With the All-Star break just a week and a half away, this week's NBA Power Rankings looks at the biggest question approaching the break for each of the top 10 teams.
10. San Antonio Spurs
Last week's ranking: 9
Overall record: 32-22
Last week: 3-0 (Won vs Suns, Won vs Nets, Won vs. Pelicans)
This week: at Kings, at Warriors, at Trail Blazers, at Jazz
Biggest question: Will the Spurs keep their postseason streak alive?
San Antonio has made the playoffs 21 straight seasons, one shy of the NBA record of 22 set by the Syracuse Nationals/Philadelphia 76ers from 1950-71.
For a team that entered the league with more question marks at point guard than perhaps any team in the NBA and a third of the way through the season ranked 14th in the Western Conference, it would be quite the accomplishment.
While it might seem odd to consider this the best coaching job of Gregg Popovich's career given that he's a five-time champion and has won 60 games in a season on six different occasions, you could make the case that on paper this is the least talented roster he's had in two decades, especially when considering the litany of injuries.
9. Philadelphia 76ers
Last week's ranking: 10th
Overall record: 34-19
Last week: 2-1 (Won at Lakers, Won at Warriors, Loss at Kings)
This week: Raptors, Nuggets, Lakers
Biggest question: Will they add any depth?
The 76ers really took off a year ago when they added Marco Belinelli and Ersan Ilyasova. Belinelli made his debut in the final game before the All-Star break while Ilyasova came on board at the beginning of March.
One year later and Philadelphia's biggest question remains depth. Even if far more time is spent over-analyzing the chemistry and fit between Joel Embiid, Ben Simmons and Jimmy Butler, they are All-Stars who are more than capable of figuring out.
Given that Belinelli and Ilyasova are gone, Markelle Fultz hasn't played since November, and rookie Zhaire Smith has yet to play - not to mention that the team sacrificed two starters in Dario Saric and Robert Covington in order to acquire Butler - and there are legitimate conerns that the 76ers are too top heavy to seriously contend for a spot in the NBA Finals.
Watch out for Philadelphia as a potential destination for buy-out candidates and as a potential buyer at the trade deadline.
8. Portland Trail Blazers
Last week's ranking: 8th
Overall record: 32-20
Last week: 1-0
This week: Heat, Spurs, at Mavericks
Biggest question: Is Jusuf Nurkic the third star they need?
In last year's first-round sweep against the Pelicans, Jusuf Nurkic looked lost trying to keep up with Anthony Davis. In four games, the Bosnian Bear struggled with foul trouble and as a result, averaged just 11.8 points and 8.0 rebounds in under 24 minutes per game.
Though Damian Lillard struggled all series long, the underwhelming play of Nurkic placed a brighter spotlight on what's become a recurring problem in Portland: the Blazers need a third star.
Nine months later Nurkic is playing the best ball of his career and consistently delivering stand-out performances.
- 27 points and 12 rebounds in a win over the Warriors
- 25 points and 15 rebounds in a win over the Rockets
- 24 points, 23 rebounds, 7 assists, 5 steals and 5 blocks in a win over the Kings
We've seen these type of games from Nurkic before. The biggest difference now is that they're starting to come in Portland's bigger games and in higher leverage situations. If his strong play translates to the postseason, he might just be the essential piece Portland needs for an extended run.
7. Houston Rockets
Last week's ranking: 5th
Overall record: 30-22
Last week: 1-2 (Lost vs Pelicans, Lost at Nuggets, Won At Jazz)
This week: at Suns, at Kings, Thunder
Biggest question: How long can James Harden keep this going?
James Harden is in the midst of one of the most impressive individual seasons we've ever seen. If the season ended today, he'd rank behind only Wilt Chamberlain, Michael Jordan and Elgin Baylor for the highest single-season scoring average of all-time with 36.2 points per game.
Harden has been at his best over the last couple of months, with an average of 41.9 points per game since Houston's win over the Blazers on Dec. 11. He's scored at least 30 points in those 25 games, giving him the fourth-longest streak of 30-point games in NBA history, with only Chamberlain ahead of him.
It's helped the Rockets turn their season around. Houston has gone from being on the playoff bubble in the Western Conference to only a few games behind Oklahoma City and Portland in the standings.
The question now is can Harden continue playing at his historic rate for the remainder of the season? He has a good chance of being named MVP of the league again if he does, but he might put himself at risk of burning out if the Rockets find themselves making another deep playoff run.
It only puts more pressure on Chris Paul and Eric Gordon, both of whom haven't been themselves for most of this season, to step up.
6. Boston Celtics
Last week's ranking: 7th
Overall record: 34-19
Last week: 4-0 (Won vs Nets, Won vs Hornets, Won at Knicks, Won vs. Thunder)
This week: at Cavaliers, Lakers, Clippers
Biggest question: Can they rely on Gordon Hayward?
You know the deal by now. Gordon Hayward is in the second year of a four-year contract with the Celtics that will pay him a total of $128 million, making him the highest paid player on the team. He missed all but five minutes of his first season with a devastating ankle injury and he's been a shell of his former self in his second season as he continues to work his way back to full strength.
The Celtics knew they'd have to be patient with his recovery, but there's no denying that they're a healthy Hayward away from being the scariest team in the Eastern Conference. With the chance - however small or big - that Kyrie Irving will leave the franchise in free agency, it only puts more pressure on Hayward to find his game sooner rather than later.
Hayward has at least shown signs of the impact he can make, such as when he scored 30 points at Minnesota on Dec. 1 and followed it up with a season-high 35 points when the Celtics hosted the Timberwolves in Boston a month later. The key for Hayward is consistency. Can he string together those types of high impact performances? The answer to that question may ultimately determine if Boston has the juice to reach the NBA Finals.
5. Oklahoma City Thunder
Last week's ranking: 6th
Overall record: 33-19
Last week: 2-1 (Won at Magic, Won at Heat, Loss at Celtics)
This week: Magic, Grizzlies, at Rockets
Biggest question: Can Paul George keep this up?
Paul George had a solid first season in Oklahoma City, but the first half was significantly better than the second. Whereas he averaged 22.5 points on 44.8 percent shooting from the field and 43.2 percent from 3-point range leading up to the All-Star Game, George averaged 20.6 points on only 38.5 percent shooting from the field and 32.4 percent after.
That doesn't include their first round playoff series with the Jazz, in which George was limited to 19.5 points on 32.4 percent shooting in Oklahoma City's four losses.
Though he didn't speak about his personal struggles specifically, George chalked the Thunder falling short of their ultimate goal to the team as a whole trying to force it to make it work.
"When we put the team together [last season], myself, add on [Carmelo Anthony] to join Russ, I knew right away the goal was to win that year," George told ESPN's Royce Young earlier this season. "I think we put too much pressure on that and we kind of tried to force it to happen rather than build toward it."
After signing a contract in the offseason that could keep him in Oklahoma City until 2021-22, George has been remarkable thus far in what's been by far the best season of his career.
How seriously OKC contends is directly tied to the play of George.
If this is the calibre of player that shows up in the postseason, OKC could be the biggest threat to Golden State in the Western Conference.
If he reverts to his form from his first season with the Thunder, they could once again be first-round fodder in a deep conference.
4. Toronto Raptors
Last week's ranking: 4th
Overall record: 38-16
Last week: 1-1 (Lost vs. Bucks, Won vs. Clippers)
This week: at 76ers, at Hawks, at Knicks
Biggest question: Will Kyle Lowry bounce back?
Kyle Lowry has been two different players this season.
The first is the one who led the Raptors to their best start in franchise history with numbers that made him look like Steve Nash in his MVP years.
The second is the one who has been inconsistent since missing his first game of the season with a back injury.
|First 23 games||15.4||10.3||1.3||2.7||45.4|
|Last 19 games||12.5||7.9||1.4||3.1||35.2|
With the emergence of Pascal Siakam and Serge Ibaka, plus the addition of Kawhi Leonard, the Raptors don't need Lowry to be the 20-point-per-game scorer he once was. They are, however, a completely different team when his shot is falling - the four-time All-Star is averaging 15.8 points on 45.1 percent shooting in wins this season compared to 9.8 points on 29.0 percent shooting in losses.
If Lowry can regain his early season form, the new-look Raptors have proven that they can keep up with any team.
3. Denver Nuggets
Last week's ranking: 3rd
Overall record: 37-15
Last week: 4-0 (Won at Grizzlies, Won at Pelicans, Won vs Rockets, Won vs. Timberwolves)
This week: at Pistons, at Nets, at 76ers
Biggest question: Can they go toe-to-toe with the Warriors?
Even with the strong first half in which the Nuggets have lived at or near the top of the Western Conference, there is no shortage of doubters.
That was true even prior to the drubbing they received at home against the Warriors back on January 15 in which they surrendered 142 points and it's even more true now.
Perhaps it's unreasonable to expect a group that has not reached the postseason to all of the sudden make it and go deep. Perhaps they'll need a taste of it before they're ready to truly compete.
And yet that gaudy record against the gauntlet of the West has raised expectations to the point where anything short of a trip to the second round and even Conference Finals might feel like a disappointment. Even if Denver gets that far, the prospect of getting run out of the gym by Golden State seems to loom larger for this group than any other.
2. Milwaukee Bucks
Last week's ranking: 2nd
Overall record: 38-13
Last week: 3-0 (Won at Pistons, Won at Raptors, Won at Wizards)
This week: at Nets, Wizards, at Mavericks, Magic
Biggest question: Are they a legitimate title contender?
Because they sure look like it on paper. As of Feb. 3, the Bucks have the best net rating by a mile, the best defensive rating, the fourth-best offensive rating and are led by arguably the MVP of the league in Giannis Antetokounmpo.
They've even gotten it done against quality teams. The Bucks are currently 15-7 against opponents with a record of .500 or better to this point of the season, which - once again - leads the league. They've beaten the Raptors three out of four times, the Nuggets in both of their matchups and the Celtics and Warriors once each.
The Bucks won't play the Warriors again unless they meet in the NBA Finals, but they'll face the Celtics for the third and final time this regular season on Feb. 21, with the winner taking the season series 2-to-1.
And yet, despite all of their success, it doesn't seem like the Bucks are getting the respect they deserve. Perhaps it's because we've seen something similar from a Mike Budenholzer coached team before or because of how Milwaukee's season ended last year, but it's going to be harder to dismiss them if they continue to play at this level from here on out.
1. Golden State Warriors
Last week's ranking: 1st
Overall record: 37-15
Last week: 2-1 (Won at Pacers, Lost vs 76ers, Won vs Lakers)
This week: Spurs, at Suns, Heat
Biggest question: Are they actually unstoppable with DeMarcus Cousins?
The Warriors are getting healthy at the right time. Stephen Curry has been playing at an MVP level since missing 11 straight games in November and though his shot has abandoned him this season, the Warriors continue to be a superior team on both ends of the court with Draymond Green, who has missed a total of 15 this season.
Then there's DeMarcus Cousins, who has now played in seven games with the Warriors. He's only getting 22.7 minutes per game, but on a per-minute level is producing at the same level as he was prior to tearing his Achilles.
More importantly for the Warriors, that has translated into team success. They are 6-1 since Cousins made his debut and they've done so in dominant fashion.
Small sample size and all, the early returns on the Cousins experiment should terrify the rest of the league.
Rest of the NBA
11. Utah Jazz
The Jazz look like they're reading to be a mainstay in the top-10 of the power rankings for the remainder of the season. They've found their groove since a slow start and they have the second-easiest schedule the rest of the way. If Donovan Mitchell and Rudy Gobert can continue their All-Star level of play, watch out.
12. Brooklyn Nets
13. Los Angeles Lakers
14. LA Clippers
15. Indiana Pacers
The Pacers have now lost four of five games since the untimely and unfortunate season-ending injury to All-Star Victor Oladipo, who had led the team to the No. 4 seed in the East through 47 games. With 30 games remaining in the season, Indiana has a six-game lead over sixth-place Brooklyn and will not likely fall anymore in the standings, but the team now seeks ways to rally without its superstar at a crucial juncture.
16. Sacramento Kings
17. Charlotte Hornets
18. Minnesota Timberwolves
19. Washington Wizards
20. Dallas Mavericks
The Mavericks are still very much in the Western Conference playoff race, but it's only going to get harder from here on out. Dallas traded three rotational players to get Kristaps Porzingis, who looks like he'll miss the remainder of the season as he recovers from the ACL tear that ended his 2017-18 season, and they have one of the league's hardest schedules the rest of the way.
21. Miami Heat
22. Detroit Pistons
23. New Orleans Pelicans
This could be one of the most significant weeks in Pelicans history depending on if they decide to move Anthony Davis ahead of the trade deadline in the wake of his trade request. What the franchise receives in exchange for their franchise player should it decide to move on will be felt for years in New Orleans. It could also signal how the team decides to move forward with other players currently on the roster, most notably Jrue Holiday who has three years left on his deal after this one.
24. Orlando Magic
25. Memphis Grizzlies
26. Atlanta Hawks
While the Hawks are 17-35 through 52 games, they are quickly becoming one of the league's more fun teams to watch. The one-two punch of Trae Young and John Collins is one of the more promising - if not the most promising - young duos in the league. First-year head coach Lloyd Pierce is getting the most out of the rest of a roster that features 12 players 25-years-old or younger and they will clearly continue to get better as they gain experience.
27. Cleveland Cavaliers
28. Chicago Bulls
29. Phoenix Suns
30. New York Knicks
All eyes in New York are now focused on two things: the NBA draft lottery and free agency. With the worst record in the league, the Knicks are well positioned to secure the best-possible odds for the draft lottery on May 14. After the trade that sent Kristaps Porzingis to the Dallas Mavericks along with the big contracts attached to Tim Hardaway Jr. and Courtney Lee, the Knicks also now have room for two max contract slots.