PBT’s Week 21 NBA Power Rankings: Denver takes the top spot away from Boston

The Nuggets won the showdown of the top two teams in the NBA, giving them the top spot, but just below there is a lot of jockeying for position both in these NBC Sports NBA Power Rankings and in the league standings.

1. Denver Nuggets (45-20, Last Week No. 2). Denver’s win against Boston last weekend was a reminder of two things: 1) Nikola Jokic is the best player walking the face of the earth; 2) The road to the Larry O’Brien Trophy goes through the Rocky Mountains and Denver. Jokic doesn’t care about such trivialities, but his play in that game put a lot of distance between him and everyone else in the MVP race (sorry Shai). Last season Jokic didn’t win MVP in part because the Nuggets were so far ahead of the field that they coasted into the finish line over the last six weeks of the season, that will not happen this year with Denver needing to run through the tape to stay ahead of Oklahoma City and secure the No. 1 seed. Denver heads out on the road for four games this week, starting in Miami.

2. Boston Celtics (51-14, LW 1). Boston has been the best regular season team in the league — it is on pace for 65 wins with a net rating of 11 or better. However, losses last week to Cleveland and Boston rightfully give fans pause, is this team up to the postseason challenges ahead? Boston is 19-10 in clutch games this season (within five points in the final five minutes) with a +18.9 net rating in those minutes, but it doesn’t feel like that when you watch them, things get slow and bog down, leading to a lot of Jayson Tatum isolation. Boston’s problems are the problems of an elite team, but in a title-or-bust season they loom large.

3. Oklahoma City Thunder (45-20, LW 4). It still amazes me the pushback from some quarters of NBA fandom to the idea of Shai Gilgeous-Alexander as a serious MVP candidate. SGA is on pace to join Jordan and Curry as the only players ever to average 30+ points while shooting 50%+ and having 2+ steals a game. With a little over a month left in the season, things are lining up as well as the Thunder could hope for the team to make a deep playoff run. With the Clippers appearing headed for fourth and Minnesota injured and fading, the Thunder and Nuggets look like the teams chasing the No. 1 seed — and either way that falls, it’s good for OKC. What the Thunder want most is to be on the opposite side of the bracket from Denver (although looking at who could be the 7/8 teams coming out of the West, nobody gets an easy first round).

4. Milwaukee Bucks (42-24, LW 3). “I think we were turning the corner and playing our best basketball right now,” Damian Lillard said of the Bucks. “Just from how it feels out there and I think some of the things that we’re doing. But anytime you go into the playoffs you want to be playing your best basketball, you want to be comfortable to go your best version of yourself, and I don’t think we’ve been that yet this season. I can feel and see our team becoming that and I think it’s happening at the right time.” What will help Milwaukee play its best basketball is getting Khris Middleton back, and that should happen soon.

5. Minnesota Timberwolves (45-21, LW 5). Karl-Anthony Towns will be out until the playoffs — they hope he can return for the first round — due to a torn meniscus in his left knee, but the team has gone 2-2 in the games he has missed so far. While their offense dropped to the bottom 10 in the league without him (down almost three points per 100 possessions from their season average), the Timberwolves’ elite defense is keeping them afloat. With the comeback win over the Clippers Tuesday it feels like Minnesota (despite being half a game out of the No. 1 seed) is headed for the third seed in the West, which could mean a first-round series against Kevin Durant and the Suns.

6. New Orleans Pelicans (39-25, LW 9). The NBA’s most dangerous under-the-radar team has its stars in Zion Williamson and Brandon Ingram, but what makes this all work is the defense and versatility of wings Herb Jones and Trey Murphy III (at some point Murphy needs to be moved into the starting five, I’m just not sure there’s a spot right now. The Pelicans have won four in a row and will host the Clippers on Friday night in what is shaping up to be a first-round playoff preview (4/5 series), although New Orleans may catch a shorthanded Los Angeles team.

7. Los Angeles Clippers (41-23, LW 7). Kawhi Leonard leaving the Clippers game Tuesday night with back spasms is concerning, to say the least. The entire premise of the Clippers as a contender is built around Leonard being the proven postseason force on this team, but he needs to be healthy and back issues can linger. James Harden also talked postgame about possibly taking a few games off to get right. After the loss to the Timberwolves the Clippers seem destined for the No. 4 seed, maybe they slide to five but no lower. What matters now for this veteran team is getting healthy and rested before the playoffs start. The Clippers play their likely first-round opponent, the Pelicans, on Friday night, but on the second game of a road back-to-back, and they may be shorthanded.

8. Cleveland Cavaliers (41-24, LW 6). Injuries have ravaged the Cavaliers of late — they have had just two regular starters available for the past four games. While the Cavaliers have kept their head above water with Donovan Mitchell out (3-4) — and despite some stumbles (losses to Brooklyn and Atlanta) – they still have a three-game lead over the No. 4 seed Knicks. Cleveland looks headed for a top-three seed, and they are just half a game back of the Bucks for the No. 2 seed. Cleveland could try to jockey for a matchup it likes, but what matters more is just getting this group to the playoffs healthy and seeing if they have a run in them.

9. New York Knicks (38-27, LW 10). OG Anunoby returned to the Knicks lineup Tuesday night, not a moment too soon (he helped return the favor to Philly with a blowout win). The Knicks remain shorthanded and need to rack up wins to ideally remain the No. 4 seed and host a playoff round, but most importantly, stay in the top six and avoid the play-in (the Knicks are atop a tight group of five teams from 4-8 in the East all within 2.5 games of each other. Unfortunately, climbing up to pass Cleveland and become the No. 3 seed — getting them on the opposite side of the bracket from Boston — seems a long shot. The real focus needs to be getting and staying healthy.

10. Phoenix Suns (38-27, LW 11). Devin Booker is back and the count is now up to 24 (how many Kevin Durant, Devin Booker and Bradley Beal have played together, or 37% of the Suns’ games). Phoenix is trying to hold on to a top-six seed and avoid the play-in, but it finds itself tied in the loss column with Sacramento (the No. 7 seed), and Dallas is just one game back. On top of that, the Suns have the toughest schedule in the West the rest of the way. Maybe that won’t matter if the Suns are finally healthy, but they have tough tests on the road this week at the Celtics and at the Bucks.

11. Dallas Mavericks (37-28, LW 13). All the attention was going to Luka Doncic and his historic run of 35+ point triple-doubles — a “put me higher on your MVP ballot” run. However, what sparked the team’s three-game winning streak is the new two-big starting lineup of with Daniel Gafford and Derrick Jones Jr. Small sample size, but that lineup is bringing defense and pace to Dallas and making them more dangerous for a stretch run (catching Phoenix and getting into the top six is in play). Big tests this week against Oklahoma City (on the second night of a back-to-back) and Denver.

12. Orlando Magic (37-28, LW 12). The contract extension for coach Jamahl Mosley is well deserved, he has helped build the defense-first system and culture that has Orlando as a team on the rise in the East. Orlando’s offense went cold the past few days against Indiana and New York and that has to change fast — not only is Orlando in the middle of the tightly-packed group of teams from seeds 4-8 in the East, but this next couple of weeks is their chance to create a little breathing room. Nine of Orlando’s next 10 games are at home, and they have the fourth easiest remaining schedule in the league. The Magic need wins, and they need them now.

13. Los Angeles Lakers (36-30, LW 14). If the Lakers are going to escape the bottom of the play-in they need wins, and two games this week will be key ones for that climb: At Sacramento Wednesday, then hosting the Warriors on Saturday. The Lakers have gone 4-2 on their current homestead — with wins over the Thunder and Bucks — and Anthony Davis deserves the credit for all that, he has been a monster of late and their best player. The Lakers have another four straight games at Arena starting with the Warriors — this is their chance to make a big push before the schedule gets much harder.

14. Miami Heat (35-29, LW 8). It’s not just that Miami has lost three straight, it’s that they led each game by 10 points or more and gave those leads up. Miami has the third easiest remaining schedule in the league but that doesn’t matter when you do things like lose to the Wizards (which the Heat did Sunday). After facing Denver, the Heat have a string of winnable games — two against Detroit, one against shorthanded Philly — and the team needs to get wins now or it will be fighting its way out of the play-in. Again. On the bright side, Terry Rozier seems to have found his form again and is putting up strong offensive numbers.

15. Indiana Pacers (37-29, LW 16). This may be the hardest team to get a read on in the NBA over the past few weeks, they have been inconsistent beating the Thunder but losing to the Spurs and Raptors. That inconsistency is what comes with a poor defense. Over the last 10 games Indy has the seventh-ranked offense in the league, the 18th-ranked defense and a 6-4 record. In the middle of the tight East the Pacers need wins to hold on to the No. 6 seed and avoid the play-in, and this week they face the Bulls, Nets and Cavaliers.

16. Sacramento Kings (37-27, LW 17). Just like the Pacers above them, this is a team with a struggling defense (20th in the league, which is at least better than last season) and that leads to inconsistent results. Such as beating the Lakers and Bucks this week, but falling to the Spurs. Malik Monk had 25 points off the bench in the win over Milwaukee and that may help him tighten his grip on the Sixth Man of the Year Award in a year there is no runaway leader for the trophy. The Kings are home to the Lakers, Knicks and Grizzlies this week.

17. Golden State Warriors (34-30, LW 15). No team has played in more clutch games than the Warriors this season, 38, and while Golden State is 18-20 in those games with a -7.4 net rating in the clutch, Stephen Curry might win Clutch Player of the Year — the Warriors late game issues are with their defense, not their star. The Warriors have gone 1-1 so far without Stephen Curry and he has been cleared for practice with a possible return for the big showdown game against the Lakers on Saturday night. If the Warriors have any hopes of climbing out of the 10 seed, that game is almost a must-win.

18. Philadelphia 76ers (36-29, LW 18). The Sixers are 7-12 since Joel Embiid went out to have knee surgery and they now seem destined for the play-in, which hopefully Embiid can return for. (The 76ers are 10-20 overall in games Embiid has missed this season.) At least Tyrese Maxey is back from concussion protocol for games this week against the Bucks, Hornets and Heat.

19. Houston Rockets (30-35, LW 21). While Alperen Sengun is most likely done for the season, the fact he “only” has an ankle sprain and bone bruise in his knee after how that injury looked is amazing and lucky. That said, he will now miss too many games to qualify for Most Improved Player, which sucks because he would have been top three. Don’t look now, but the Rockets have won 5-of-6, and this week, get winnable games against the Wizards (2x) and the shorthanded Cavaliers.

20. Atlanta Hawks (29-35, LW 20). Atlanta is an impressive 5-3 since Trae Young went out due to finger surgery… not that it impacted their play-in standing (they are pretty locked into the 10 seed and with Chicago playing pretty well it might be hard to catch them at No. 9). If Atlanta is going to catch the Bulls they need to pick up wins on this week’s five-game road swing through the West, starting in Portland and Utah before heading to Los Angeles to take on both of those teams.

21. Chicago Bulls (31-34, LW 19). Don’t forget that these Bulls started the season 5-14, and since that moment they have played pretty well. That’s particularly true in the clutch — Chicago has 22 wins of games within five points in the final five minutes, the most clutch wins of any team in the league this season. Coby White continues to make his push for Most Improved Player averaging 19.7 points and 5.3 assists a game while shooting 39.1% from 3.

22. Brooklyn Nets (26-39, LW 22). It’s not impossible they can catch the Atlanta Hawks for the final play-in spot in the East, they are 3.5 games back (4 in the loss column) with 18 games to play — Brooklyn will need some help. The Nets also need to rack up some wins, they are 1-2 three games into a six-game road trip. Up next are Orlando, Indiana and San Antonio (on the second night of a back-to-back).

23. Utah Jazz (28-37, LW 24). I’ve written about it here before, but I feel it can’t be said enough: Utah has an absolute steal in Keynote George. Will Hardy has increased his role over the past couple of months and he is handling it like someone ready for more. In March he is averaging 21.5 points a game shooting 50% from 3, with 4.3 assists a game. I don’t know what his ceiling is as a player, but the Jazz have their point guard for the next decade.

24. Toronto Raptors (23-42, LW 23). The Raptors were looking ahead with the Kelly Olynyk extension, on paper he should fit well as a floor-spacing big next to Scottie Barnes and Pascal Siakam (even if it hasn’t worked out that way to this point). Next up, they will re-sign Immanuel Quickley this summer. Well, next up this week are games against the Pistons and two against the Magic as the Raptors play out the string.

25. Memphis Grizzlies (23-43, LW 26). Good news for the Grizzlies, Desmond Bane is close to returning from his ankle sprain. Bane was in the midst of a career year, averaging 24.4 points, 5.3 assists, and 4.6 rebounds a game — taking on a lot of offensive load with Ja Morant out — until he sprained his ankle two months ago. GG Jackson’s 30-point game against the Thunder Sunday was another positive from the rookie who looks to have a rotation spot next season even as this roster finally gets healthy.

26. Portland Trail Blazers (18-46, LW 25). After a winless February, the Trail Blazers are a more respectable 3-4 in March, even if that hasn’t always been pretty. The big question now is: Are the Trail Blazers seeing enough development from their young stars this season? Scoot Henderson has looked more comfortable driving of late and is showing some of his potential, but overall the development of the young players on this roster has felt disappointing.

27. San Antonio Spurs (14-52, LW 27). San Antonio got its first win last week last week without Victor Wembanyama on the court (who cares if it came against a Curry-less Warriors squad). This week the Spurs are heading a little over an hour up the I-35 to Austin for games against the Nuggets and Nets. The Spurs want to spread out their fan base, and Wembanyama will do his part to keep Austin weird.

28. Detroit Pistons (11-53, LW 29). Since the All-Star break, Cade Cunningham is averaging 25.4 points a game while shooting 43.8% from 3 and dishing out 7.9 assists a night — he’s been playing well. The Pistons are still playing hard and have won 2-of-3 (beating the Nets and Hornets) but things get tougher this weekend with two weekend games in Miami (the team with the best home court advantage in the league, and we’re not talking about the fans or altitude).

29. Washington Wizards (11-54, LW 30). Washington won two in a row last week (Charlotte and Miami) and it’s worth noting Deni Avdija had a double-double in both games. He’s played well this season, if a little under the radar. He’s trying to have another one or two double-doubles this week as the Wizards face the Rockets (2x), Bulls, and Celtics.

30. Charlotte Hornets (16-49, LW 28). Charlotte slid to the bottom of these rankings because in the past week they lost to the two teams above them, Detroit and Washington. The remainder of this season is a strong player evaluation window for new POBO Jeff Peterson — guys who want to stick around need to show something. It’s safe to say major changes are coming to Charlotte in the offseason and the next year.