NBA Power Rankings: Bucks hold top spot, Warriors fall behind Raptors, Lakers plummet amid season marked as failure
Not every team is playoff bound, but that doesn't mean some of the worst franchises haven't found some success this season
It's March Madness time, when the basketball universe shifts its primary focus from the NBA game to the collegiate game. The NCAA Tournament is a beautiful, beautiful beast -- a five-month season where each of the 353 collegiate teams' primary objective is to either make the Field of 68 or give itself as good of a seed as possible, then three frenetic weeks to crown a national champion. The single-elimination nature of the NCAA Tournament makes it as exciting as it often is unfair. Last season, Virginia was consistently the best team in the nation for five months, but its season will always be remembered as one of the biggest failures in basketball memory because it became the first one-seed to lose to a 16-seed. In college basketball, a successful season can become an utter failure over the span of 40 minutes.
In the NBA, the runway is much longer, and the definition of success or failure is more nuanced. It requires more context. Look at last season. The Cleveland Cavaliers may have gotten swept in the NBA Finals, but you can't look at that season for LeBron James -- and how he dragged a ragtag group to the Finals with one of the most impressive playoff performances in memory -- and see anything other than a success. The Dallas Mavericks' miserable season last year will be remembered as a success, too, because their misery led them to get the third pick in the 2018 draft, which became a potential future MVP in Luka Doncic.
The theme of this week's Power Rankings is whether this season will be remembered as a success or a failure for each of the 30 NBA teams -- and what will it take over the remainder of the season to change that.
I don't have to tell you the Los Angeles Lakers -- who announced this week that LeBron will see limited minutes going forward and that both Brandon Ingram and Lonzo Ball will be missing the remainder of the season -- and the New Orleans Pelicans are two of the most massive failures in the NBA this season. But two other teams that will likely miss the playoffs -- Buddy Hield and the Sacramento Kings and Trae Young and the Atlanta Hawks -- are pretty good success stories. Context matters. So does hope for the future.
Here are this week's NBA Power Rankings:
|1||Bucks||For a team that was projected to be in that second tier of the Eastern Conference, this season is already a massive, massive success. They've outperformed every expectation put on them. Mike Budenholzer found the perfect roster and style of play to unlock Giannis Antetokounmpo as a legit MVP candidate instead of just a theoretical one. Not reaching the NBA Finals would be a disappointment, but this isn't a one-shot team. These Bucks have a shot at being one of the NBA's very best teams for the foreseeable future. If you're a Bucks fan, making the Eastern Conference finals should leave you coming out of this season considering it a success. What if the Bucks lose in the second round of the playoffs to, say, the Boston Celtics, an underachieving team with loads more playoff experience than them? It would be a massive disappointment, but on the whole -- assuming the Bucks don't get run over in a four-game series -- I think you'd still call this season a success.||--||52-18|
|2||Raptors||Masai Ujiri changed the Raptors' definition of success in the offseason when he went for it and traded for Kawhi Leonard. Now everything rides on this season. In an East that looks incredibly stacked at the top, for the Raptors to consider this season a success, they have to either make the Finals or play in a hotly contested, six- or seven-game Eastern Conference finals. Basically, give Kawhi as much incentive as you can to return to Toronto. If the Raptors accomplish that and he still leaves, they will have done absolutely everything they could.||1||50-21|
|3||Warriors||The definition of success is pretty simple for the Warriors: Win the title and continue perhaps the greatest dynasty in the history of the NBA. Anything short of that will be a failure. It's not fair -- but the feeling of destiny around the Warriors is the sort of unfairness that comes with all-time greatness. Yeah, I know they'll probably win it all -- but doesn't this year's version of the Warriors feel like the most vulnerable version of the Warriors? I'm not just saying that because they lost at home Sunday to the damn Phoenix Suns. It's what they have been showing us all season. Maybe they're just bored. But that feels like a weak explanation.||1||47-22|
|4||Rockets||The hottest team in the NBA (eight wins in a row after Sunday's nail-biter in Dallas) was heading toward an injury-marred, hugely disappointing failure of a season just a couple months back. But with the Rockets now making a serious run at the 2-seed, this season could end up as a repeat of last season, with the Rockets meeting the Warriors in the Western Conference finals. Anything short of making the conference finals, though, will be a failure for this team. Chris Paul ain't getting any younger.||3||44-26|
|5||Nuggets||The Nuggets are in the midst of one of their roughest patches of the season, losing four of their past five games. (An upcoming three-game homestand against middling teams at the toughest home court in the NBA ought to solve that.) With 17 games left, it's entirely possible the Nuggets could lose the 3-seed to the red-hot Rockets, who are nipping at their heels. What if the Nuggets slide down the regular-season standings? What if the Nuggets lose in a first-round playoff series as the favored team? It doesn't matter. This season is still an unambiguous success for a team that has battled through injuries to be a dominant force in the West all year. Add to that the fact that this team is so young, and will get only better in the years to come, and any playoff success will just be gravy.||1||47-22|
|6||Trail Blazers||I get how Blazers fans might get a little bit restless. It does feel that they're stuck in the same very-good-but-never-to-be-confused-with-great territory they've been stuck in through the Damian Lillard/CJ McCollum era. But this team is relevant. They're the type of team who can beat anyone in the NBA on a given night. The only way this season can be considered a failure for the Blazers is if they go out and lay an egg in the first round of the playoffs like they did a year ago. But this team feels ... different.||1||42-27|
|7||76ers||A huge win over the Indiana Pacers on Sunday leaves the 76ers tied for third in the East. That's enormous, because sticking in fourth place in the East could mean the potential for failure this season could become very real for the Sixers, if they were forced to face their arch nemesis, the Boston Celtics, in a first-round series. Perhaps more than any team in the NBA, the determination of success or failure for the 76ers requires context. This team could absolutely make the Finals. A trip to the Eastern Conference finals would have to be considered a massive success, too. But anything short of that and there will be lots of questions being asked in Philly, after the new front office sped up The Process to go for it this season with two unrestricted free agents, Jimmy Butler and Tobias Harris. An early out in the playoffs will be hugely disappointing, for sure, but it will only become a massive failure if Butler or Harris -- or both -- leave in the offseason.||1||45-25|
|8||Celtics||This season has been a drama-filled disappointment for the Celtics for most of the year -- and yet would anyone really be surprised if they ended up making a run to the Finals? Anything short of making the Eastern Conference finals -- of playing in another competitive and exciting Eastern Conference finals -- would be a failure for this deep and talented team.||2||43-28|
|9||Thunder||I feel confident in already calling this season a success for a Thunder team that's seen Paul George emerge as one of the best players in the NBA, and that's seen continued development from rotation pieces like Jerami Grant and Terrance Ferguson. Sure, losing a first-round series for the third year in a row would be a huge bummer, and plenty of Thunder fans would feel like that would be a failure. But this Thunder team has at least surpassed my expectations this year.||1||42-29|
|10||Jazz||This is a tough call. The Jazz were the surprise team of the NBA during the second half of last season and then in the playoffs, when they upset the Thunder. They have withstood a rough first couple months of this season to be where we expected them to be: right in the mix in the West. For a young team, they certainly want to at least make the second round of the playoffs to consider this season a success.||1||41-29|
|11||Pacers||We can make the call right now: This season is already a massive, massive success for the Pacers, considering they've continued to be in the mix in the East even after losing star player Victor Oladipo for the year. Nate McMillan may be my Coach of the Year when all is said and done, and Myles Turner is justifying that big contract and then some by becoming a legit Defensive Player of the Year candidate.||--||44-26|
|12||Spurs||It looks like the Spurs are going to continue their streak of making the playoffs. This would be the Spurs' 22nd year in a row of being a playoff team -- which would tie the NBA record. Considering how bad these Spurs looked a month or two into the season, and considering how bad their defense has been -- it's the worst Gregg Popovich defense since 1996-97, the year that David Robinson was injured and the Spurs tanked -- just making the playoffs is a massive success for this franchise. Especially considering that they lost starting point guard Dejounte Murray to an ACL tear shortly before the season started.||--||42-29|
|13||Clippers||We're already there, folks. I'm not sure if you could have envisioned a more successful season for this Clippers squad. They're almost certainly going to make the playoffs, despite trading away their best player at the trade deadline in Tobias Harris. Doc Rivers should be mentioned in conversations for Coach of the Year. Montrezl Harrell has morphed into something resembling a star, and the front office performed a magic trick by flipping a player on an expiring contract (Harris) into some incredibly valuable assets (Landry Shamet, who has been lights-out since joining the Clippers, and two first-round picks, including the incredibly valuable unprotected 2021 first-rounder from the Miami Heat). Bravo. Nobody saw this team coming.||--||41-30|
|14||Pistons||Making the playoffs is, I guess, a success for the Pistons. But man: What a low bar that is in the East, especially when you are led by a star in Blake Griffin, who has reinvented himself in the middle of his career as a different type of All-Star. The Pistons are hot, having won five in a row, but how many people see a realistic scenario when they'd be able to beat one of the top four teams in the East in a seven-game series? This team needs better point guard play more than any team in the NBA.||1||36-34|
|15||Nets||Three wins in a row for a Nets team that's been up and down all season. Considering the way that this team has rebuilt things -- slowly, patiently, often by rehabilitating players off the scrap heap -- it's a huge success that they've made it this far. The future is relatively bright in Brooklyn -- now let's see if they can add a star to the mix in free agency.||1||36-36|
|16||Kings||It looks like the Kings will likely miss the playoffs, but how can you look at this season as anything other than a huge success in Sacramento? Despite having some of the lowest team expectations in the NBA at the beginning of the season, the Kings are proving to have one of the NBA's top young cores. De'Aaron Fox looks like a star in the making. Buddy Hield looks like the guy Vivek Ranadive wanted when he got him in the Boogie Cousins trade. Marvin Bagley has come on in a major way after taking a while to adapt to NBA play at the beginning of the year. Bogdan Bogdanovic is an assassin. Buy stock in this team for the future. When they make the playoffs next season, you'll be able to look at the blueprint being drawn up during this season.||2||34-35|
|17||Magic||A playoff appearance for the Magic sure would be nice, and would, I believe, be the definition of success for a team with a bunch of young and developing talents and one talent (Nikola Vucevic) who has morphed into something resembling a superstar this season. The Magic took a very calculated gamble with Markelle Fultz at the trade deadline; if he's able to work out for the Magic next season, we could be talking about the 2019-20 Magic as one of the biggest success stories in the NBA.||1||33-38|
|18||Timberwolves||The moment Jimmy Butler's trade demand became public and ugly, the chance of this season being anything less than a failure became impossible for the Wolves. The rash of injuries made it even worse. There have been plenty of small success stories within this failure -- Karl-Anthony Towns' development, Josh Okogie's emergence, Ryan Saunders injecting positive energy into the franchise -- but I can assure you that Wolves fans are not coming out of this season feeling good about their team.||1||32-38|
|19||Hornets||Kemba Walker has been a massive success story this season, obviously. But the lack of help around him doomed the Hornets from the start. It's a shame, really, for Walker's brilliance to go to waste in what could be another missed playoffs.||1||31-38|
|20||Pelicans||Thank goodness for the Lakers, or else the Pelicans would be considered the biggest failure of this NBA season. In a way, that's more of a Lifetime Achievement Award. The Pelicans have been wracked with injuries, so part of their failure is excused. But the fact that they have so wasted these prime years of Anthony Davis' career that he demanded a trade 1 1/2 years out from free agency is a marker of utter organizational failure.||1||30-42|
|21||Heat||The Heat are fine! They have a good shot at making the playoffs. But how can you term that a success? I know that Goran Dragic's injury was a setback. But would this team have been that much better with him on the floor?||1||34-36|
|22||Lakers||The book is closed on LeBron's first season as a Laker, and it's the biggest failure of his career -- yes, even bigger than losing to the Dallas Mavericks in his first season with the Miami Heat. Of course it's not all LeBron's fault. The majority of the blame ought to go to the front office, who constructed an oddball roster to fit around LeBron. But the Lakers are the biggest failure in the NBA this season, bar none. There have certainly been small successes -- namely, the development of Brandon Ingram over the past couple months until he was recently sidelined for the remainder of the season with a blood clot in his shoulder -- but there will be lots of soul-searching within this franchise in the offseason.||5||31-39|
|23||Mavericks||Call me crazy, but I believe this team, with the sixth-worst record in the NBA, has had an unambiguously successful season. They've handed the keys to the franchise to rookie Luka Doncic, and he's looked more than up to the task -- a future MVP candidate in the making. And then the massive trade for Kristaps Porzingis made the Mavericks potentially one of the most intriguing franchises in the NBA going forward. They gambled on an oft-injured unicorn to pair with Doncic, and they jettisoned a player in Dennis Smith Jr. whose fit with Doncic was questionable at best.||--||28-41|
|24||Wizards||This team's failure is set in stone -- not just for this season, but perhaps for many seasons to come. They were already a dumpster fire when John Wall tore his Achilles tendon, which will cause him to miss all of next season. Now the Wizards have what is likely the NBA's worst contract (Wall's four-year, $170 million contract extension that will begin next season) on their books until 2023.||--||30-41|
|25||Grizzlies||The Grizzlies have beaten three good teams in a row at home, and Mike Conley has been a beast. But I don't see any outcome where you can term this season a success. This team is clearly in need of a rebuild, and while Jaren Jackson Jr. could be a future star, this team should have started the rebuild a year ago. I get where you wanted to keep the team-player connection as long as possible with Marc Gasol and Mike Conley -- but that bond ultimately made this season a failure, and potentially the next season or two as well.||1||28-42|
|26||Hawks||Sure, the Hawks have one of the worst records in the NBA. But this season is an unambiguous success for the Hawks, especially if you're thinking long-term. John Collins and Trae Young have both shown flashes -- or, in Collins' case, more than just flashes -- that they are All-Stars in the making. Kevin Huerter has been the exact type of knockdown-shooting wing so valued in today's NBA. And they'll likely have two more shots to hit it big in the lottery. Buy stock in this team now.||1||24-47|
|27||Bulls||A team without a direction cannot be considered a success -- especially when too-optimistic Bulls fans going into the season were hoping for a playoff berth. There's some optimism for the future here with Lauri Markkanen, Wendell Carter Jr., Zach Lavine and Otto Porter Jr. But that optimism would really, really be helped by, say, Ja Morant in a Bulls uniform.||--||19-52|
|28||Suns||There are certainly bright spots on this team: Devin Booker, of course, and Deandre Ayton, and Mikal Bridges. The fact that they have gone 5-2 since ending their absurdly long losing streak could point to something good, including a stunning win over the Warriors at Oracle. One more young piece in the draft could have us talking next season about a Suns team on the rise. Zion Williamson sure would look interesting next to Ayton.||1||17-54|
|29||Cavaliers||At least they began the rebuild? Should have started it the moment LeBron left. But still.||1||18-53|
|30||Knicks||There have been plenty of small successes this season in New York. The development of youngster like Mitchell Robinson, Noah Vonleh and Kevin Knox is right at the top of that list. But the only way this season can even be construed as a success is for one of two things to happen: For the Knicks to land the top pick in the 2019 draft for its suffering, or for the freed-up cap space from the Kristaps Porzingis trade to successfully lure a star free-agent duo to Madison Square Garden. I mean, what superstar in their prime wouldn't want to play for James Dolan?||--||14-57|
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