stretch run: The Mavericks have Luka Dončić, and that is enough to frighten any playoff opponent. An engaged Kyrie Irving is pretty scary himself. No one wants to see them in a play-in game or the first round.

But there's a difference between striking fear into an early opponent and remaining terrifying into June. Their best chance depends heavily on how quickly they can incorporate trade additions P.J. Washington and Daniel Gafford, a pair of unproven playoff performers. The rotation is full of question marks about who will dependably meet the moment, from Dereck Lively II to Josh Green, Derrick Jones Jr. and Dante Exum.

We have seen Dončić carry them two rounds before. Can he will them through four? Probably too much to ask. The Mavericks have 25 games for the rest of the roster to coalesce into a complementary force around their two stars. The early returns — a 4-2 record and a +7.7 net rating since Washington and Gafford arrived — are encouraging, but the playoffs are a different beast, especially in the West, where every series is a bear.

9. Cleveland Cavaliers (38-19, 2nd in East)

8. New York Knicks (35-24, 4th in East)

Stretch run: If the Cavaliers and Knicks meet again in the playoffs — something Cleveland may not want to experience again — it will likely be after the first round, since they could (somewhat surprisingly) secure the East's second and third seeds. Both teams have succeeded to this degree in the face of tough injury luck.

At full strength, the Cavaliers still have concerns about the offensive fit between Evan Mobley and Jarrett Allen (and, to a lesser degree, Donovan Mitchell and Darius Garland), which contributed to their five-game loss to the Knicks in the opening round of last year's playoffs. The addition of playoff battle-tested veteran Max Strus should help their spacing, but they are still scoring at a bottom-six level when Mobley and Allen share the court, and that is serious cause for concern when you're looking up at the Celtics and Bucks.

First, Cleveland might have to get through New York again, and the Knicks at full strength are stronger this season than last. Jalen Brunson has transformed into an All-NBA guard, and the trade acquisition of OG Anunoby tied together a brutish rotation on both ends. Short-term injuries to Julius Randle and Anunoby derailed a steamroller, but if they get healthy enough to play as they did upon Anunoby's arrival (+25.3 points per 100 possessions in his minutes!), they can scrap their way to the conference finals and beyond.

7. Phoenix Suns (34-24, 6th in West)

Stretch run: While peers in L.A. and Golden State are coming to terms with Father Time's impact on their title odds, Kevin Durant has Devin Booker and Bradley Beal at his side, and he needs little else but health.

When those three share the court, a more frequent occurrence before Beal suffered another nagging injury, the Suns have outscored opponents by 12 points per 100 meaningful possessions, per Cleaning the Glass. Grayson Allen and Eric Gordon space the floor for them, combining to shoot 43.4% on 11.6 attempts from 3 per game, and the addition of Royce O'Neale provides a defensive-minded option.

It seems as if the Suns are half a player short — a little more defense from Allen or Gordon, more reliable shooting from Josh Okogie, a backup center upgrade from Drew Eubanks, the idealized version of Bol Bol. Something. It also doesn't feel great that they are so reliant on Jusuf Nurkić, who will soon surpass the most games he has played in any of his four previous seasons. Then again, all could go right in Phoenix. Durant, Booker and Beal could get hot for a series or four, and the supporting cast won't matter so much.

6. Minnesota Timberwolves (41-17, 1st in West)

Stretch run: It would feel silly to slot the Western Conference's top-seeded team sixth on this list if not for concerns about how Minnesota's offense will close games in the playoffs. The Timberwolves own a -8.2 net rating in clutch situations (score within five in the final five minutes) — 22nd in the league — and they are the only one of the 16 teams with a negative net rating in those games to have a winning record (14-10).

Such is the benefit of the NBA's best defense. This cannot be ignored, either. Rudy Gobert is the favorite to win another Defensive Player of the Year award, and two of his teammates — Anthony Edwards and Jaden McDaniels — could challenge him in that respect at their best. Still, a 107.3 offensive rating at the end of close games — equivalent to the Memphis Grizzlies' league-worst output this season — could haunt them in the playoffs, as series go longer, games get tighter, and the frequency of both increases as you survive.

There is also the possibility that Edwards, a 22-year-old in the mold of ... (whispers) ... Michael Jordan, fully realizes his offensive arsenal in the most pressure-packed moments. It may be early for him but inevitable.

5. Milwaukee Bucks (38-21, 3rd in East)

Stretch run: It's the defense that should concern the Bucks. They are bad at it. This should come as little surprise, since they swapped Jrue Holiday for Damian Lillard and paired him at guard with Malik Beasley. Seeing this coming makes it no less concerning come playoff time. Khris Middleton isn't exactly a reliable defensive stopper any longer. Giannis Antetokounmpo and a 36-year-old Brook Lopez only mask so much.

They are trending in the right direction, rating fourth on defense in six games since replacing Adrian Griffin on the bench with Doc Rivers, albeit against light competition. They have 23 games to prove that's no fluke.

Bottom line: Milwaukee boasts Antetokounmpo, the best (healthy) player in the Eastern Conference, a title winner and a problem. He can push anyone to the brink. In order to push everyone, though, he needs Lillard at the peak of his powers. Lillard is shooting 42.5% from the field and 34.4% from 3, his worst marks in any healthy campaign for at least nine seasons, and he's worse in the clutch. Blame his evolving chemistry with Antetokounmpo. Blame the emotionally difficult transition. Blame his age. They still need him at his best.

4. Los Angeles Clippers (37-19, 4th in West)

Stretch run: I'll believe Kawhi Leonard, Paul George and James Harden can survive four drama-free rounds of the playoffs when I see it, but from what we've seen this regular season, they sure look like contenders.

The Clippers are +11.4 points per 100 possessions with their three best players on the court, and they can field any lineup combination around them, featuring wings Terance Mann, Norman Powell and Amir Coffey and bigs Ivica Zubac, Mason Plumlee and Daniel Theis. (Please don't pair Harden and Russell Westbrook.)

We are witnessing everything we imagined when Leonard and George united four years ago, only with Harden and Westbrook as their 48 minutes of point guard. Knock on wood every time they take the floor, because a foundation of these four superstars and the history of the Clippers will forever be on a fault line.

Oklahoma City Thunder guard Shai Gilgeous-Alexander (2) drives against Los Angeles Clippers guard James Harden (1) during the first half of an NBA basketball game, Thursday, Feb. 22, 2024, in Oklahoma City. (AP Photo/Nate Billings)
Shai Gilgeous-Alexander and the Thunder could make some noise in the playoffs. (AP Photo/Nate Billings)

3. Oklahoma City Thunder (41-17, 2nd in West)

Stretch run: Don't let their youth fool you.

Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, Jalen Williams and Chet Holmgren may not be Durant, Westbrook and Harden of old, but they could eventually make more playoff noise, just because of how well they fit together. Gilgeous-Alexander gets wherever he wants, herky-jerks you to death, draws a foul and gives a wild shot a chance to go in. Every damn time. Williams was somehow good on both sides of the ball from the jump and improves nightly. Holmgren is a shot-blocking and rim-running force shooting 40.1% on 4.3 attempts from 3 a game.

Let's stay on Holmgren for a second. He's averaging a 17-8-3 on 54/40/78 shooting splits as a rookie. That's basically the equivalent of Year 2 Dirk Nowitzki (18-7-3 on 46/38/83 splits) — with top-flight defense.

There can be no concerns about Gilgeous-Alexander, whose workmanlike dominance should translate to the playoffs, as it did in the FIBA World Cup. Sooner or later, Williams, Holmgren and the Thunder's other rising contributors will meet Gilgeous-Alexander at the highest of levels. So, I wonder: Could it be sooner?

2. Denver Nuggets (39-19, 3rd in West)

Stretch run: The defending champions have given us no reason to believe they cannot repeat. Sure, the losses of Bruce Brown and Jeff Green revealed some unease about their depth, but the chasm between them and their replacements is not so wide as the gap between Denver and the playoff field last season.

Nikola Jokić is still the best player alive, averaging a 27-17-15 in three games since the All-Star break. Jamal Murray still joins him in the most lethal two-man combination there is. The starting lineup of Jokić, Murray, Aaron Gordon, Michael Porter Jr. and Kentavious Caldwell-Pope is still the NBA's best, outscoring opponents by 14.1 points per 100 possessions in more minutes than any team's top five-man unit.

All that remains is prepping first- and second-year players Julian Strawther and Peyton Watson for the playoffs, and even that might not make a lick of difference, because Jokić is that much of a monster.

1. Boston Celtics (46-12, 1st in East)

Stretch run: The Celtics just keep on rolling, holding a 7 1/2-game lead in the East and a five-game edge over the entire league, and they have one of the easiest schedules remaining. Hello, home-court advantage.

There are still concerns about their pension for being bullied and folding under the brightest of lights, even as they outscored opponents by 23.4 points per 100 possessions in the clutch, but the unselfish infusion of Kristaps Porziņģis and Jrue Holiday has helped assuage that angst. They might just be too talented to fail.

Holiday and Derrick White are as lethal a two-way guard combination as there is. Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown are the NBA's best wing combination. Porzingis is among the game's best floor-spacing rim protectors, and Al Horford is among the most underrated. Payton Pritchard, Sam Hauser, Xavier Tillman and Luke Kornet may be afterthoughts, but they all make you think when three or four stars surround them.

And we have to recognize just how good Tatum has become. There are very few superstars operating as he is, working inside of a stacked six-man rotation, finding his spots for a nightly 27-9-5 on better than 60% true shooting. He basically has the option to decide when to take over a game and does it for stretches. We're waiting for him to do it more consistently in the playoffs and remembering he will turn 26 next week.