The Los Angeles Clippers are, unquestionably, a contender for the 2021 NBA title, just as they were in 2020. With Kawhi Leonard and Paul George on the same side, there is a certain baseline for success and, in the recent past, the Clippers have risen to the top of the heap. It wasn’t always smooth sailing this season, though, as the Clippers opened the 2020-21 campaign with a relatively modest 26-16 record. That placed them just a half-game ahead of the No. 6 seed in the West and, when compared to preseason expectations, it was reasonable to argue they were falling at least nominally short of their projected baseline.
Since then, however, the Clippers have been the best team in the NBA. Dating back to March 20, they are 14-3 in their last 17 games, and Los Angeles had their top two players (Leonard and George) available in only one of those losses. The 14-3 mark is the best in the league, and the Clippers boast a +12.0 net rating, dominating the competition with an unquestionably elite offense and a top-five defense during that sample.
The Clippers still aren’t quite at full strength with both Serge Ibaka and Patrick Beverley missing extended time but, simply put, Los Angeles is elite when even one of their best players is on the hardwood. Tyronn Lue’s team has a +11.8 net rating with Leonard on the court and a +12.2 net rating with George on the court, regardless of any other context. When they play together (as they will a great deal in the postseason), the Clippers are outscoring opponents by a blistering 16.9 points per 100 possessions, with an elite offensive mark (123.4) and a wildly impressive defensive mark (106.5) to boot.
It could be said that the Clippers are due for some level of shooting regression. For example, they are blowing the rest of the league in three-point shooting, making 42.1 percent of their attempts. From there, Los Angeles is currently posting the best offensive rating (117.4) in the history of the league and, even when accounting for an environment friendly to scoring, that is an eye-popping figure. Some of their recent success can even be tied to Marcus Morris, who is averaging 16.5 points per game and shooting 57.5 percent from three-point range since this 17-game explosion began.
Still, the Clippers have a relatively favorable remaining schedule and a real chance to crack the top two in the West. Perhaps more importantly, they are in a strong position to avoid a first-round tilt against the Lakers by staying in the top three. The Clippers probably have to unseat the reigning champions at some point to reach their goals, but it is more attainable without that first-round barrier.
By virtue of what transpired in the 2020 playoffs, nothing “matters” for the Clippers until the lights are brighter in the postseason and, honestly, everyone acknowledges that. In fact, there is some trepidation with the way they’ve performed in the clutch (at least as defined by NBA.com) this season, scoring only 1.07 points per possession in the last five minutes of tight games. Overall, though, the Clippers have done what they could plausibly do to dispel any concerns and, at the moment, they are firing on all cylinders, even as two key pieces are sidelined.
Where do the Clippers stack up in this week’s DIME power rankings? Let’s break it down.
1. L.A. Clippers (40-19, Last week — 1st)
Yes, the Clippers lost the Sixers this week. It was also a two-point game in Philadelphia, and Kawhi Leonard didn’t play, so I’ll gloss over that as a central data point. L.A. was in the top spot last week and, as noted above, they’ve basically been the league’s best team for a month. They’re staying put (for now).
2. Phoenix Suns (41-16, Last week — 2nd)
Phoenix had a wholly bizarre home loss to the Spurs this week, and that threatened to drop them in the pecking order. Then, the Suns went into Milwaukee and beat the Bucks on Monday in an OT thriller, overriding the mid-week hiccup. Phoenix’s only other loss in the last 14 games came on the road against the Clippers. That’ll work.
3. Utah Jazz (43-15, Last week — 3rd)
The Jazz haven’t been quite as superhuman lately, posting just a 5-4 record in the last nine games. That coincides with some of their first injury trouble of the season, as Utah essentially punted a game in Los Angeles after Donovan Mitchell suffered an ankle injury. Quin Snyder’s team did come back and beat the shorthanded Lakers on Monday, though, and that keeps them here.
4. Philadelphia 76ers (39-18, Last week — 4th)
Philly would’ve been higher than this if they held serve against Golden State on Monday. Then, Steph Curry happened, so the 76ers stay put. They are still the class of the East right now, so things could be worse.
5. Denver Nuggets (37-20, Last week — 7th)
I was all set to sink the Nuggets, but they just turned in a 3-0 week and did it without Jamal Murray. Obviously, the Murray injury craters their ceiling, but Nikola Jokic is just ridiculous, as evidenced by his 47-point, 15-rebound, 8-assist bonanza on Monday. Don’t overlook them too much.
6. Brooklyn Nets (38-19, Last week — 5th)
Kevin Durant played only four minutes in a close loss on Sunday, and he’s already been ruled out for Tuesday’s game against New Orleans. In the grand scheme, everything is fine for Brooklyn if they are healthy, but they need to have their pieces on the floor to take some comfort in what the Nets will be when the bright lights come on.
7. Milwaukee Bucks (35-22, Last week — 6th)
Milwaukee drops a spot this week, but not because of a 1-point loss to the Suns in overtime on Monday. The damage, such as it is, comes as a result of a home loss to Memphis earlier in the week. Still, the Bucks are plugging along, and we’ll glean a lot from a two-game set against the 76ers this week.
8. Atlanta Hawks (31-26, Last week — 8th)
The Hawks are beating the teams they are supposed to beat. There isn’t too much glamour in that, but it matters a great deal. Atlanta is 17-6 in the last 23 games, and they are slowly getting guys back on the floor after facing a jam-packed injury report for weeks. Nate McMillan’s bunch is currently in sole possession of the No. 4 spot in the East, and they’ve earned it. Individually, Trae Young and Clint Capela have been great, but Bogdan Bogdanovic is a player to circle, especially as he is shooting 51.7 percent from three-point range in April.
9. New York Knicks (31-27, Last week — 15th)
The NBA’s longest active winning streak belongs to the Knicks. New York has won six in a row, and Julius Randle just reeled off four straight 30-point games to help make that happen. They also have the next five games at home, so it has to be said that the Knicks have a real chance to secure homecourt in the first round. What a story that would be.
10. Boston Celtics (31-27, Last week — 9th)
Boston was perhaps due for a stinker, and it came on Monday. The Celtics won eight of the previous nine games, including six in a row, before a home loss to Chicago, and that was the difference between being a few spots higher this week. They are tied with New York and just a half-game behind Atlanta, so everything is fine, but the next two games (against Phoenix and Brooklyn) could be revelatory.
11. Los Angeles Lakers (35-23, Last week — 11th)
The Lakers have alternated wins and losses in 12 consecutive games. Obviously, that isn’t worthy of a party, but when a team is playing without two of the best players in the world, 6-6 will work just fine.
12. Miami Heat (30-28, Last week — 10th)
It’s been a truly vexing season for the Heat. They have been outscored for the season, ranking 20th in net rating (-1.1), but are back above .500 after two straight wins. At some point, there is some alarm for a team that has the 24th-ranked offense in the NBA, but they keep doing just enough to avoid full-on panic.
13. Golden State Warriors (29-29, Last week — 19th)
Stephen Curry is completely out of his mind. The Warriors are 6-2 in the last eight games to reach the .500 mark and, with all due respect to his supporting cast, Curry is the reason. He exploded (again) on Monday night, and Curry is averaging 40.0 points per game in the last 11 contests. He’s made at least 10 threes in four of the past five games, which is basically incalculable. I mean, come on.
14. Dallas Mavericks (30-26, Last week — 13th)
Danger zone for the Mavs? They’ve lost four of the past five, punctuated by a dreadful, 14-point home loss to the Kings on Sunday. For whatever reason, Dallas hasn’t been able to beat bad teams consistently this season, and it’s killing them in the standings.
15. Portland Trail Blazers (32-24, Last week — 12th)
The Blazers have dropped five of the last seven in their own right and, like Miami above, Portland has been outscored for the season. Credit to Damian Lillard and company for resilience, but it’s unclear just how good they actually are on the margins.
16. Memphis Grizzlies (29-27, Last week — 15th)
The Grizzlies are on a brutal seven-game road trip right now, but they’ve played solidly. They won the first two games away from home before losing a nail-biter to Denver last night, but the next four (Clippers, Blazers 2x, Nuggets) could be treacherous. If they can survive that run and still be in the No. 8 spot out West, it will be impressive.
17. Washington Wizards (24-33, Last week — 23rd)
New York has the longest winning streak in the NBA, but Washington is second on that list. The Wizards are on a five-game run, and they’ve won seven of the last eight tilts overall. Once left for dead, the Wizards are now tied for the No. 10 spot in the East. What a world.
18. San Antonio Spurs (28-28, Last week — 20th)
The Spurs are just 6-12 in the last month, and that isn’t what the doctor ordered when pursuing a playoff berth in the West. They are 4-2 in the last six, though, and all four victories came on the road. They seem to be awakening.
19. Charlotte Hornets (28-28, Last week — 17th)
Charlotte halted a four-game losing streak on Sunday with a good win over the Blazers. Terry Rozier was great in that game, going for 34 points, 10 assists and eight rebounds, and he’s been tasked with quite a bit lately. Fortunately, it seems as if LaMelo Ball could be nearing his return, and the Hornets need the help as the East race continues.
20. Toronto Raptors (24-34, Last week — 21st)
Just a few days ago, it felt for all the world as if the Raptors were ejecting from the season. On cue, they won three straight games. That little bit of life brings Toronto back in the thick of the playoff chase, just a half-game out of the play-in with more than enough time left in the campaign. Honestly, who knows?
21. Chicago Bulls (24-33, Last week — 22nd)
After a truly dismal 3-11 stretch, the Bulls just picked up two wins to end the week. That was huge for their play-in chances, and they were able to win a couple of tilts without Zach LaVine. They’re going to need him back ASAP, but Chicago is in a spot where they are pretty desperate to make playoff noise and they are back in position to do it.
22. Indiana Pacers (26-31, Last week — 14th)
Things are spiraling for the Pacers. They are on a three-game losing streak and, on Monday, word broke that Myles Turner is out indefinitely. With T.J. Warren already sidelined, Indiana was operating without a key piece, but this might be the straw that breaks the camel’s back. They are still in the No. 9 spot in the East, with a two-game cushion over No. 10, but this is not what anyone envisioned for Indiana this season.
23. New Orleans Pelicans (25-32, Last week — 18th)
It’s really hard to win with the 27th-ranked defense in the NBA, and the Pelicans are finding that out. They’ll miss Kevin Durant on Tuesday in a nationally televised tilt, but New Orleans has to catch fire soon to make up the 3.5-game gap between themselves and the No. 10 spot out West.
24. Detroit Pistons (18-40, Last week — 25th)
Detroit isn’t good, but they are competitive. They are 6-7 in the last 13 games, and the Pistons beat the Thunder and Cavs this week. Let’s just agree they are better than the 18-40 record and keep it moving.
25. Minnesota Timberwolves (15-43, Last week — 24th)
Minnesota is 8-14 since the All-Star break, and their net rating (-6.0) is bad, but not disastrous. That also includes missed time for key pieces like Karl-Anthony Towns and, if you squint, there are signs of progress under Chris Finch. They also have a road set against the Kings this week. Speaking of…
26. Sacramento Kings (23-34, Last week — 27th)
The Kings are either red-hot or ice-cold with nothing in between. That was again on display with nine straight losses in the recent past, but they did ping back to a wild road win in Dallas. Maybe that will start a new streak, but the nine-game skid ended any real chance at the play-in.
27. Cleveland Cavaliers (20-37, Last week — 26th)
Cleveland is just 3-10 in the last 13 games, and they lost a head-to-head to Detroit on Monday. On the bright side, rookie lottery pick Isaac Okoro is coming on in April, averaging 11.0 points per game with high-end defensive flashes and improved efficiency.
28. Houston Rockets (15-43, Last week — 30th)
Given that Houston is 4-33 in the last 37 games, it is kind of awe-inspiring they aren’t lower than this. The Rockets did win on the road in Orlando this week, though, and that head-to-head win moves them up a touch this week.
29. Orlando Magic (18-39, Last week — 29th)
The Magic are 5-21 in the last 26 and, while Houston has an uglier mark over a longer period, the Rockets got the last laugh this week. Orlando has also lost eight of the last nine games, and they are deploying some pretty unseemly rosters right now between the rebuilding effort and ongoing injury concerns.
30. Oklahoma City Thunder (20-38, Last week — 28th)
Oklahoma City doesn’t have the worst record in the NBA, but they do have two claims to the basement. One is the NBA’s worst net rating (-9.0) for the season, and they are fortunate to have 20 wins. The other factor in play is that the Thunder have the league’s longest active losing streak, dropping the last 11 games. The rebuilding effort is ongoing and at least Poku is fun.