5. Los Angeles Clippers
No team faced elimination from the power rankings quite like the Clippers did this week. While the fact remains that no top option performed quite at the level hoped, Los Angeles underperformed against two teams they desperately needed to beat. First, their loss against the Magic should embarrass them. Flukes happen and big teams lose to weak opponents here and then (the absence of Paul George did nothing to help), but Orlando has an abysmal record and poses little threat. Any five players on the Clippers’ roster should wipe the floor with the Magic on any given night. At least, if they want to make themselves known as a potential Finals contender. For their second loss, the Nuggets have encroached upon the top spots in the West enough that the Clippers should know they cannot afford to lose to them. The Bucks may have started making a strong claim to displace them in the power rankings, which the Clippers likely care very little about, but the Nuggets could move them down in a postseason seed, and the Clippers definitely have a much greater interest in getting an easier first round matchup. Another bad week could drop the Clippers three spots to sixth — pitting them against whoever takes their current spot at third.
4. Brooklyn Nets
With great confidence, I can say that the Nets will not win the NBA championship this year. If for no other reason, the team chemistry in Brooklyn has to lie among the worst in the league. With a whole slew of characters familiar with star roles now all vying for their share of points each game and the inability of the team to get healthy at the same time, they will find themselves wholly outmatched against teams of players who have worked together all year, many of them in years prior. On top of all this tumult for the Nets, the recently surfaced messages from Kevin Durant do not boost the team’s image in the slightest, and the $50,000 fine slapped on him from the NBA makes things no lighter. In all, these guys are much too tempestuous to perform consistently at a high enough level to beat the well-oiled machines found in other organizations. However the East looks entering the postseason, the Nets could fall in any round. No team at tenth or higher seems wholly incapable of putting them in their place. No championship and no Finals appearance will come to Brooklyn this year.
3. Phoenix Suns
The Suns may very well be the only team to have had a good week with their most recent games. Their last loss came March 24 in a one-point game against the Magic, and they posted just three losses in the entire month of March, their biggest coming at only 11 points against the Pacers. They have proven that they can beat tough teams, and more importantly they have proven that they can win consistently and only rarely drop games to teams playing at a lower level than them. The world has yet to see Devin Bookers in a high stakes postseason environment, but it did see his potential for clutch play when he led the Suns to an 8-0 bubble performance only to miss the Playoffs anyway. With the addition of the veteran Chris Paul, a Finals appearance seems increasingly possible. A healthy Lakers poses the most formidable threat for any team in the West hoping to make an appearance for the first time in years (viz. the Suns, Jazz, and Clippers), but the Suns seem to have as good a chance as anyone. And no one deserves a ring more than Chris Paul.
2. Philadelphia 76ers
While the Suns grow ever closer to taking second in the power rankings, the 76ers get perpetually closer to usurping the top rank overall. In other words, let this be a warning to the Jazz. This may seem strange, given that the 76ers have begun to appear as though they will lose the top seed in the East to the Nets, but tiny margins in record cannot account for the obvious fact that the 76ers play much better basketball than do the Nets. Even despite their recent losses to the Clippers and the Nuggets, two Western Conference teams that would have made for boastable wins, the real statistic to watch lies in the point differential (10 or less both games) that occurred without their MVP candidate Joel Embiid. If and when the big man returns, the 76ers will start upon a warpath that will likely take them to the Finals, and certainly will not come to a halt for the Nets if anyone.
1. Utah Jazz
Thin ice. The Jazz have played well in their last games, but this has come in the form of less-than-impressive margins against teams they should crush with ease. Given that they did not lose in the last week and that winning is, after all, the most important thing a team does, they did retain their spot. However, the top three spots in the power rankings all seem prepared to make strong claims for Finals appearances if not a trophy, and the Lakers still provide an idle threat contingent on the strong returns of LeBron James and Anthony Davis. Next week will have the last appraisal of the NBA’s top teams here, and the Jazz could easily lose the spot they have held for so long. Even then though, Utah has played excellently this season, and only a few teams in any scenario truly seem capable of ever stopping this team in a series. At the least, the Jazz are a lock for the Western Conference Finals.
Hot Seat: Denver Nuggets
While last week’s selection in the Milwaukee Bucks still possesses the opportunity to enter the power rankings and even make a postseason run, one cannot ignore the recent success of the Nuggets. In a time where top teams have struggled to string wins together, someone has to have cleaned up with some wins, and that team plays in the mile-high city. Denver’s most recent games include wins over both the Clippers and the 76ers, as well as a rout of the aspiring Hawks team. Late season reveals which teams have the capacity to compete genuinely in a postseason setting, and the Nuggets have caught stride just in time. Their positioning has not looked great for seeding in the West, but with just over a month left in the regular season, they may quite possibly jump to an impressive spot and dash the hopes of some team that fizzled out too early. Maybe the Clippers.