We've been talking a lot about worst-case scenarios over the past week in the NBA.
What's the worst-case scenario for LeBron James' Los Angeles Lakers -- that they continue to show no sense of urgency, as LeBron recently put it, and besmirch LeBron's legacy by missing the playoffs altogether?
What's the worst-case scenario for the Philadelphia 76ers -- that Joel Embiid's tender knee turns out to be something more than just soreness or tendinitis, and the 76ers' all-out push this season ends with them as the clear No. 4 out of the top four teams in the East, and a second-round playoff bust?
What's the worst-case scenario for the Golden State Warriors -- that this ridiculous starting five doesn't quite jell, and they end up losing a whole six games in the playoffs en route to winning their third title in a row anyway?
That's the theme of this week's Power Rankings: What's the worst-case scenario for the rest of the season for each team in the NBA?
I'm talking realistic worst-case scenarios. I don't mean, like, "Hey, LeBron and Brandon Ingram tore their ACLs on the same play, this team is done!" type of worst-case scenario. Freakish injuries aren't part of this equation …but lingering injuries, or players with long injury histories -- i.e., Joel Embiid -- can be.
Here are this week's Power Rankings:
|Worst-case scenario: The 3-point shooting leaves the Bucks in the second round of the Eastern Conference finals, and they lose to the Boston Celtics. Any way you cut it, two of the top four teams in the East will lose in the second round of the playoffs. It'll be a tough slog for any of these teams to make the Eastern Conference finals. Only the Rockets take a higher percentage of their shots from 3-point land than the Bucks; 41.6 percent of their 3-point attempts are from three. What if they pull a Rockets during the playoffs and miss 27 3s in a row?||1||13-5|
|Worst-case scenario: That this All-Star starting five can't quite look as good on a basketball court as they do on paper. As ESPN pointed out the other day, the Warriors' starting five -- Stephen Curry, Kevin Durant, Klay Thompson, Draymond Green and DeMarcus Cousins -- have been outscored by one point this season. Small sample size, certainly. But the Warriors have not hit their stride yet this season (maybe because we think "their stride" is, well, to never lose). The worst-case scenario, I think, is for the Warriors to never jell, to struggle more than we'd expect in the Western Conference finals, and then to lose in six or seven games in the Finals to either the Toronto Raptors or Milwaukee Bucks.||1||8-10|
|Worst-case scenario: It turns out the Marc Gasol trade doesn't work out as well as hoped, and the Raptors can't quite find an identity post-Gasol. (This worst-case scenario, by the way, is the exact opposite of what I expect will happen.) Kawhi Leonard doesn't find another gear, Nick Nurse shows his lack of coaching experience and the Raptors get handled in the second round of the playoffs.||--||8-10|
|Worst-case scenario: Experience matters, and the lack of experience from the second-youngest team in the NBA means the lights of the playoffs shine a little too bright ... and they lose in shocking fashion in the first round, to none other than LeBron and the Lakers. If that happens, Nuggets fans will be upset, sure -- but they shouldn't fret too much. The future still is bright.||2||12-6|
|Worst-case scenario: Joel Embiid's injury is a little more concerning than it's originally painted. The 76ers' all-in gamble on this season ends in the second round of the playoffs -- and a second-round out means Jimmy Butler and Tobias Harris head elsewhere in the offseason. The speeding up of The Process ends up ruining The Process.||1||12-5|
|Worst-case scenario: Paul George's heroism hits its limit. I asked a bunch of people at All-Star Weekend who the second-best team in the West is, and the answer I heard more often than not was the Thunder ... because they play hard, they're tied together and they play defense. But they rely a lot on Paul George. And Russell Westbrook is having the least efficient season of his career since his second season in the NBA. If PG13 has a few less-than-stellar games, the Thunder don't even make it out of the first round, which would be a brutal scenario for a team trending in the right direction.||1||11-6|
|Worst-case scenario: The chemistry issues that have bubbled below the surface all season turn out to be all too real in the playoffs, and the Celtics come apart at the seams in the second round. This is a big-time problem for this season, but worse is what it means for next season, when Kyrie Irving leaves in free agency. Danny Ainge's best-laid plans go astray.||--||14-4|
|Worst-case scenario: Not only do the Blazers get knocked out in the first round, they do so in a way that exposes this team as far too reliant on Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum. The noise that's been in the background of every Blazers failure the past few years -- that this team has a distinct ceiling with this star backcourt -- becomes overwhelming. The late-season moves (acquiring Rodney Hood, signing Enes Kanter) turned out to be solid moves, but not nearly enough for what this team needed.||2||5-12|
|Worst-case scenario: They are what they revealed themselves to be all season: a past-their-prime group that's criminally dependent on James Harden's scoring. With defense that's been typically awful all season, the Rockets get knocked out in the first round in what feels like a desperate performance, with the reliance on Harden and 3-pointers reaching nearly insane levels.||--||8-7|
|Worst-case scenario: Not getting Mike Conley at the trade deadline comes back to haunt the Jazz, as what some would presume to be a favorable first-round matchup with the Thunder turns out to be a matchup that exposes the Jazz's lack of playmakers. Donovan Mitchell isn't able to shoulder as much of a load as he is capable of with Paul George locking him down, and the Jazz get swept.||2||6-11|
|Worst-case scenario: The foundation crumbles. After losing Victor Oladipo, you couldn't have truly expected this team -- dominant defense and all -- to continue as a top-four team in the East, could you? They stumble through rest of the regular season, dipping all the way to seventh in the East, and get swept in the first round.||--||9-7|
|Worst-case scenario: Missing the playoffs isn't the worst-case scenario for this team. I believe this team will make the playoffs, but if they do miss the cut, it'd still be an incredibly surprising, successful season with a great young core. But if the Kings miss the playoffs in an uninspiring way -- if De'Aaron Fox loses his 3-point touch, if Marvin Bagley's incredible first-year development stalls, if Harrison Barnes turns out to just not fit -- an inspiring season would feel a little bit less than that.||1||10-6|
|Worst-case scenario: Well, the Spurs are in the middle of their worst-case scenario right now, actually. They're nearing the end of their annual Rodeo Road Trip, and things have not gone so well. They're 1-6 on the road trip so far, including Sunday night's loss at the Knicks (yikes). The Rodeo Road Trip might cost the Spurs their season. They could miss the playoffs for the first time since the 1996-97 season. Context: That was Allen Iverson's rookie season.||1||3-14|
|Worst-case scenario: That the Nets miss the playoffs would be a worst-case scenario, considering they are currently three games up in the playoff race. But a worse case would be that they can't quite figure what to do with All-Star D'Angelo Russell. Can he, Spencer Dinwiddie and Caris LeVert all really coexist for the long term on a winning team? That's to be determined. But even if the Nets miss the playoffs, this team's future looks bright.||1||9-8|
|Worst-case scenario: LeBron James and his Lakers never jive. The young core is blamed for LeBron missing the playoffs for the first time since his second season in the NBA, and the Lakers' offseason is fraught with drama -- with Luke Walton's uncertain job status, with failures netting another superstar in free agency, with Anthony Davis trades never materializing. The worst-case scenario is pretty simple: LeBron's chance at winning another title appears to dwindle to very, very little.||1||10-8|
|Worst-case scenario: The Clippers worst case is, strangely, that they make the playoffs ... that they sneak in as the eight-seed, get embarrassed in a first-round sweep by the Warriors, and lose their first-round pick to the Boston Celtics.||--||7-9|
|Worst-case scenario: The Magic just miss the playoffs, and the hope that Nikola Vucevic can take them further than that ends up making them give him a massively overpaid contract. The Magic have some nice pieces, but do they all fit together? It feels like they don't. Jonathan Isaac has shown us this month why he was considered such a hot prospect in the 2017 draft. When Isaac scores 15 or more in a game, the Magic are 5-0 in February.||1||12-5|
|Worst-case scenario: That the Timberwolves never get any clarity on Ryan Saunders' ability as a head coach as the team gets dogged by injury after injury until the end of the season. Saunders is certainly a promising NBA head coach. He's a great relationship guy with players and a modern basketball mind. The Timberwolves are 9-10 since Saunders took over, which is actually pretty impressive, considering the rash of injuries. But how can you judge him as a coach until he actually can lead a full-strength team?||1||13-4|
|Worst-case scenario: The Hornets miss the playoffs, and Kemba Walker decides that heading elsewhere is the only path forward to actually having postseason success in his NBA career.||--||5-11|
|Worst-case scenario: Isn't the Heat's worst-case scenario pretty similar to their best-case scenario? Like, this is a well-coached, defense-focused team, and I can't imagine them falling out of the playoff race -- but I can't imagine them becoming anything close to a force to be reckoned with in the East, even with the return of Goran Dragic.||--||10-8|
|Worst-case scenario: That the Pistons waste the best season of Blake Griffin's career -- an absolute, and absolutely unlikely, renaissance as a complete basketball player -- by missing the playoffs entirely.||3||2-15|
|Worst-case scenario: Anthony Davis gets hurt. I know I said this wasn't an injury thing, but with the Pelicans and Anthony Davis -- a player who has had a boatload of injuries over his career -- it's different. They're playing him fewer minutes to protect his health. But Davis' value as an asset is the only thing that matters for the Pelicans. If he gets hurt -- if he gets hurt in a way that hurts his value as an asset -- the Pelicans' future heads to the tank.||--||9-9|
|Worst-case scenario: The Mavericks could lose the final 23 games of their season, and as long as Luka Doncic keeps doing Luka Doncic things, I'm not sure I'd feeling anything other than really, really optimistic about the future of this team. In fact, if they lose their final 23 games, I might feel more optimistic -- because that would give them a better chance of getting a top-five pick, and if their pick falls in the top five in 2019, that means they get to keep it instead of sending it to Atlanta.||2||11-6|
|Worst-case scenario: That this team gets so bad -- so bad -- that Bradley Beal gets an itchy trigger finger and pulls an Anthony Davis, asking for a trade a year before the final season of his contract.||1||3-14|
|Worst-case scenario: That's an easy one. The Hawks and the Mavericks both go on unlikely late-season tears that have them on the cusp of the playoffs with a week left. But the Hawks just miss the playoffs in the East, and the Mavericks get the eight-seed in the West. That, of course, would mean the Hawks' Luka Doncic trade, which has the potential to give them two mid- to high-lottery picks in 2019, only netted them a late-lottery pick and, say, the 15th or 16th pick.||1||8-9|
|Worst-case scenario: I think the Grizzlies are in the middle of their worst-case scenario, aren't they? They start the season in promising fashion ... then their lack of offensive talent catches up with them ... then they trade away Marc Gasol for fewer young assets than they could have gotten while being unable to trade Mike Conley ... then they're bad enough to be bad, but not bad enough to be the worst, and end up with the sixth pick in a draft that has five (at best) great prospects at the top.||1||3-13|
|Worst-case scenario: Hey, Otto Porter has been pretty great in his short time with the Bulls, averaging 17.8 points per game on 51.9 percent 3-point shooting. But what if that's not enough to justify his massive contract for a team that's looking for an identity? Obviously, the rest of the Bulls season only matters for development of youngsters and draft position. Can Porter fit in on a young team with Lauri Markkanen, Wendell Carter Jr., Zach LaVine and Kris Dunn? Who is the alpha dog in that group? What if there isn't one?||--||5-14|
|Worst-case scenario: That Kevin Love makes this team just good enough to worsen its lottery odds -- and lessen the chance of getting a top-notch pick in this extremely shallow draft.||1||10-8|
|Worst-case scenario: Nothing that can happen during this season can qualify as a worst-case scenario for the Knicks. There are only two things that matters for these Knicks: Whether they win the Zion Williamson lottery, and whether they clean up in the free agent market.||1||10-7|
|Worst-case scenario: That the losing -- an NBA-high 17 losses in a row -- breeds a culture of losing that this team's interesting, potential-filled young core can't shake. Deandre Ayton swears the Suns will be a playoff team within two or three years. I'm not sure he's wrong ... but losing can get in a franchise's blood sometimes.||2||11-6|