With just over a dozen or so games remaining for the majority of NBA teams, most of them are snapping out of the doldrums of the NBA season, and either jockeying for position within their respective conference’s playoff positioning or to get into the postseason dance in the first place. Let’s see where each NBA team stands in the March 2019 NBA power rankings, respective to one another:
1. Milwaukee Bucks (Last Month: 2nd)
The Milwaukee Bucks are currently #1 in the NBA in fewest points allowed per 100 possessions (104.6) and #4 in the NBA (including #1 in the Eastern Conference) in most points scored per game (113.6). That means they score more points and allow fewer points than any other team in the East. They also pull down more rebounds per game than any team in the NBA, so if your favorite team plays against them, you better hope they don’t miss a shot. Milwaukee has the best record in the NBA, including the best home and away record in the East. Oh, and their best player (Giannis Antetokounmpo) might’ve moved into first place in the Most Valuable Player award race, after averaging 29.5 points, 12.8 rebounds, 6.1 assists, and 1.5 blocks per game since the beginning of February. So, good luck to whichever sacrificial lamb of an NBA team gets the double-edged honor of clinching the 8th seed in the Eastern Conference playoffs.
2. Toronto Raptors (Last Month: 3rd)
The Toronto Raptors have experienced some turbulence coming out of All-Star weekend, going 5-4 in their last nine games. In fairness to them, they had a brutal slate after the aforementioned hiatus, with four of their first five games coming out of the game being against teams who would qualify for the playoffs if they were today. That’s why the floundering Los Angeles Lakers coming to Toronto on Thursday is a welcome change. Beating Los Angeles would give the Raptors another tally in the win column, as they’re still nipping at the heels of the Milwaukee Bucks for the top seed in the East (translating into home court advantage throughout the postseason). Then again, LeBron James has been the basketball equivalent of Freddie Krueger whenever his teams have played the Raptors; another vintage performance from James could leave Toronto fans with a serious case of basketball PTSD.
3. Golden State Warriors (Last Month: 1st)
To borrow from the late, great Yogi Berra, talk of any malaise or demise of the Golden State Warriors feels like “Déjà vu all over again.” Yes, the fact that a team with a collection of this much individual talent is currently on pace to finish with 56-57 wins, which would be their lowest win total under head coach Steve Kerr, should present some concern. So should facts like the team being demonstrably slower and clunkier when Demarcus Cousins is on the floor, and that continued sense of edginess that’s surrounded all interactions with Draymond Green this year. But we seem to ask ourselves “is this the year that the Warriors’ dynasty ends?” only to forget to give the Warriors the benefit of the doubt because of who they are and who they have.
4. Houston Rockets (Last Month: 10th)
Even though James Harden has shown absolutely no signs of cooling off after All-Star break (averaging 33.6 points, 6.1 assists, and 5.6 rebounds since February 21st), maybe we could also start paying more attention to Harden’s running-mate in Chris Paul. Written off after a miserable start to the season, Paul has shown increasing signs of knocking off all the previous “rust.” As Zach Lowe of ESPN pointed out: the Rockets still aren’t demonstrably better (from an advanced stats perspective) when Harden and Paul share the floor, and at least as of right now, perform better (statistically) when one of them is on the floor without the other. If both Harden and Paul are clicking, this team still poses a legitimate threat to a Warriors’ team we perceive as reeling… home loss to Golden State this past Wednesday evening notwithstanding.
5. Denver Nuggets (Last Month: 6th)
In their matchup last Friday against the Golden State Warriors, the Denver Nuggets found themselves down by 10 points at the end of the first quarter. They cut the Warriors’ lead to one point with just over four minutes left in the second quarter, but over the next 16 minutes of the game, the Warriors outscored Denver by a 43 to 26 margin, all but ending the game by the end of the third quarter. As the saying goes: the truth hurts. And that’s why, despite nipping on the Warriors’ heels for the top seed in the Western Conference playoffs, the majority of people in and around the NBA still think of the Nuggets as far more of a “fun story” than “a legitimate contender to ultimately dethrone the Warriors.”
6. Portland Trail Blazers (Last Month: 8th)
CJ McCollum, who’s always been seen as something of the “Robin” to Damian Lillard’s “Batman,” has been a huge factor in Portland’s 6-3 run after the All-Star break. McCollum has averaged 23.9 points per game in that nine-game span, which includes his current streak of scoring at least 25 points in five of the last six games. In their win against the surging Los Angeles Clippers on Tuesday, McCollum shrugged off an 0-for-7 start to the game, finishing with a game-high 35 points on 12-of-21 shooting from the floor, including 23 points scored in the 4th quarter. The Trail Blazers probably won’t catch the Denver Nuggets in the Northwest division race, but they’re still very much in the race for one of the top four seeds in the West.
7. Oklahoma City Thunder (Last Month: 4th)
For better or for worse, the recent skirmishes Russell Westbrook has had with fans have taken the spotlight off the fact that the previously scorching-hot Oklahoma City Thunder have gone stone cold at the wrong time, with a 5-7 record since February 11th. In fairness, Westbrook has been spectacular since the All-Star break (averaging 30.1 points, 10.5 rebounds, and 7.3 assists), but we all know the Thunder’s ceiling if Westbrook tries to carry the load himself. That’s why Paul George’s recent spate of injuries is so disastrous; he was the perfect counterbalance to Westbrook. The Thunder now find themselves within only a game or two of not getting home court advantage in a Round 1 playoff matchup.
8. Philadelphia 76ers (Last Month: 5th)
Joel Embiid’s return to Philadelphia’s lineup was a welcome addition, as it helped snap a spell in which the 76ers had lost three of their previous four games. When Embiid was out, Philadelphia was outshot from the floor by a 45.9 percent to 44.6 percent margin during “JoJo’s” eight-game hiatus. But perhaps even more importantly, Embiid operates something of the emotional backbone of the team, giving it the combination of swagger and ferocity needed for teams with real ambitions of a deep postseason run.
9. Boston Celtics (Last Month: 7th)
Like “The Undertaker” in those classic WWE matches back in the 1990s, we seemingly put the Boston Celtics in an NBA casket, only to watch them dramatically and emphatically resurrect themselves right out of it. “The Plane Ride” — Boston’s cross-country flight to begin their recent West Coast road trip — is now being whispered as the turning point in a tumultuous (to put it lightly) season, given their three-straight wins (and seemingly improved cohesion) after the flight. Boston proved they didn’t leave their mojo out west, either, after pulling off a gritty win against Sacramento in their first home game back, so let’s see how things shake out over their next 11 games, which comprises eight matchups against teams who’d qualify for the postseason as of today.
10. Utah Jazz (Last Month: 9th)
NBA beat writer Tim McMahon of ESPN described the remaining schedule for the Utah Jazz as being “soft as a baby’s butt,” and that’s not at all far from the truth. Even after their 20-point win against the likely-lottery-bound Minnesota Timberwolves, 11 of Utah’s remaining 14 games for this season are against teams wouldn’t qualify for the postseason if the playoffs started today. That stretch also includes games against four of the five teams with the worst records in the Eastern Conference, and two games against the team in dead last in the Western Conference (the Phoenix Suns). It wouldn’t be at all unfathomable to see Utah staring at one of the top four seeds in the Western Conference playoffs by this time in April.
11. Los Angeles Clippers (Last Month: 14th)
So much for the Los Angeles Clippers “tank job.” Since trading away Tobias Harris, the Clippers are 9-5. How about the seemingly always-injured Danilo Gallinari averaging 20.3 points and 5.9 assists per game since returning from his two-week injury absence back in early February? Though the Clippers find themselves holding the 8th seed in the Western Conference playoff race, they’re within a short stone’s throw of the 6th seed (only 0.5 games behind the Utah Jazz and San Antonio Spurs) and play six of their remaining games against some of the NBA’s cellar-dwellers
12. San Antonio Spurs (Last Month: 12th)
You absolutely have to believe that the top four or five teams in the Western Conference are keeping a close eye on Gregg Popovich’s San Antonio Spurs. Currently holding the 7th seed in the West, the Spurs are also owners of the 2nd-best home record in the West (26-7). Given how raucous the crowds in San Antonio can be, the Spurs are precisely the type of team that Denver or Houston would not want to see in Round 1 of the playoffs, even with the Spurs’ horrific (by their standards) 13-22 record on the road this year.
13. Indiana Pacers (Last Month: 11th)
The Indiana Pacers’ 6-5 record since the All-Star break gave credence to those who stated that the Victor Oladipo-less Pacers were bound to slow down at some point. Even with forward Bojan Bogdanovich averaging 21.8 points per game since Oladipo went down, there was only so far this team could go in a jam-packed Eastern Conference, right? The truth might be somewhere in the middle, as there are those who’ll point to Indiana having a rather “soft” schedule, with five of those six wins coming against teams who’ll very likely be watching the playoffs from the comfort of their collective sofas.
14. Detroit Pistons (Last Month: 20th)
A couple of miserable losses to fellow Eastern Conference Playoffs contenders this week (Brooklyn and Miami) puts a slight damper on Detroit’s torrid pace after the first weekend of February. Between February 4th and March 10th, the Pistons won 11 of the 13 games they played, going from seven games under a .500 record to three games over .500 heading into this week. Andre Drummond’s 19-straight double-doubles are the amuse-bouche when talking about Detroit’s recent success, but there’s no doubt that Blake Griffin has been the Pistons’ “signature dish.” Griffin has been consistently excellent this year, averaging 25.1 points, 7.8 rebounds, and 5.4 assists through Wednesday (and even shooting over 36% from three), as he effectively assumes a point forward role specifically ideated for him by Dwayne Casey. There are some around the NBA who are wondering if Blake Griffin would leapfrog even LeBron James for 2nd-team All-NBA consideration.
15. Brooklyn Nets (Last Month: 15th)
Much to the delight of Brooklyn Nets head coach Kenny Atkinson, a healthy portion of Brooklyn’s four-game winning streak (which ended with their loss to Oklahoma City on Wednesday evening) came as a result of the team’s increasingly-effective performance on defense. In their win against the surging Detroit Pistons on Monday night, the Nets held the Pistons to a season-low 75 points, which represented the lowest point total for a Brooklyn opponent in over four years. The Nets are still 17th in the league in points allowed per game (111.7), but if you look at the advanced stats, Brooklyn sits at 13th in the league with 110.32 points allowed per 100 possessions.
16. Sacramento Kings (Last Month: 13th)
Well, it was fun while it lasted. It wasn’t too long ago that the Sacramento Kings found themselves on the precipice of finishing with their first winning season in 13 years, and clinching their first playoff berth since 2006. But barring some miraculous run over the last four weeks of the season, Sacramento looks more and more like they’ll be the first team on the outside looking in at the top eight spots in the West, thanks in large part to their 3-7 record since the All-Star break. But the fact that Sacramento has something to play for, as we approach the middle of March, continued to fuel the Kings’ players into not giving up on their playoff hopes.
17. Orlando Magic (Last Month: 23)
In a season that’s looked something like an electrocardiogram (EKG), we’re still trying to figure out just who exactly are the Orlando Magic. Are they the team that went 7-1 before the All-Star break, or 5-6 since? Are they the team that tallied wins against the Golden State Warriors and Toronto Raptors, are are they the team that lost to the barnacles of the Eastern Conference, including the New York Knicks, Cleveland Cavaliers, and Washington Wizards? Orlando is still right on the heels of the Miami Heat for the last playoff spot in the East, but they’re going to have to get off their rollercoaster results if they want to leapfrog their Southeast Division rivals.
18. Miami Heat (Last Month: 19th)
In addition to dragging the Miami Heat to the last spot in the Eastern Conference playoffs, one of the biggest impacts from Dwayne Wade’s swan song this year has been his proverbial passing of the torch to forward Justise Winslow. The former highly-touted draft pick has always struggled with injuries and inconsistencies in his development, but this season, Winslow is averaging career-bests in points (12.5), rebounds (5.5) and assists (4.3), while shooting a career-best 43.1 percent from the field. Winslow and Wade have cemented a strong relationship this year, with the latter firmly believing the former is ready to be Wade’s heir-apparent after this year is over.
19. Minnesota Timberwolves (Last Month: 21st)
Minnesota’s 5-6 stretch coming out of the All-Star break might’ve been the nail in the coffin in their postseason hopes. That record looks even worse when you consider that three of those five wins came against two of the worst teams in the Eastern Conference (one against the Washington Wizards and two against the New York Knicks). Entering Thursday evening, the Timberwolves were 6.5 games out of the last spot in the Western Conference playoffs, thanks to five losses in their last eight games, and with eight of their remaining 14 games coming against teams firmly in the Western Conference postseason race, there’s not much hope to be had for Timberwolves fans.
20. Charlotte Hornets (Last Month: 17th)
I’m sure there are still a contingent of Charlotte Hornets’ fans who’ll try and spin the fact that the team, currently sitting in 10th place in the Eastern Conference as of Thursday evening, is only two games back of both the last playoff spot in the East, plus a potential Southeast Division title. But with their 4-10 record since the first weekend of February, the majority of fans are discussing whether these next few weeks might be the last that they’ll see three-time All-Star point guard Kemba Walker wearing a Hornets’ uniform. The impending free agent will have plenty of suitors in the offseason, if Charlotte doesn’t offer him the potential $190 “max contract” to stay locally.
21. New Orleans Pelicans (Last Month: 24th)
New Orleans’ 4-2 record coming out of All-Star break looks like it’s miles behind them, thanks to their current four-game losing streak. But, there are still reasons to be optimistic about what they’re seeing, even as they begin to prepare for a possible life without Anthony Davis. In particular, forward Julius Randle has continued to build on his breakout season, averaging 23.6 points, 6.5 rebounds, and 3.5 assists since February 22nd, while the energy brought by youngsters like Frank Jackson, Kenrich Williams and Cheick Diallo has been a welcome addition to the veterans.
22. Los Angeles Lakers (Last Month: 16th)
It’s nearly impossible to encapsulate the eulogy for the 2018-2019 Los Angeles Lakers with just this one entry. But let’s just say this: last offseason, amidst all the reports of which NBA stars the Lakers were chasing in free agency to join LeBron James in LA, there were whispers that the idea of playing alongside James wasn’t nearly as alluring as we were made to believe in today’s “superteam”-focused NBA. Suddenly, it feels like there’s a lot more credence to such an idea. You can argue that James’ public comments, and the machinations of his agent (Rich Paul) to bring Anthony Davis to Los Angeles, singlehandedly derailed the Lakers’ season, and led to the ultimate blemish on James’ resume. It’s hard to see Lakers’ fans who begrudgingly accepted James as one of their own when he arrived to view him any less lovingly than they did about eight months ago.
23. Memphis Grizzlies (Last Month: 25th)
Why is a team like the Memphis Grizzlies, who appear firmly in the midst of a total rebuild, looking to pile on even more wins on top of their 5-4 record since the All-Star break? Because Memphis still owes Boston a yet-to-be-conveyed first-round pick in the NBA Draft, thanks to the Grizzlies acquiring Jeff Green way back in 2014. To make matters more complicated, the pick has protections: it’s top-8 protected in 2019, top-6 in 2020 and it will become unprotected in 2021. Rather than having this proverbial sword hanging over their head, Memphis is trying to find a way to get high enough so that they can convey the pick over to Boston this year, and get that obligation out of the way.
24. Washington Wizards (Last Month: 22nd)
The folks in the front office of the Washington Wizards, who might be the last people associated with this team that have even a modicum of positivity left for this season, will point to the fact that Bradley Beal has been averaging 29.4 points, 7.1 assists, and 6.5 rebounds per game since the All-Star break. But the beleaguered fans of this team around our nation’s capital, whose hope revolves around only one increasingly-faint wish (that tone-deaf owner Ted Leonsis to finally fire General Manager Ernie Grunfeld), will point to the team’s 5-5 record in that same span. Washington is a better team on paper than the Southeast Division rivals they trail, and they’re too talented to be almost ten games under .500, even without John Wall. This level of underperforming falls squarely on the shoulders of Grunfeld and his hilariously-overmatched hand-picked choice at head coach, Scott Brooks.
25. Atlanta Hawks (Last Month: 26th)
NBA referee Mark Ayotte took matters into his own hands, in terms of limiting Trae Young’s recent string of on-court brilliance, when he delivered a completely reprehensible technical foul for Young glaring just a beat too long in Kris Dunn’s direction, during Atlanta’s recent win over the Chicago Bulls (in the second of their back-to-back meetings). You can call Ayotte’s efforts a success; Young was averaging 34.8 points per game since All-Star break heading into that game but has averaged only 18.2 points since. Still, given what fans down there are seeing from Young, there are plenty of people — despite Atlanta’s 5-5 record hurting their chances of earning the #1 pick in the 2019 NBA Draft sweepstakes — who are dreaming of pairing Young with something of a local product that you might’ve heard of: Zion Williamson.
26. Dallas Mavericks (Last Month: 18th)
The Dallas Mavericks are on one hell of a streak right now; the problem is, it’s the exact opposite of a streak any NBA team wants to find themselves on. Since February 10th, the Mavericks have won a total of one game, going 1-11 in that time frame. Sure, you have to factor in that Luka Doncic missed a couple of games in that span, and has been battling a combination of a bum knee and the fact that opposing teams are doing whatever they can to limit his on-court production. Regardless, the Mavericks suddenly find themselves with the second-lowest win total in the Western Conference. The offseason can’t come fast enough for them.
27. Chicago Bulls (Last Month: 27th)
Noteworthy: Otto Porter Jr has averaged 18.4 points, 6.1 rebounds, and 3.0 assists since arriving in Chicago, all of which exceed his career averages. More noteworthy: In that same period, Lauri Markkanen has averaged 20.8 points and 10.6 rebounds per game, and is going be discussed ad nauseam as a potential breakout star for 2019-2020. Most noteworthy: Chicago’s 7-7 record since the trade deadline has shifted their hopes for winning the NBA Draft lottery from “faint” to “on life support.” They’re ahead of the laughably-bad New York Knicks by six games in the win column, but Chicago is still the “proud” owner of the fourth-worst record in the NBA entering Thursday morning.
28. Phoenix Suns (Last Month: 28th)
Previously, the most interesting thing that involved the Phoenix Suns over the past week or so was ESPN’s Kevin Arnovitz’s expose on the dysfunction within the organization, cultivated almost exclusively by notoriously fickle owner Robert Sarver. But Phoenix was quickly able to distract people from having such an (accurate) narrative amplified, thanks to their 3-3 record in March, which is a big deal for a team that’s only won 16 games all season (as of Friday morning). The crown jewel of those three most recent wins is undoubtedly their win against the Golden State Warriors, in Oracle Arena no less.
29. Cleveland Cavaliers (Last Month: 29th)
Beating the Toronto Raptors by 25 points on Monday evening provided a faint glimmer of brightness amidst this dreary season for the Cleveland Cavaliers (ignoring the fact that said game came on the end of Toronto’s three-game road trip, and represented their third game in four nights). Otherwise, Cleveland still has the third-lowest win total in the NBA, meaning the only race that they’re presently in the thick of would be securing one of the bottom three records in the NBA, to maximize their chance at landing the #1 pick in this June’s NBA Draft.
30. New York Knicks (Last Month: 30th)
Let’s create an Olympic medal podium of the dumpster fire that is the New York Knicks. The bronze medal would go to the fact that the Knicks, riding a seven-game losing streak heading into Friday evening, have failed to break 100 points scoring over their last four games, even in today’s scoring-happy NBA. The silver medal would have to go to the fact that, even after winning back-to-back games at the end of February, the Knicks have won a total of four games this calendar year. And the gold medal? That, of course, belongs to team owner James Dolan, who continues to show why he’s one of the worst — and most universally hated — owners in professional sports, after confronting a fan at Madison Square Garden just a few days ago.