As teams wrap up their final games before this weekend’s All-Star break, as the dichotomy of the NBA’s “have’s” and “have not’s” become increasingly clear, there’s also a very large middle class that’s either jockeying for one of the coveted top eight spots in their respective conference, or slowly creeping their way up — or down — the current standings in a way that could have a dramatic impact on future playoff matchups. Either way, let’s take a look at where each team stands midway through February, with the postseason in the not-too-distant horizon. Here are the NBA All-Star break Power Rankings.
- Golden State Warriors (Last Month: 3rd)
Golden State’s win over Miami on Sunday should be a harrowing reminder to the rest of the NBA: no matter how well you play against the Warriors, more often than not, they’re damn near impossible to beat. Even after the Heat jumped out to a 19-point lead in the first quarter, which was the most the Warriors ever trailed in the opening period under head coach Steve Kerr, and even after securing a three-point lead with less than 52 seconds left in the game, Miami still couldn’t walk out of Oracle Arena with a win. When Dwayne Wade mentioned after the game that Golden State is as good as “any team ever to play this game,” it’s the rare instance where such a hyperbolic statement might not have been that much of a hyperbole in reality.
- Milwaukee Bucks (Last Month: 2nd)
All the talk might’ve been focused on the big name moves that were made (Tobias Harris to Philadelphia and/or Kristaps Porzingis to Dallas) or not made (Anthony Davis not going anywhere), but it’s hard not to look at Milwaukee’s acquisition of Nikola Mirotic and not think they were among the winners of last week’s trade deadline, if not the outright winner in general. Adding Mirotic to a crunch time lineup featuring Eric Bledsoe, Malcolm Brogdon, Khris Middleton, and Giannis Antetokounmpo opens things up for all four, because of the shooting abilities Mirotic brings. If you happen to be the type of person who likes to make wagers on sports (and you’re on the right site if you do!), the just-over-2:1-odds (12:5) that the Bucks are currently getting to win the Eastern Conference should look like a very tempting bet.
- Toronto Raptors (Last Month: 1st)
The newly-arrived Marc Gasol wasted no time contributing to his new team, scoring 11 points (on 5-for-5 shooting), dishing out a couple of assists, and leading two big defensive stops in the Toronto Raptors’ win over Brooklyn earlier this week. There’s no question that Gasol’s age — he just turned 34 years old — makes his acquisition feel almost exclusively like a “win now” move, the realities are that 1) Toronto had to make a move of their own amidst the arms race in the Eastern Conference; 2) Gasol, even at this age, represents a substantial upgrade from Jonas Valanciunas; and 3) this gives Masai Ujiri another talking point in his conservation with Kawhi Leonard about staying in Toronto.
- Oklahoma City Thunder (Last Month: 7th)
Before, it was a fun discussion point, but now, it’s a very legitimate conversation: is Paul George a candidate for this year’s Most Valuable Player (MVP) award? He’s been remarkably effective and consistent all season long, but since January 1st, he’s averaging 32.6 points, 7.7 rebounds, 4.4 rebounds, and 2.5 steals per game, including his 47-12-10 triple-double stat line he posted in Oklahoma City’s win against Portland on Tuesday evening. George’s own teammate taught us that triple-doubles could be little more than “empty calorie statistics,” but that’s far from what George is producing. After said game was over, even Trail Blazers players mentioned how George’s name should be in the MVP race, including Portland’s Evan Turner saying George is “at a completely different level” than guys Turner and Portland have played against this year.
- Philadelphia 76ers (Last Month: 9th)
If the NBA’s Eastern Conference was a poker table, then the Philadelphia 76ers just went “all in.” You’d be hard-pressed to find a starting squad that looks better, at least on paper, than Ben Simmons, J.J. Redick, Tobias Harris, Jimmy Butler, and Joel Embiid; what the 76ers have left on the bench, of course, is an entirely different question (although Mike Scott was a sneaky-solid acquisition for them). But the biggest win in the Harris-to-Philadelphia trade, for NBA fans inside and outside of Philadelphia, has to be the fact that the Los Angeles Clippers included Boban Marjanović in the deal, meaning everyone will continue to enjoy the mischief of the beloved “Tobi and Bobi” pairing.
- Denver Nuggets (Last Month: 4th)
Denver followed up a convincing double-digit win against the Houston Rockets — a game in which they held James Harden to “only” 30 points — by losing three games in their four-game road trip, allowing an average of 127 points in those three losses. Denver picked up a couple of wins heading into All-Star break, and still find themselves only two games behind Golden State for the top spot out West. The big story for the second half of their season will be the integration of Isaiah Thomas back into their lineup, as the diminutive spark plug scorer looks like he’s finally recovered from the hip injury that’s sidelined him for so long. The question is, will his minutes cannibalize the development of some of Denver’s young guards like Malik Beasley and Monte Morris?
- Boston Celtics (Last Month: 10th)
Back-to-back wins against Philadelphia and Detroit temporarily cooled off the white-hot tension in the locker room of the Boston Celtics, but the irony of the team getting both wins without Kyrie Irving — perhaps one of the main sources of tension? — in the lineup cannot be overstated. Regardless of what happens in the postseason, the Celtics have to be the overwhelming favorite to win the “playoff team comprised of teammates who absolutely despise each other” award. After each increasingly disheartening Celtics’ loss, including back-to-back losses against both Los Angeles teams last week, comes another bout of public sniping and veiled call-outs of teammates.
- Portland Trail Blazers (Last Month: 11th)
After a 6-2 stretch through the end of last week, which catapulted the Portland Trail Blazers to the top four of the Western Conference standings, the team was set to begin a stretch in which they’d play 10 of their next 11 games away from the friendly confines of the Moda Center. That stretch got off to a bumpy start, which included Portland blowing a 15-point fourth quarter lead in their loss to the Dallas Mavericks, and then watching both Paul George and Russell Westbrook tally triple-doubles — and score a combined 68 points — in their loss to the Oklahoma City Thunder. But in their lone home game between now and the end of the first week of March? A 22-point win over the Golden State Warriors, which included a 31-8 run over the last 9:51 of the game.
- Utah Jazz (Last Month: 12th)
After sitting three games below the .500 mark midway through this past December, the Utah Jazz now sport a 32-25 record, and that’s even after losing a hard-fought (and rather chippy) battle against the Golden State Warriors in the Bay area on Tuesday evening. If there’s a silver lining to the loss, it’s that Utah gets a few days extra for the NBA’s All-Star break, as they’ll have a full ten days off before they play again. But given the way they’re playing at the moment, Utah is being described by many as the proverbial “team that nobody wants to play in the playoffs,” as they hold the 6th seed in the West through Thursday evening.
- Houston Rockets (Last Month: 6th)
The frenzy that was the 2019 NBA Trade Deadline overshadowed the fact that James Harden continued his torrid scoring streak, averaging 39 points per game — along with 6.8 rebounds and 4.4 assists — through the first five games of February (including at least 42 points scored in three of those five games). It will be interesting to see how the team looks over the stretch run of the year, as they further (re-)integrate Chris Paul — who suddenly seems a LOT older and creakier — into the lineup. Considering the gap between the 5th seed (where Houston presently sits) and the 9th seed of the Western Conference playoffs is only separated by three games, the Rockets have virtually no room for error.
- Indiana Pacers (Last Month: 5th)
Referring to Victor Oladipo’s crushing season-ending injury to his leg as “devastating” still doesn’t seem to fully encompass just what a blow it was to this Indiana Pacers team. That the Pacers went on a four-game losing streak — including a 32-point loss at home to Golden State — in their first four games after losing Oladipo shouldn’t come as any surprise. But you have to give head coach Nate McMillan a ton of credit for navigating those rough waters, and guiding them to a six-game winning streak immediately after the 0-4 stretch.
- San Antonio Spurs (Last Month: 12th)
The San Antonio Spurs find themselves only two losses away from being the ninth-best team in the Western Conference, meaning they’d be on the outside looking in at the playoff race. A big reason for that? The fact that they’re giving up 115.9 points per 100 possessions when playing on the road, which is the second-most points of any team in the NBA (ahead of only the Cleveland Cavaliers). Any poor sideline reporter who has the misfortune of interviewing Gregg Popovich when the Spurs are playing away from home should keep that squarely in mind if “Popp” seems even more cantankerous than usual.
- Sacramento Kings (Last Month: 14th)
Sacramento made something of an “all in” series of moves at the trade deadline, but it’ll be very intriguing to see how they pan out, especially considering the bona fide dogfight they find themselves in at the bottom of the Western Conference playoff standings. While Harrison Barnes will bring a contribute-immediately and consummate professional presence to Sacramento, as well as someone with ample postseason experience, losing Iman Shumpert (a very well respected presence in Sacramento’s locker room) and Justin Jackson (another very-well-liked player among the rest of the Kings) will be tough to overcome for a young locker room that was starting to enjoy some real cohesion and chemistry.
- Los Angeles Clippers (Last Month: 13th)
By trading away Tobias Harris (plus Boban Marjanović and Mike Scott), the Los Angeles Clippers made it clear that they’re going to do their best to not make the playoffs, mostly on account of the fact that qualifying for the postseason would send their first-round pick in the 2019 NBA Draft to the Memphis Grizzlies (thanks to a deal back in 2016). They also extricated themselves from having to make the decision of potentially handing a near-maximum contract to Harris, and instead picked up two first-round picks — including the much-coveted unprotected 1st round pick belonging to the Miami Heat in the 2021 NBA Draft — to add to their war chest of assets they’ll use to lure a couple of maximum contract free agents this summer (starting with Kawhi Leonard).
- Brooklyn Nets (Last Month: 15th)
The return of Caris LeVert and Spencer Dinwiddie will make the Brooklyn Nets one of the most fascinating teams to watch after the NBA’s All-Star break. The team could use something of a breath of fresh air, considering they’ve started off February losing four of their first five games and frittering away their four-games-over-.500 cushion. Dinwiddie is still recovering from the surgery to repair his right thumb, and probably won’t be back ’til after the break. LeVert did return to the lineup for Brooklyn, but he’s going to need some time to round back into form after his nasty foot injury. How those guys come back and gel with newly-named All-Star D’Angelo Russell will also be worth keeping a close eye upon.
- Los Angeles Lakers (Last Month: 16th)
The “Fire Luke Walton” crescendo got as loud as its ever been on Tuesday evening (it was trending nationwide on Twitter), after the Los Angeles Lakers suffered a near-inexplicable loss to the Atlanta Hawks, despite LeBron James playing 43 of 48 minutes in the said loss. While it’s comically easy to get Lakers’ fans in a frenzy about even the slightest speed bump the team encounters, the easy explanation would be that said loss came at what everyone refers to as “the dog days of the NBA season.” That being said, is Walton really the person to blame, when people like team President Magic Johnson and superagent Rich Paul made it brutally clear that the Lakers would be ready to trade every player on the roster not named LeBron James, as part of their effort to acquire Anthony Davis? That can’t exactly be good for morale. How is Walton supposed to get the best out of his team, when those players know they’re viewed as completely expendable?
- Charlotte Hornets (Last Month: 23rd)
The recent 7-6 run enjoyed by the Charlotte Hornets has given them a slight lead in the NBA’s Southeast Division, although five of those seven wins came against teams all very much in the running for the top overall pick in the 2019 NBA Draft Lottery. Still, wins are wins, irrespective of the degree of difficulty. The Hornets were so closed to getting reinforcements for a postseason run in the form of Marc Gasol that they practically had his Charlotte jersey printed up. Alas, Memphis realized that getting someone like Jonas Valanciunas in return for Gasol was a lot better than getting Frank Kaminsky, especially with Charlotte’s reluctance to include Malik Monk or Miles Bridges in any such deal.
- Dallas Mavericks (Last Month: 19th)
The Dallas Mavericks’ end of the deal between them and the New York Knicks, sending Kristaps Porzingis to Dallas, isn’t getting nearly the attention it deserves. While it’s (mostly) true that Dallas is taking a big risk by acquiring a 7’3 guy coming off an ACL injury (and with a history of other nagging lower-body ailments), the potential reward is beyond enormous. The Mavericks now have two of the 10 best players in the NBA under 24 years old, and as Porzingis (potentially) rounds back into the form we saw him during the 2017-2018 season, and as Dallas — suddenly with a lot more salary cap space — fills out the team around him and Luka Dončić, they find themselves in position to become an emerging superpower in the Western Conference, especially as the window for teams like Golden State and Houston begins to close.
- Miami Heat (Last Month: 19th)
In a little over a month, the Miami Heat went from one game over .500 to four games under, thanks to their 5-9 stretch entering Thursday night. And it’s not like the Heat have kept fans entertained in any of those losses, considering they scored less than 96 points in six of those nine losses — a rather remarkable stat in today’s scoring-heavy NBA. Then again, none of this should come as much of a surprise, considering Miami scores the fourth-fewest points per game in the entire league, and they’re the only team in the league within one game of a playoff race that has a losing record at home to date (11-16 as of February 14th)
- Detroit Pistons (Last Month: 25th)
Addition by subtraction? The Detroit Pistons traded away Reggie Bullock, and Stanley Johnson — and outright cut Henry Ellenson — at the NBA trade deadline, and then won two of their next three games as part of their 4-2 record in February. That’ll free up minutes that could go to guys like Luke Kennard or their reclamation project that is Thon Maker (acquired from Milwaukee), but a couple of their other additions — Wayne Ellington and Wayne Ellington and Svi Mykhailiuk — could also help fend off the pack of teams gunning for Detroit’s 8th-place standing in the Eastern Conference.
- Minnesota Timberwolves (Last Month: 20th)
Apparently, the secret to watching some of the NBA’s stars play at their very best is to watch them when they play against the Minnesota Timberwolves. Over the last three weeks, Utah’s Donovan Mitchell had 29-5-4 stat line, Denver’s Nikola Jokic had a triple-double, New Orleans’ Anthony Davis had 32 points and nine rebounds (in his first game back in the Pelicans’ lineup), and James Harden had a very James Harden-like 42 points. Unsurprisingly, Minnesota lost three of the four games against the aforementioned opponents, and after climbing to a .500 record with a win in Los Angeles over the Lakers, they’re now back to three games below the .500 mark.
- Washington Wizards (Last Month: 21st)
Bradley Beal’s on-court brilliance has continued (he’s averaging 27.8 points, 6.3 assists, and 5.6 rebounds per game, while shooting 47.5% overall and 37% from three since the start of 2019), but it doesn’t mean much since the Washington Wizards can’t stop anyone from scoring. The Wizards allow the second-most points per game in the NBA (116.7), which includes allowing a league-high 37.5% on opponent’s three-point shooting. And despite how the team’s front office might otherwise spin it, adding players known for inconsistent effort (Bobby Portis) and/or a complete aversion to playing defense (Jabari Parker) isn’t going to solve those problems in the slightest.
- Orlando Magic (Last Month: 22nd)
Orlando Magic president of basketball operations Jeff Weltman smartly stated that the team would take a more methodical and longer-term approach in the reclamation project of Markelle Fultz, whom the team acquired in exchange for forward Jonathon Simmons, a protected 2020 first-round pick (via Oklahoma City) and a 2019 second-round pick. Weltman candidly stated that the team would make sure Fultz is “100 percent and healthy” upon his return, but that statement is going to be much more than just about the thoracic outlet syndrome affecting his the nerves between Fultz’s neck and shoulder. The bigger question is whether the change of pace can restore the confidence and psyche that once made Fultz the most coveted player of his NBA Draft class.
- New Orleans Pelicans (Last Month: 23rd)
How was life for the New Orleans Pelicans with Anthony Davis back in the lineup? Here’s how the oft-discuss Davis described it himself, after a 30-point loss to the Orlando Magic on Tuesday evening: “We sucked; nobody was interested in playing, is what it looked like.” One can only sympathize with New Orleans head coach Alvin Gentry. Try asking any employee to try and co-exist with an employee who doesn’t want to be there and believes you’re not up to his standard of work and see how that works out. While one game does not the rest of the season make, it’s going to be very difficult to get the Pelicans to play even remotely well together, considering the worst kept secret in the world is Davis’ private and public desire(s) to move on from New Orleans.
- Memphis Grizzlies (Last Month: 24th)
Marc Gasol was almost as much a part of the fabric of Memphis as Graceland or Charlie Vergos’ Rendezvous. Alas, all good things come to an end at some point, and trading away Gasol — along with Garrett Temple and JaMychal Green — was the first of two major steps the team will take to renovate and rebuild itself from the ground up. The other step? Finding a new home for Mike Conley, which they’ll almost surely do this summer after failing to find a suitable new home for him at the trade deadline (despite their best efforts).
- Atlanta Hawks (Last Month: 26th)
An 8-13 record since January 1st wouldn’t be noteworthy for the vast majority of NBA teams. But, it is for the Atlanta Hawks, considering they have just as many wins over the past seven weeks as the New York Knicks, Cleveland Cavaliers, and Phoenix Suns have all season long. All the hoopla surrounding fellow rookie Luka Dončić has completely overshadowed the fact that Trae Young, whose fate will forever be intertwined with that of Dončić, has been averaging 19.1 points, 7.9 assists, and 4.0 rebounds per game since January 1st (and less than four turnovers per game, to boot). The only downside to all of this is that the Hawks are playing themselves right out of the NBA Draft lottery, much earlier than even their own internal brain trust could have foreseen
- Chicago Bulls (Last Month; 28th)
Leave it to Chicago to find themselves in a position of impending salary cap flexibility, and then squander away said flexibility by dealing for one of the most overpaid players in the NBA in Otto Porter Jr. (who has one more year plus a player option after that remaining on his contract). The much-reviled duo of General Manager Gar Forman and Vice President of Basketball Operations John Paxson — colloquially known as “GarPax” — rear their ugly heads yet again. Chicago fans will think they got themselves a steal after seeing Porter’s 37-10-2 stat line against Memphis, but that looks much more like an outlier than the norm; he’s not going to shoot 16 of 20 every single evening
- Phoenix Suns (Last Month: 27th)
One would think it’s only right that Phoenix Suns owner Robert Sarver send New York Knicks owner James Dolan a lavish fruit basket, as thanks for the fact that the Knicks’ 18-game losing streak and a bottom-of-the-league record has overshadowed Phoenix’s own 15-game losing streak (entering Thursday evening) and second-worst record in the NBA. But anyone who knows Sarver knows that the notoriously cheap owner would probably refrain from sending a gift to even his own next of kin, let alone a lavish one to a fellow stupidly wealthy team owner.
- Cleveland Cavaliers (Last Month: 30th)
The business office of the Cleveland Cavaliers will have to work hard to sell fans on the idea of watching Collin Sexton and/or Cedi Osman develop as players (while the team as a whole gets their collective brains beaten in), but perhaps they have another young player to use in their marketing efforts? Forward Marquese Chriss, the 8th overall pick of the 2016 NBA Draft who’s considered to be one of the biggest NBA Draft busts in recent memory, has averaged 14.3 points and 6.3 rebounds per game after arriving in Cleveland as an afterthought in the three-team deal between Cleveland, Houston, and Sacramento. Given how this season has gone so far, Cleveland will want to celebrate anything even remotely close to good news.
- New York Knicks (Last Month: 30th)
A 1-19 record in 2019, including a 17-game losing streak through Wednesday evening! In the bottom six in the league in points scored (105.2), points allowed (114.2) and opposing field goal percentage (47.1%) — the second-worst three-point shooting percentage as a team in the NBA. The end of the season can’t come quick enough for the New York Knicks, especially if it brings desperately needed help courtesy of the NBA’s Draft Lottery, for which the Knicks have been so breathlessly tanking.