NBA Power Rankings: Raptors finishing as East's top seed, concern for Rockets and other second-half predictions
The battle for East supremacy will be a fun one to watch. Will James Harden have tired legs for Houston come playoff time?
The 2018 NBA All-Star Game took place on Feb. 18, 2018 in Los Angeles. At that point of the season, the Utah Jazz were 30-28, sitting in 10th place in the crowded Western Conference. Their season had seemed inching toward becoming a lost cause just a few weeks before, when they lost to the lowly Atlanta Hawks and dipped to nine games below .500. However, an 11-game winning streak going into the All-Star break made them one of the hottest teams in the NBA. That streak would propel them toward a first-round playoff series win over the Oklahoma City Thunder in the most remarkable turnaround of that NBA season.
The 2017 NBA All-Star Game took place on Feb. 17, 2017 in New Orleans. At that point of the season, the Miami Heat were 25-32, sitting in 10th place in the Eastern Conference. Their season had seemed inching toward becoming a lost cause just a few weeks before, when they were sitting at 11-30 and looking lottery-bound. Then a 13-game winning streak before the All-Star break saved their season. After starting off the season 11-30, they ended their season by going 30-11, just missing the playoffs in the most remarkable turnaround of that NBA season.
Now that the 2019 NBA All-Star Game is past us, we can speculate on how the rest of this season will shake out. As much as we tend to think that the NBA hierarchy this NBA season is already set when we're past the halfway mark, that's often not true. A team can collapse, or a team can come out of nowhere. This week's Power Rankings will project -- OK, they will guess -- how the rest of the season will look in this league. Can Bradley Beal push the John Wall-less Washington Wizards into the playoffs in his new role as the unquestioned face of the team? Can Karl-Anthony Towns' Minnesota Timberwolves finally stay healthy for a sustained stretch and look like the rejuvenated team immediately following the Jimmy Butler trade? Can Myles Turner and the Indiana Pacers really keep up this pace as a top-five team -- they're currently in third, above the Boston Celtics and Philadelphia 76ers -- in the East after losing Victor Oladipo?
Here are this week's Power Rankings:
|1||Warriors||I'm waiting for the Warriors to rip off a 15-game winning streak. Who knows what will happen this offseason, but there's a very real chance we could be looking at the final season of perhaps the greatest NBA dynasty of all time -- as the Warriors core ages, or as they leave for other teams. Since Jan. 5, the Warriors are 16-2. Is it a bummer that the NBA Finals again feels like a foregone conclusion? I guess. But enjoy this team's greatness while you can because it won't last forever.||--||15-50|
|2||Bucks||Want to make the case that the Bucks are actually the best team in the NBA this season? You'd be wrong, but you wouldn't be crazy. Will the Bucks be able to sustain their pace of having the NBA's top net rating -- outscoring opponents by nearly 10 points per 100 possessions -- through the rest of the season? Nikola Mirotic should make this team even more lethal. Amazing what a new coach can do with some innovative offensive thinking.||--||53-12|
|3||Raptors||Bucks or Raptors? Who is the best in the East? Who knows? (Throw the Sixers and Celtics into the conversation if you want, but I believe the Raptors and the Bucks are a cut above.) I asked Bradley Beal over All-Star Weekend about what team he thinks has the best shot at beating the Warriors. He pinpointed the Raptors, and called the Marc Gasol trade the best (non-Wizards) deal of the trade deadline. He also predicted that the Warriors would not win another title. One other note: If you're betting on who will take first in the East, take the Raptors. They have the easiest remaining schedule in the NBA, per Tankathon.com.||--||46-18|
|4||76ers||I'm more fascinated by what the Sixers will become post-All-Star break than I am any other team. Tobias Harris is awesome. But incorporating a near-All-Star into a team that is already stacked with big stars like Joel Embiid, Ben Simmons and Jimmy Butler may not be as easy as it looks on paper. The top (non-Warriors) tier in the NBA consists of somewhere between six and nine teams: Toronto, Milwaukee, Philadelphia, Boston, Denver, Oklahoma City, and perhaps Houston, Utah and Portland. Of all those teams, I think the Sixers have the greatest variance in possibilities for how they end this season.||--||39-26|
|5||Thunder||I asked an NBA source over All-Star Weekend which team in the West he'd slot behind the Warriors. He picked the Thunder, saying there isn't a team in the NBA that plays harder. I worry, though, that we might see the Thunder -- currently in third place -- fall a bit in the West standings over the rest of the season with the NBA's most difficult remaining schedule, per Tankathon.com.||1||40-24|
|6||Nuggets||The Nuggets sit in second place in the West despite non-stop injuries over the first 57 games of their season. How good will a healthy version of the Nuggets be? Really, really good. People are underselling the Nuggets in the playoffs. Seriously: How many people would pick the Nuggets right now to make the conference Finals? But this team is so, so deep, with young legs and an utterly unique star in Nikola Jokic. I'm not picking them to go deep this year. But for the next five years, I'm not sure there's a team with more potential than these young guns.||1||43-22|
|7||Celtics||). Maybe a break and some time away from each other will prove to be just what the doctor ordered. As much as the narrative around the Celtics has been underachievement and locker room dysfunction, they still have the third-highest net rating in the NBA, behind only the Milwaukee Bucks and Golden State Warriors. Like the Sixers, the Celtics have the potential for a huge second half.||--||43-21|
|8||Jazz||Been telling you for months that the Jazz, who struggled for the first couple months of the season, would turn things around. And they have. Prediction: This team, which didn't make any big trade-deadline moves and currently sitting in sixth place, will keep improving, and end up hosting a first-round playoff series. They're only two games back from the fourth-place Trail Blazers, and they have the second-easiest remaining schedule in the NBA, per Tankathon.com.||--||41-23|
|9||Rockets||Clint Capela is scheduled to be back Feb. 21. They've gone 9-6 without him. But how sustainable is this all-time heater that James Harden's been on? Kobe's right: That's not how you win in the NBA, and certainly not how you win championships. My biggest worry for the Rockets is that all the effort Harden's had to put out with the Rockets' injuries and lack of depth could spell trouble for his tired legs in the playoffs. Also, I'm not sure a team that plays this bad on defense (25th in the NBA in defensive rating) can replicate its run to the cusp of the NBA Finals a year ago.||--||40-24|
|10||Trail Blazers||The Blazers got marginally better at -- and then after -- the trade deadline. I'm not sure if adding Rodney Hood and Enes Kanter changes this team's ceiling all that much -- they're a good team that's often very good but never to be confused with great -- but they definitely got better. Last year, this team was only one game above .500 on Jan. 15, then Damian Lillard went absolutely bonkers with an MVP-level second half, and the Blazers finished 27-12.||--||29-37|
|11||Pacers||I can't explain it either, how the Pacers have gone 6-5 since Victor Oladipo's season-ending injury. I mean, I know it's because of their second-rated defense, and because Bojan Bogdanovic has been remarkable, averaging 19.7 points and shooting 41.2 percent from 3 over the past 13 games. But if this team can stay in the top four in the East for the rest of the season, I would be absolutely stunned.||--||39-26|
|12||Spurs||Quietly, the Spurs have been sliding, 8-7 over their past 15 games and hanging on to a playoff spot. Worse is their advanced stats: The Spurs -- Gregg Popovich's Spurs -- rank 29th in the NBA in defensive rating during that stretch. This team was living a charmed existence for a while, feasting off the mid-range and getting by with bad defense. We haven't had a Spurs-less playoffs since 1997. That might change this year.||--||27-36|
|13||Kings||Here's one more team that could do something impressive and make a second-half run. Harrison Barnes feels like an ideal fit here after being pressed into franchise-player duty too often with Dallas. That was a sneaky-smart trade deadline acquisition. This is a great fan base, and deserves a playoff appearance with this young and fun team.||--||28-36|
|14||Lakers||The Lakers are now favored to miss the playoffs. What utter dysfunction has enveloped this team since LeBron got injured. Remember a year ago, when the young Lakers core, preaching patience, looked like it was really making progress? This team feels stuck in the mud. And yet, are you really going to bet against LeBron making the playoffs? I'm not. And a first-round series between LeBron's Lakers and the Warriors would be top-notch entertainment.||--||49-14|
|15||Nets||Sleeper pick here: Once Spencer Dinwiddie rejoins the lineup, a healthy Nets team separates itself from the bottom of the race for the final three playoff spots in the East and makes the playoffs comfortably. This is just a well-run franchise by Sean Marks with great coaching and a solid culture.||--||30-34|
|16||Clippers||If the Clippers make the playoffs, they lose their 2019 first-round pick to the Boston Celtics. If the Clippers miss the playoffs, they keep that pick. They're in eighth place now, in the playoffs by the slimmest of margins. This team is incentivized to lose now and then make some big-time moves in the offseason.||--||44-20|
|17||Timberwolves||The Wolves could be fully healthy, finally, after the All-Star break. (It hasn't been announced yet when Robert Covington is due back.) If this team is healthy, I'd give them a real shot of making the playoffs. Remember that invigorating feeling around this team after the Jimmy Butler trade? They're only four games out of the playoffs right now. The Wolves can make up that ground if they're healthy.||--||19-45|
|18||Magic||Quietly, the Magic have won five in a row, the second-longest streak in the NBA. One league source told me over All-Star Weekend that Markelle Fultz could thrive under the player development skills of Steve Clifford. This team has a really good shot at the playoffs, especially if Jonathan Isaac keeps playing the way he has this month. In fact, I'd bet on it. Remember: In Clifford's first season in Charlotte, that team went into the All-Star break at 23-30, then went 20-9 the rest of the way and made the playoffs.||6||30-35|
|19||Hornets||Here's an interesting stat: The Hornets turn the ball over less than any team in the NBA. Of course this team can make the playoffs, but it will take a herculean effort by Kemba Walker. This team just doesn't have enough talent surrounding Walker.||1||23-42|
|20||Heat||Can the Heat go on a post-All-Star run and replicate two years ago? Well, they're due to get Goran Dragic back shortly after the All-Star break. That'll help. And their defense has been stellar, with the sixth-best defensive rating in the NBA.||1||41-24|
|21||Mavericks||The Mavericks' 2019 first-round pick has top-five protection; if the Mavericks finish outside the top five, they'll send it to Atlanta for the Luka Doncic trade. The Mavericks currently have the ninth-worst record in the NBA; that gives them a roughly 20 percent chance of their pick landing in the top four, meaning they would keep it. If they decrease to the sixth-worst record, their odds would be roughly 37 percent. I can't imagine Doncic has tanking in his DNA.||1||40-27|
|22||Pelicans||Who the hell knows what's going to happen in New Orleans the remainder of this season? In the span of a few weeks, their franchise player demanded a trade, they flirted with the Lakers (and others) before keeping him at the trade deadline, they traded away Nikola Mirotic -- and then days after the deadline, they fired the general manager who was in charge of those moves. Will Anthony Davis play? Will the Pelicans tank?||1||28-36|
|23||Wizards||For the next year at least, this will unquestionably be Bradley Beal's team. How will Beal react to the pressure on his shoulders? Or could the Wizards -- now with Bobby Portis and Jabari Parker on the roster, and presumably with Dwight Howard to return soon -- make a run at the playoffs? They are only three games out.||1||24-40|
|24||Pistons||The Pistons quietly improved at the trade deadline as they acquired Thon Maker and Svi Mykhailiuk in a trade and signed Wayne Ellington off the buyout market. Blake Griffin has reinvented himself and is having a career year. But point guards are pretty important in basketball ... and their lack of good point guard play is why the Pistons ought to miss the playoffs.||1||20-46|
|25||Grizzlies||It's fair to assume that this team is going to Stop Tryin' for Zion and go fully in the tank -- though the impact tanking can have on a team's culture is very real. Does that mean Mike Conley will be shut down after the Grizzlies mind-bogglingly decided to keep him at the trade deadline?||--||32-33|
|26||Hawks||Things in Atlanta are looking up, up, up with savvy team-building by Travis Schlenk. John Collins is going to be an All-Star sooner instead of later, and Trae Young's learning curve has been fast. The nice young core assembled in Atlanta should give this team a bit of separation for the bottom four teams on these rankings.||--||20-47|
|27||Bulls||The Bulls got better at the trade deadline when they added Otto Porter Jr., even though that contract makes little sense for where the Bulls currently are as a franchise. The team's injuries have hampered much of the growth and development we should have seen from the Bulls' youth this season. It's hard to imagine a scenario where the Bulls are any different by the end of this season than where they are right now: Slightly better than the bottom three teams in the NBA, but not better than anyone else.||--||22-43|
|28||Suns||Deandre Ayton told me over All-Star Weekend that they're building something in Phoenix, and he expects them to be a playoff team within two or three years. I love the confidence. But what they need now is a paradox: to try to build a winning culture while continuing to lose, and therefore netting another high pick. They're certainly doing the losing thing right with a 15-game losing streak heading into All-Star break.||--||26-39|
|29||Cavaliers||The only things that matter for the Cavaliers the rest of this season is that youngsters like Collin Sexton and Cedi Osman continue to prove that they are valuable foundational pieces for this franchise moving forward. Heck, maybe Marquese Chriss can prove that he's an actual NBA player. That would be an unlikely coup for the Cavs.||--||19-46|
|30||Knicks||In case you missed this very big storyline right before the All-Star break: THE KNICKS WON! After 18 losses in a row, they beat the Hawks last week, their first win since Jan. 4. Should we expect more of those? Quite possibly. Mark my word: Dennis Smith Jr. is going to win some games for the tanking Knicks. They have to stay in the bottom three to have the best odds for getting the No. 1 pick.||--||21-45|
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