NBA Power Rankings Update: Battle in the East
The long grind of the NBA regular season is winding down. In fewer than three weeks, the regular season will finally come to an end, and we will enter playoff madness. The postseason chase this year may not be as dramatic as in recent memory, but there is still quite a bit to be decided before April 16.
In this week's edition of the Power Rankings Update, we will focus on the playoff drama in the East.
In the Eastern Conference, we have a real race for the top overall seed between Cleveland and Toronto. Seeds three through six are up for grabs with Miami, Boston, Charlotte, and Atlanta all within a half game of each other. The final two seeds are less than settled as well. Central division foes Indiana, Detroit, and Chicago are all battling for the rights to the last two playoff invitations. Even the Wizards, who sit in 10th, have an outside shot of sneaking into the postseason, albeit at an only 13.4% probability.
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: 19.1, Record: 9-63, Last Week: 30)
29. Los Angeles Lakers (nERD: 21.4, Record: 15-56, Last Week: 29)
28. Phoenix Suns (nERD: 24.4, Record: 20-51, Last Week: 28)
27. Brooklyn Nets (nERD: 30.8, Record: 19-51, Last Week: 27)
26. New Orleans Pelicans (nERD: 39.6, Record: 26-44, Last Week: 24)
25. Minnesota Timberwolves (nERD: 39.8, Record: 23-48, Last Week: 26)
24. Denver Nuggets (nERD: 40.4, Record: 30-42, Last Week: 21)
23. Sacramento Kings (nERD: 40.5, Record: 27-44, Last Week: 23)
22. New York Knicks (nERD: 41.0, Record: 29-43, Last Week: 22)
21. Orlando Magic (nERD: 41.3, Record: 29-42, Last Week: 20)
20. Milwaukee Bucks (nERD: 41.5, Record: 30-42, Last Week: 25)
The addition of Greg Monroe to the Bucks' young core, had many, including us, writing Milwaukee back into the postseason bracket. Building on last season's 6 seed finish seemed inevitable, but the Bucks are far from a playoff squad this year. As losers of four of their last five games, Jason Kidd's squad is a season-high 12 games under .500 and eight games out of the final playoff spot.
The first place to look for why the Bucks failed this year is the defense. Last season, the club ranked in the top five in Defensive Rating and top eight in points allowed. This year, the team as a whole has taken a step back as they sit 20th with 102.5 points allowed. The offense has its own share of the blame as well.
Ever since dealing Brandon Knight at the 2015 trade deadline, the point guard position has been searching for consistency. Jerryd Bayless provided some spark when he wasn't injured. The real disappointment in the backcourt is the lack of improvement in the game of 24-year-old Michael Carter-Williams. While he boosted his True Shooting Percentage to a career-high .497, he struggled to run the offense. The Bucks posted a 103.2 Offensive Rating with MCW off the court while the efficiency dropped by 1.5 points per 100 possessions with him running the floor.
19. Chicago Bulls (nERD: 44.3, Record: 36-34, Last Week: 19)
Once as high as the 2 seed in the East, injuries have taken their toll on the Bulls pushing them to the outside of the playoff chase. For the first time since Derrick Rose joined the NBA ranks, Chicago is in real danger of missing the postseason as our algorithms give them only a 28.2% chance of making it. If they fail to qualify, it would mark the second time in the last 12 seasons the Bulls would be in the lottery -- not what they were hoping for just a few months ago.
With Rose missing 12 games, Pau Gasol 7, and Jimmy Butler out for 15, the lack of consistency as a whole should be a given. Add in Nikola Mirotic, Mike Dunleavy, and Joakim Noah, all vital pieces, missing substantial stretches, and Chicago never had a chance getting anything going. After a 21-12 start, the Bulls have flopped hard with a 14-22 record since January 9. The losing has been a total team effort, too.
In the past two and a half months, the Bulls have the 25th-ranked defense and 24th-ranked offense regarding efficiency. They also own the sixth-worst scoring margin, as they are getting outscored by an average of 4.6 points per game in their last 36 outings. In their most recent game, Chicago was the healthiest they had been in months but still lost a crucial home game to the lottery-bound Knicks 115-107, dropping them into ninth place.
18. Memphis Grizzlies (nERD: 45.6, Record: 41-31, Last Week: 17)
17. Washington Wizards (nERD: 46.3, Record: 35-36, Last Week: 18)
Never more than two games over .500 -- and that happened way back on November 21 -- Washington has been on the outside of playoff hunt all season long. At 35-36, the Wizards sit 2.5 games behind Detroit for the final playoff spot in the East, and it took a recent five-game winning streak to get even that close. The defense, or lack thereof, has been the focus of the struggles this season.
Before the All-Star break, the Wizards had the 26th-ranked scoring defense in the NBA. In their last 20 games, it is a different story as Washington owns the third-most efficient defense behind Atlanta and San Antonio. The main difference has been opponent shooting percentage. In their first 51 games, Wizards opponents couldn't miss. They shot 47.1% from the field including 38.7% from three. Since then, Washington has tightened the screws, giving up 33.3% from beyond the arc and 44.9% overall.
The addition of Markieff Morris at the trade deadline is a big part of the improved defense. His 98.9 Defensive Rating is not only the best mark of any power forward on the team, but his presence in the frontcourt has also allowed Marcin Gortat to improve his rating by more than 4.0 points since the break. The duo together has allowed only 0.967 points per possession (equivalent to a 96.7 Defensive Rating) in their 300-plus minutes together, per NBAWowy.com.
16. Houston Rockets (nERD: 48.2, Record: 35-37, Last Week: 16)
15. Portland Trail Blazers (nERD: 48.8, Record: 37-35, Last Week: 15)
14. Dallas Mavericks (nERD: 49.2, Record: 35-36, Last Week: 13)
13. Utah Jazz (nERD: 51.3, Record: 35-36, Last Week: 14)
12. Indiana Pacers (nERD: 53.8, Record: 37-33, Last Week: 12)
11. Detroit Pistons (nERD: 54.5, Record: 38-34, Last Week: 11)
Winners of four straight, the Pistons have jumped clear of Chicago and are tied with Indiana for the 7 seed in the East. Helped out by a favorable schedule, their last four opponents are a combined 74 games under .500; Detroit is inching closer to returning to the playoffs for the first time since 2009. Our algorithms make them the heavy favorite to snag the final playoff berth with a 70.3% chance.
Over the course of the entire season, the defense has been one of the better ones in the league, allowing only 101.5 points per game, but over the past two weeks, that unit has struggled. While they have reasserted themselves in the past two games -- allowing only 91 and 102 points to the Bucks and Magic, respectively -- the previous six games are cause for concern. They have allowed an average of 109.4 points per game in their last eight games, including 118-plus in losses to Charlotte, Washington, and Atlanta.
If they want to be more than a one-and-done postseason squad, they need to clamp down on defense. Actually, with one of the toughest closing stretches in the league -- eight .500 or better clubs in their remaining 10 games -- the Pistons need to right the defensive ship or face extending their playoff drought to seven seasons.
10. Miami Heat (nERD: 57.2, Record: 41-30, Last Week: 10)
9. Charlotte Hornets (nERD: 57.8, Record: 41-30, Last Week: 9)
8. Atlanta Hawks (nERD: 60.3, Record: 42-30, Last Week: 8)
7. Boston Celtics (nERD: 60.4, Record: 42-30, Last Week: 7)
Once thought to have a stranglehold on the 3 seed, the Celtics went out and lost five of six, including four straight. Their struggles against winning teams -- a 16-18 record against .500 or better squads -- was highlighted in their losing streak. Double-digit losses to Cleveland, Toronto, and Oklahoma City brought up the recurring doubts that Boston could win a first-round series. Luckily for them, they got to face the lowly 76ers this past Sunday and build up some confidence, leading to their current three-game winning streak.
With Most Improved Player candidate, Jae Crowder, out of action the past six games due to an ankle sprain, the high-flying offense, fifth in the NBA with 105.8 points per game, has been grounded. Scoring three fewer points per game without their versatile small forward, Boston has gone 3-3 and faces a tough five-game road trip before Crowder is expected to return. With a few more losses, the Celts could find themselves as low as sixth in the East and without the much needed home-court advantage in the first round.
6. Toronto Raptors (nERD: 63.5, Record: 48-22, Last Week: 6)
5. Los Angeles Clippers (nERD: 65.4, Record: 43-27, Last Week: 4)
4. Cleveland Cavaliers (nERD: 66.0, Record: 51-20, Last Week: 5)
The class of the East all year long, Cleveland is poised to secure home-court advantage throughout the Eastern Conference playoffs. Their two-and-a-half-game lead over Toronto looks insurmountable when you consider both of their upcoming schedules. The way the Cavs have been playing the past month, they have the look of a team destined for the NBA Finals.
In their last 13 games, the Cavs have 10 wins, including some absolute stompings. In the past three weeks, Cleveland has beaten Washington by 25, Boston by 17, and, most impressively, the Clippers by 24. Their 8.2-point scoring margin in that span is fourth in the NBA behind Golden State, San Antonio, and Atlanta. The key behind the dominating play has been an improved offense, scoring nearly 109 points per game in March.
While LeBron James will always get his, the real catalyst in the team's recent surge has been Kyrie Irving. His scoring average of 21.1 points along with his 57.1% True Shooting Percentage in March is letting the league know that Irving is completely healthy and ready to roll come playoff time.
3. Oklahoma City Thunder (nERD: 69.0, Record: 49-22, Last Week: 3)
2. Golden State Warriors (nERD: 83.1, Record: 64-6, Last Week: 2)
1. San Antonio Spurs (nERD: 86.2, Record: 60-11, Last Week: 1)