It's April now, the month in which the NBA playoffs begin -- meaning everyone in the league is looking ahead now.
The big question for this week's NBA Power Rankings: Which one player for each team needs to step up during the playoffs?
And for the teams that aren't playoff bound, the question is: Which one player needs to have a great offseason so he makes a big jump in 2019-20?
For the Los Angeles Clippers, it's been an incredible story -- who, other than the guy you're reading right now, predicted this team to make the playoffs? More than any team in the NBA, the superstar-less Clippers' success has been a true team effort. If there's one player who has been key, it's Montrezl Harrell, who has capitalized on the enormous opportunity he's earned under Doc Rivers. Harrell will need to take that relentlessness to another level for the Clippers to pull off an improbable playoff run.
For the Miami Heat, presuming they do make the playoffs -- a big presumption, considering how tight the East is right now -- any playoff success will be predicated on a Dwyane Wade curtain call. I would not want to face the Heat in the first round. They're tough, they're physical, they're well-coached, and the idea of D-Wade turning back time for one final big-time moment is enough to make a one-seed or two-seed shudder.
As for the Portland Trail Blazers, Jusuf Nurkic's horrific leg injury this week was absolutely crushing. But I wouldn't be too quick to count the Blazers out as a team that could make the second round. Damian Lillard is an absolute assassin. He's made for the big moments.
Here are this week's Power Rankings:
|This is Giannis' team, obviously, but being Giannis' team is, in Mike Budenholzer's construction, predicated on the superstar being a facilitator. Which is why a deep Bucks run into the playoffs -- perhaps to the Finals -- will require Malcolm Brogdon returning to his pre-injury form. Brogdon had been killer this season before he became one of the many Bucks to fall to injury. It looks like a second-round return to action is the most likely scenario. Will he be in game shape in a tough series against potentially the Boston Celtics? Will his shot go down like it has all season? If so, the Bucks are coasting into the Eastern Conference finals. If not, it's trouble.||--||52-20|
|Three blowout wins in a row over two of the league's biggest dogs -- against the Knicks and Bulls (twice). Over the past two months, the Raptors have morphed into the elite defense that I had expected them to turn into when DeMar DeRozan was shipped off for Kawhi Leonard and Danny Green. Since Jan. 30, the Raptors rank second in the NBA in defensive efficiency. A healthy, out-for-blood Kawhi Leonard could put this team on his back all the way to the NBA Finals. Call me crazy, but I think Fred VanVleet's performance might be an even more accurate barometer of Toronto's success. Since his return from injury in March, VanVleet has averaged 14.4 points and 6.1 assists - compared to just 1.3 turnovers -- on 44.4 percent 3-point shooting.||--||35-38|
|Conventional wisdom will tell you that, as long as the Warriors are healthy, they're winning it all. And while that's certainly the most likely outcome, I'd caution against thinking it a guarantee. DeMarcus Cousins introduces an element that, for better or worse, the Warriors haven't dealt with yet during their dynastic run. Remember: The Warriors are 4.4 points per 100 possessions better when Boogie is off the floor. How long can they keep him on the floor in the playoffs?||--||38-36|
|If the Rockets are healthy, and if Chris Paul is the player he's been during the second half -- close to the All-Star point guard we are used to -- it feels like we're in line for a Warriors-Rockets rematch. As historic as James Harden's season has been, Paul is the key to the Rockets' playoff success. (Side note: Will Harden's season-long all-out effort catch up with him come playoff time?)||--||18-55|
|The 76ers are really, really good -- maybe great. I can't wait to see what this team looks like at full strength and in the playoffs. The starting five is absurd. To me the key has got to be Joel Embiid -- his efficiency, and more importantly, his health. The 76ers are 12.6 points per 100 possessions better when Embiid is on the floor compared to when he's off the floor, per NBA.com. That's a massive difference.||--||49-23|
|Um: A home loss to the Wizards, when you're trying to get the one-seed? Come on, guys. As good as the Nuggets have been this season -- and they have been AWESOME -- they've been underwhelming the past couple months. Since Feb. 3, the Nuggets have gone 14-11 with a net rating that 12th in the NBA, about the same as the Miami Heat. (It's been for opposite reasons for what you'd expect: Their defense has ranked seventh in the NBA in that span, and their offense has ranked 22nd.) Malik Beasley has been a revelation for the Nuggets this season, shooting upwards of 40 percent from three and averaging 11.3 points per game. I'm lukewarm at best at this team's playoff chances -- although home-court advantage throughout the Western Conference playoffs could do wonders with one of the toughest home courts in the game.||--||49-24|
|As expected, and as predicted in these Power Rankings as early as December, the Jazz are rolling through the second half of their season. They've won four in a row, and nine of their last 10. A slump by the post-Nurkic-injury Blazers combined with a nice finish to the season could gift the Jazz home-court advantage in the first round. The most important player in a playoff series for the Jazz is, of course, Donovan Mitchell. An efficient Mitchell can win the Jazz a playoff series, maybe two. An inefficient Mitchell who plays hero ball -- or who is forced into playing hero ball because of a lack of production from his teammates -- can get the Jazz knocked out in the first round.||3||35-37|
|As has been the case all season, any postseason success for the Clippers is dependent on playing as a team. This is one of the most tightly knit teams in the NBA. Doc Rivers' coaching job has been incredible. The one player who most personifies what this team does best -- try hard, and overachieve, and not care about their stats -- is Montrezl Harrell. He should be considered a candidate for both Sixth Man of the Year and Most Improved Player.||1||39-35|
|The Blazers are in a heated race with the Rockets for the three-seed. Conventional wisdom would tell you this team's chances at any sort of playoff run ended the moment Jusuf Nurkic broke his leg in Monday's win over the Nets. Much will depend on Enes Kanter, for better or for worse. But if the Blazers end up making it past the first round, or even to the Western Conference finals, odds are it'll be because Damian Lillard went supernova.||2||32-40|
|Hard to express just how impressed I've been with the Spurs' overachievement this season. I counted them out in December when they were 11-14 and with one of the NBA's worst defenses. Really smart of me, to count out a Gregg Popovich team halfway through the season. Winning a first-round playoff series could come down to minimizing DeMar DeRozan's defensive shortcomings. The Spurs are nearly four points per 100 possessions better when DeRozan is off the floor. That's not what you want from your star.||2||19-54|
|I just want these guys to get along. If they do, they could make the Finals -- heck, they could win it all. If they don't, it's entirely possible they could lose in the first round.||2||50-23|
|In a potential first-round matchup against the Boston Celtics, can Myles Turner win the battle of the big men? Turner has put in a Defensive Player of the Year-caliber season. He's been incredible. But can the Pacers really keep this going?||--||33-40|
|They suffered a home loss to the Mavericks -- woof -- who were missing both Luka Doncic and Tim Hardaway -- double woof. Nothing like getting your playoff seeding killed by Trey Burke. The Thunder continue their freefall. After going 6-13 in their last 19 games, the Thunder, who once seemed like the second-best team in the West, are in possession of the eight-seed. An MVP-level Paul George had the Thunder as the likely three-seed in the West, and perhaps the biggest challengers to the Warriors' dominance. Relying on a Paul George who has shot 32 percent from 3 since Feb. 23 in the playoffs means the Thunder will be going on vacation early.||2||36-37|
|Blake Griffin's All-Star renaissance has been incredible. But the Pistons rise or fall on the exploits of Reggie Jackson. In wins, Jackson has a plus-11.3 net rating, averaging 17.2 points and shooting 44 percent from 3. In losses, Jackson has a minus-11.2 net rating, averaging 13.5 points and shooting 30 percent from 3. Good Reggie could get the Pistons to the second round. Bad Reggie gets them swept.||--||16-57|
|All hail Nikola Vucevic: The Magic are, somehow, still on fire. Since Jan. 31, Steve Clifford's team is 18-8, with the NBA's best defensive rating, nearly two points per 100 possessions over the next-best team. Should they make the playoffs -- and it looks like it'll come down to the final week of the season -- the most important player is going to be Jonathan Isaac. Since Jan. 31, he's been wonderful on defense and competent on offense, averaging 12.2 points per game and shooting 36.2 percent from three.||2||31-43|
|D'Angelo Russell is amazing! Or ... is he? When he is on the court, the Nets are outscored by 0.1 points per 100 possessions. When he is off the court, the Nets outscore opponents by 0.2 points per 100 possessions.||1||39-34|
|A helluva improvement by the Kings this season. In the offseason, continued improvement and strength training from Marvin Bagley and De'Aaron Fox could lift the Kings to a sure-fire playoff team. I'm buying stock in these guys as much as I'm buying stock in any sub-.500 NBA team that isn't the Hawks or the Mavericks.||1||43-29|
|It feels like it's going to come down to the final game of the season for the Heat, Nets and Magic, competing for the final two playoffs spots and all within a game of each other. It would be pretty special for late-season heroics from Dwyane Wade to lift the Heat into the playoffs.||--||40-34|
|Let's keep this simple: The Timberwolves' future depends on Andrew Wiggins being able to make a jump this offseason. We've kept wondering if he'll ever show that fire to improve his body and change his game -- to rebound, to play defense, to improve his shot selection. It seems like most have given up on Wiggins even coming close to living up to his potential -- and to his massive contract -- he still has the physical gifts. If he can channel the disrespect that's constantly (and appropriately) thrown his way into a chip-on-shoulder offseason, then the Wolves' trajectory could change. I'm not holding my breath.||1||37-37|
|The Hornets feel out of the playoff race now. Right? Two losses in a row (one to the, ugh, Lakers) after winning four straight over some difficult competition (Raptors, Celtics, Spurs, Wolves). I can hardly see a scenario that they can do any damage in a first-round series anyway, unless Kemba Walker is able to channel his old NCAA Tournament self.||1||23-51|
|A 3-1 week when they're supposed to be tanking: OK, Lakers. Y'all can't do anything right. Not even tanking.||2||36-37|
|Who cares? Tank away, guys. I suppose the best offseason thing that could happen for the Pelicans is for Julius Randle to focus on hitting 3s at a higher rate and turn himself into his own version of Blake Griffin. But the Pelicans will remain in flux until Anthony Davis is traded.||1||36-37|
|Temperature: Refrigerator cold, but not freezer cold. The Wizards have lost four in a row, but three of those were by six points or fewer. They've actually been kinda-sorta OK since John Wall's injury: 17-22, with the NBA's eighth-rated offense. I'm admittedly looking for bright spots in what's been a pretty dark season.||1||32-41|
|Hey: Cool thing that the Grizzlies have done, continuing to compete well after we expected they were in the tank. But they're holding onto something that no longer exists. I worry that this team is going to keep holding on too long, and stunt Jaren Jackson's progress in the process.||--||45-27|
|I love this team. They're likely to have two lottery picks. This team could be the most exciting young team in the NBA next season, depending how the lottery goes.||1||36-37|
|The rape accusation against Kristaps Porzingis is both a very serious off-court deal and a very serious on-court deal. We'll see how it plays out. In the meantime, the Mavs' biggest offseason priority ought to be to get Luka Doncic into an NBA conditioning program. Improve that body and Doncic could be an MVP candidate sooner instead of later.||1||36-37|
|Just get healthy in the offseason. Don't do anything risky, guys. I'm really intrigued to see all these youngsters together and healthy.||--||34-38|
|There's plenty of talent here. It's amazing the shade that's cast in Devin Booker's direction, considering what he's accomplished in his young career, and considering the supporting cast around him. I just want the NBA's 29th-ranked defense to spend the offseason in the defensive classroom.||--||38-34|
|Maybe they'll get Zion?||--||47-28|
|Maybe they'll get Zion?||--||42-33|