NBA Power Rankings: Warriors look unbeatable while Cavaliers continue to dive

Two weeks from now we’ll be sorting through the first weekend of the NBA playoffs as 14 non-playoff teams begin the long, painful trek of trying to put together a better team next season than they had in 2016-17. There’s a lot of talk about teams “hitting their strides at the right time” and “momentum.” You don’t want to be finding your struggle mode right now, with the playoffs right around the corner, when every possession matters. 

And there’s certainly precedent. Here are the records of the past five champions after March 15th:

So yeah, if you want to win the title, the precedent has shown that you should play well “down the stretch.” Now here are the records of relevant contenders since March 15 this season:

It’s easy to run with that narrative. But all we’re really saying here is “hey, good teams continue to win, unless they’re in a slump.” And we’ve seen teams play great in the final month of the season and then get knocked out in the first round. The 2010 Celtics, who made the Finals? They were 9-8 after March 15. Some of these records are complicated by rest games, but the point remains: The playoffs are about matchups. The regular season is mostly about timing. Do you play a great team when they’re at their peak, as the Warriors are now? Or when they’re at their lowest point, as the Celtics did when they faced Golden State? 

The point is that it’s a good sign if you’re playing well, sure. But it’s more of a sign of what kind of team you are. Not a prediction of how your playoff fortunes will play out. Keep that in mind as we get swept up in “closing strong” and “peaking at the right time,” and then remember this fact:

The playoffs last two full months. You’re going to have to peak for a long, long time. It’s better to just play well and figure it out from there. 

That last part, that’s the real problem for Cleveland right now, and very much not the problem for Golden State going into the last 10 days of the season. 

Biggest Movers
6 Clippers
7 Wizards
Rk
Teams
 
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1 Warriors Well, we'll always have those halcyon days of December when it looked like the Warriors might actually have a challenge in winning the NBA title. But with Durant coming back, Curry back throwing flames, and JaVale McGee turning expectations of him on their head, everything, absolutely everything, has swung the Warriors' way. Last year a series of disasters beset the Warriors at every turn and they were still within a quarter of winning their second title with this group. What happens when those disasters don't befall them? -- 67-15
2 Celtics The advanced metrics love them, they keep winning games, they can get a strangehold over the 1-seed with a win over Cleveland (who's on a road back-to-back) on Wednesday, and Brad Stevens should very much be in the COY conversation. Oh, and there's a good chance they'll have the No. 1 pick. It's a pretty good time to be a Celtics fan. 1 53-29
3 Spurs San Antonio just straight up took a win that Oklahoma City was holding in its hands on Friday and snatched it away from them like a kid's favorite toy on the playground. Just mean. Kawhi Leonard is going to get a lot of MVP votes, and for good reason. 1 61-21
4 Rockets The sense I get from talking to voters and judging various comments and articles around the league is that Harden is in the lead for MVP. Westbrook is trying to catch him, but needs to notch the most triple-doubles in a season and the season average triple-double mark to overcome Harden. Harden, on the other hand, needs to rest. He missed Sunday's game with the flu and is quietly battling a wrist injury. The MVP matters, but he's made his case. His team needs him in better condition for the playoffs. -- 55-27
5 Raptors Raptors are 9-2 in their last 11 and back in control of the 3-seed. It would be nice, however, to hear what Kyle Lowry's condition is. Or location. Is he still on this plane of existence? Where is he? -- 51-31
6 Clippers The Clips have won seven of nine. So they're not playing their worst ball at the worst time. They've beaten some good teams (Utah, Washington) and will probably get a favorable first-round matchup. Now, raise your hand if you think they can beat the Warriors in the second round. Anybody. Any... body...? No? OK, then. 6 51-31
7 Trail Blazers The loss of Jusuf Nurkic would be a problem, were it not for how close they already are to a playoff spot. They should be able to secure the 8th seed by the end of the week. The bigger question is how long it will take for Nurkic to get back. Two previous leg injuries took him longer than expected to recover from in Denver. 2 41-41
8 Thunder The lingering Westbrook thought I have about his MVP candidacy is this: What season will you remember the most from this year? Because it will probably be Westbrook. You will never forget the most triple-doubles, or averaging one, or the highest-scoring triple-double in NBA history, which he pulled off last week. If you're an NBA fan, you probably won't forget any of the serious candidates' years. But with Westbrook, it stands out across sports, and that should matter in the conversation. -- 47-35
9 Jazz Utah's in a great spot to secure homecourt in the first round, which is the only way they get out of it. The conversation focuses a lot on how likely it is that they don't pull off a playoff run, but this team went from missing the playoffs last year to a dreadful Houston team, to the probable fourth seed. That should matter. On the other hand... Rudy Gobert calling out the team last week, combined with a team meeting, kind of paints some concerning signs for where their heads are at with their final exam coming in two weeks. 4 51-31
10 Cavaliers The concern should not exactly be soothed by their blowout victory over the Sixers or their tough win vs. Indiana. Still, they have a chance to close out the season and secure the 1-seed. There are 10 days left in the season. That's enough time to flip the narrative (just ask the Warrriors). But time is almost up. 3 51-31
11 Bucks Run for your lives. This team is scary as hell in a playoff series. Dominant, super-athletic freak athlete young superstar, good shooters, athleticism, and some savvy coaching. You don't want any part of this team in the first round. That said, they have to close strong and without Malcolm Brogdon (back injury), they've struggled. 1 42-40
12 Grizzlies The frustrating thing about Memphis is that they are really no better or worse than the Jazz, Clipppers, or Thunder. They just lost to more crap teams, and cost themselves homecourt and now will have to face San Antonio in the first round. This team needs the matchups to break exactly right for them to make a run. Spoiler alert: facing the Spurs in the first round is the very definition of "not breaking exactly right." 3 43-39
13 Wizards The Wizards celebrated a division title quite a bit this week, which I thought was a good thing. It's good to take those victories and accomplishments and celebrate them, rather than just constantly ignoring things which can create a positive atmosphere. It was a nice achievement, if irrelevant for the seedings, and they're capable of so much more. Great year for the Wizards. That said, the end of a hellish West coast road trip will be a welcome change. Rough scheduling this late in the season. 7 49-33
14 Heat The Heat are 3-5 in their last eight. I get that Dion Waiters is out, but they just lost to the Knicks and Nuggets. They need to find that magical pixie dust that made the unbeatable for two months. 3 41-41
15 Hornets This was a good team that lost every coinflip game they had. They need a miracle to make the playoffs, even with the struggle of the back half, but they're still alive. They need some major upgrades this summer, no matter what, however. 3 36-46
16 Bulls I cannot stress to you how bad the Bulls' closing schedule is. I can't decide if "Not even the Bulls could screw this up" is appropriate or "The Bulls are so maddening they can even screw this up" is the right prediction. 3 41-41
17 Pelicans Lot of questions about this summer. Who's the right coach for Boggie-Brow? Do they retain Jrue Holiday? Do they need a total revamp? And what's this about Joe Dumars, again? 3 34-48
18 Nuggets They had momentum. They had a guy gaining national attention in Nikola Jokic. They were playing great... and in the span of a week they managed to destroy their playoff hopes, give their former teammate his career high and then hug him up afterwards, and now there are questions about their leadership and future. The rise and fall of the Denver Nuggets took about eight days. Then again, they did get the Miami win to stay alive... 4 40-42
19 Pacers I have no reason to think that Paul George is laying out a path with his public critiques of the team for an Indiana exit. But if you asked me how a superstar lays out an exit path from a small market struggling team, I'd lay out the various things he's said. 3 42-40
20 Mavericks The Mavericks missed the playoffs, and it very much looks like Dirk Nowitzki's final days in Dallas will not be bathed in a playoff blaze of glory, which is too bad. They found enough guys this year for you to say "Hey, they're not so bad!" but that's not really a great place to be, NBA-wise. 3 33-49
21 Nets The Nets are 9-10 since March 1, with chance to finish the year .500 since February ended. They should throw a little parade for that. Not a big one, just like, Brook Lopez on a float waiving a flag while Caris Levert runs around with streamers, in a circle around the outside of Barclays. 1 20-62
22 Pistons Detroit is a cautionary tale for every team that makes that run to the 8th seed and you think there's no way they're going anywhere but up. If you're an 8th seed, there's a good chance you backtrack. 1 37-45
23 Hawks The Hawks looked like they'd be coasting into their 10th straight playoff appearance, and now it looks like a dogfight for whether they'll make it. The way this team fell apart without Paul Millsap has to make management concerned about what happens if he leaves in free agency this summer. Dennis Schröder is not going to save the day. -- 43-39
24 Magic This summer's best suspense/horror film might be what the Magic do in free agency. -- 29-53
25 Knicks Phil Jackson probably thought this whole thing would be easier when he decided to take the Knicks job in a Montana peyote den. It's fitting that the late Jerry Krause was announced as an inductee into the Hall of Fame (posthumously) this week just as Jackson's tenure as head of basketball operations for the Knicks finishes its long, depressing crash into the heart of the ocean of sadness. 4 31-51
26 76ers The Sixers are like if you made a TV show and said "Hey, what if every single episode was a cliffhanger?" 1 28-54
27 Timberwolves Their season was massively disappointing, but it should be noted that Ricky Rubio had a flat-out incredible year. His passing, rebounding, and overall offensive impact stats were so great it makes his continued shooting woes acceptable. Rubio was supposed to struggle in a year the Wolves surged into the playoffs, and instead the exact opposite happend. The next question of course is... so what does that say? 1 31-51
28 Lakers They have about $30 million in cap space this summer. They could get the No. 1 pick... or lose the pick to the Sixers entirely. They have a star-studded front office... with no experience. Set your DVRs to record the Lakers' offseason -- it's going to be worth the watch. 1 26-56
29 Kings It's possible that the trade of DeMarcus Cousins could be the event that triggers the change they need, from ownership's approach to oversight, to management, all the way down. There's some young talent, and even with the Sixers pick swap, they'll get a good pick. Get a new vision, some new leadership, start fresh, and maybe this team can just become a normal franchise again. I'm all about Kings hope. 1 32-50
30 Suns The draft could legitimately change the whole dynamic of this team. Landing top two would enable them to trade Eric Bledsoe for multiple assets while adding a top-flight point guard talent. But talent hasn't been the problem in Phoenix, which makes you wonder what is. -- 24-58
CBS Sports Writer

Matt Moore's colleagues have been known to describe him as a "maniac" in terms of his approach to covering the NBA, which he has done for CBS Sports since 2010. Moore prides himself on melding reporting,... Full Bio

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