NBA Power Rankings Update: Heading Down the Stretch

The Heat have come out blazing since the break, helping them surge up the standings. How high have they climbed up the power ranks this week?

Five weeks. That is all that is left in the regular season. This late in the season, the standings and playoff seedings are solidifying. Even our rankings are stabilizing with only minor movement in the last few weeks.

Also, there is little time left for a playoff push. In fact, the East has narrowed down the playoff contenders to 10 teams, while the West is all but decided with ninth-place Utah three games out with only 18 left to play. 

Despite the waning drama in the postseason chase, there is still plenty of intrigue down the stretch. Will the Clippers catch the Thunder? Can the Wizards sneak into the playoffs? Will the Warriors win 73? We will have the answer to these questions, and more, in just over a month. But until then, let's take a look at this week's power rankings while we examine some of the most notable teams of the past week.

Our power rankings here at numberFire are not subjective or influenced by the latest hype; we put our faith and trust in our algorithms. Each week, we’ll list all 30 teams in the Association from worst to best based on our nERD metric, which is a predictive measure to help define what the team's winning percentage ultimately will be.

30. Philadelphia 76ers (nERD: 18.3, Record: 8-56, Last Week: 30)
29. Los Angeles Lakers (nERD: 21.1, Record: 14-51, Last Week: 29)

While no one outside of L.A. was thinking playoffs this season, with only 14 wins at the moment, the Lakers are on pace for the worst season, record-wise, in their 68-year franchise history. They have been inept on both sides of the ball with the worst Defensive Rating (109.4) and field goal shooting percentage (41.6%) in the NBA. Not exactly the way they wanted to send off NBA legend Kobe Bryant.

But for all the doom and gloom this season, there is some hope. Since March 1, the Lakers have been playing some decent ball. Their offense has taken a step up from the bottom of the barrel to the middle of the pack with an average of 102.0 points per game and 44.8% shooting. Most impressively, L.A. holds a top eight Offensive Rating in March (106.7), better than the Warriors or Spurs.

The Lakers' newfound scoring ways have coincided with rookie D'Angelo Russell finally being liberated from coach Byron Scott's perplexing benching. Given the start in his last nine games, Russell has responded with an average of 20.7 points, 4.8 assists, and 3.0 three-pointers on 48.2% shooting. Beginning with his 39-point performance against the Nets on March 1, the Lakers have won three out of five, including their stunning 17-point win over the Warriors.

28. Phoenix Suns (nERD: 23.5, Record: 17-47, Last Week: 28)
27. Brooklyn Nets (nERD: 29.7, Record: 18-46, Last Week: 27)
26. Minnesota Timberwolves (nERD: 39.0, Record: 20-45, Last Week: 25)
25. Milwaukee Bucks (nERD: 39.5, Record: 27-38, Last Week: 26)
24. New Orleans Pelicans (nERD: 40.2, Record: 24-39, Last Week: 22)
23. Denver Nuggets (nERD: 40.7, Record: 26-38, Last Week: 24)

Whenever you are missing your top scorer, as the Nuggets have with Danilo Gallinari since February 29, your offense is naturally going to take a step back. Defying convention, though, Denver has rallied and been playing some of their best ball of the season in the past five games.

Throughout the first 59 games of the season, the Nuggets' offense has resided in the bottom third of the league in both points scored (100.7) and Offensive Rating (101.8). Since Gallinari hurt his right ankle, Denver has the fourth-most efficient offense (109.7) and the third-most points scored (111.8).

In those past five games, the backcourt duo of Emmanuel Mudiay and Gary Harris have emerged with a combined average of 34.0 points, 9.4 assists, and 3.6 three-pointers per game. Mudiay has seemingly found his shot as he has gone from shooting less than 34 percent from the field in his first 45 games to over 40 percent in his last five games. Second-year guard Harris has also increased his scoring by over five points per game, reinforcing the promise of the Nuggets backcourt for years to come.

22. Sacramento Kings (nERD: 41.4, Record: 25-38, Last Week: 21)
21. Orlando Magic (nERD: 42.6, Record: 27-36, Last Week: 20)
20. New York Knicks (nERD: 42.7, Record: 27-39, Last Week: 23)
19. Chicago Bulls (nERD: 45.0, Record: 32-30, Last Week: 19)
18. Washington Wizards (nERD: 45.0, Record: 30-33, Last Week: 18)
17. Houston Rockets (nERD: 47.0, Record: 32-32, Last Week: 17)

The Rockets so far this season have been very uneven. The credit or blame goes in large part due to the bi-polar tendencies of the team as they rank in the top five in scoring (105.6) but the bottom five in points allowed (106.9). Their scoring differential of -1.1 is the worst mark of any team currently in the playoffs. Their defense has been marked by lack of effort as they have the second-worst Defensive Rebounding Percentage (73.2%). They also allow an obscene number of points in the paint when you consider they have a three-time Defensive Player of the Year, Dwight Howard, down low.

Howard's overall year has been a disappointment as he is averaging the third-lowest number of rebounds (12.1) and blocks (1.5) in his career and the least amount of points (15.0) since his rookie season. On the bright side, over his last five games, D12 has stepped up his offensive game with 19.2 points per game on over 65% field goal shooting. In the Rockets' last game, a win over the 76ers, Howard looked like the Superman of old with 21 points, 18 rebounds, and 2 blocks. Unfortunately, that also meant the abysmal free-throw shooting as well.

While not at the level of a DeAndre Jordan or Andre Drummond, Howard is still one of the worst free-throw shooters in the league at 51.1%. The poor free-throw shooting on the Rockets is not confined to just Howard as the whole club is shooting 68% on a league-high 37 attempts per game since February 19. Combine that with their league-low 31.1% on over 31 attempts from beyond the arc this season, and you start to see why Houston is the 8 seed and not a threat to challenge for the Western Conference Finals this season.

16. Utah Jazz (nERD: 48.6, Record: 29-35, Last Week: 16)

After an overtime victory versus the Rockets on February 23, the Jazz were feeling good, as they held a 28-28 record and sat in the 8 seed in the West. Since then, though, they have been the coldest team in the NBA outside of Philly. Losing seven of eight has dropped them a full three games behind Houston for the final playoff spot with only 18 games remaining.

While they still hold the third-best defense in the past two-weeks-plus, Utah's offense has been absolutely anemic. Ranking at the bottom of the Association with only 91.6 points per game and a 94.0 Offensive Rating, the Jazz just are not scoring enough points. They are struggling to make baskets, as they hold the worst field goal and three-point shooting percentage in the NBA their last eight games.

While the trade deadline addition of Shelvin Mack started off well, 16.5 points per game in his first two games with Utah, his last five have been complete opposites. Averaging only 7.4 points and 2.6 turnovers per game, Mack has made fewer than 28 percent of his shots. Add in Rodney Hood hitting 33.3 percent of his over 11 attempts per game since the break, and the Jazz backcourt is paving a brick-laden path to the lottery.

15. Memphis Grizzlies (nERD: 49.3, Record: 38-26, Last Week: 15)
14. Dallas Mavericks (nERD: 49.8, Record: 33-32, Last Week: 13)
13. Portland Trail Blazers (nERD: 50.3, Record: 34-31, Last Week: 14)
12. Indiana Pacers (nERD: 54.8, Record: 34-30, Last Week: 11)
11. Detroit Pistons (nERD: 55.8, Record: 33-31, Last Week: 8)
10. Miami Heat (nERD: 55.9, Record: 37-27, Last Week: 12)

When Chris Bosh was diagnosed with blood clots that have sidelined him indefinitely, the Heat seemed destined to be watching the playoffs at home for the second straight year. Not only has Dwyane Wade and Co. stayed alive in the playoff chase, but they have also actually gained ground since the All-Star Break.

In their first 53 games, the Heat were the anti-Rockets as they allowed the second-fewest points per game, 96.7, while scoring only 96.0, good for 29th as well. Without Bosh, they have had to alter their style. Before the break, the Heat averaged 94.7 possessions per 48 minutes; only the Jazz had fewer. In their last 11 games, they have ratcheted up the play and have averaged more than 100 possessions per game. 

The increased tempo has led Goran Dragic to a dramatic reversal in his point play. In the first half of the season, he was averaging only 12.2 points and 5.3 assists per game. Since the mid-season break, he has boosted his scoring by nearly seven points per game. Luol Deng has enjoyed a mini-resurgence as well, going from 10.6 to 16.9 points per game and 4.7 to 9.8 rebounds per game in the same span. Their contributions have made the Heat winners of five of their last six and given them an 8-3 record without Bosh.

9. Charlotte Hornets (nERD: 56.2, Record: 35-28, Last Week: 10)
8. Atlanta Hawks (nERD: 57.5, Record: 36-28, Last Week: 9)
7. Boston Celtics (nERD: 61.2, Record: 39-26, Last Week: 7)
6. Toronto Raptors (nERD: 63.1, Record: 42-20, Last Week: 6)
5. Cleveland Cavaliers (nERD: 66.5, Record: 45-18, Last Week: 5)
4. Oklahoma City Thunder (nERD: 68.2, Record: 44-20, Last Week: 4)

Even after a pair of wins in their last two games, the Thunder have been slumping hard since the break with a 4-6 record. They blew late leads to the Warriors and Clippers. They also gave up 123 points to a short-handed Pelicans squad, highlighting their biggest weakness in the second half so far: defense.

Scoring 111.2 points per game is nice, but when you allow 110.7 per game, you invite in some skepticism to be thrown your way, when talking about title chances. With a matchup against an elite San Antonio squad coming up Saturday, followed by two of the highest-scoring teams since the break (Portland and Boston), the Thunder could find themselves slipping down the standings if they are not careful.

While Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook key the offense, Steven Adams has been the most valuable defender for the Thunder since the break. According to , OKC allows a whopping 1.178 points per possession (equal to a 117.8 Offensive Rating) with the center off the court. When manning the middle, Adams limits opponents to over 11 fewer points per 100 possessions.

3. Los Angeles Clippers (nERD: 69.1, Record: 41-22, Last Week: 3)
2. Golden State Warriors (nERD: 81.8, Record: 57-6, Last Week: 2)
1. San Antonio Spurs (nERD: 87.3, Record: 54-10, Last Week: 1)