NBA Power Rankings Week 17: The Second ‘Half’ Arrives With Great Uncertainty

The 2023 NBA Trade Deadline is in the rearview mirror and NBA All-Star weekend has come and gone. Now, the real fun begins in the world’s best basketball league. Along the way, injuries will unfortunately occur and the buyout market isn’t quite finalized but, for the most part, the NBA’s championship contenders are now at least close to being fully formed, while the playoff race is ramping up in both conferences.

In the East, a consensus top two has emerged with the Boston Celtics and Milwaukee Bucks, as the 2022 East champs and the 2021 NBA champs are separated by only a half-game at the break. In the West, the Denver Nuggets have a five-game lead on the rest of the field and, even with a great deal of buzz around Kevin Durant and the Phoenix Suns, Denver remains in the driver’s seat on paper.

The top of each conference will demand a great deal of attention in the coming days, but the 2022-23 season is also marked by a wild level of parity. As of the break, a whopping 15 (!) teams in the NBA have between 28 and 33 wins, creating total chaos in the middle of both conferences. That 15-team conglomerate doesn’t include the 34-win Nets, with Brooklyn clearly weakened by the loss of both Durant and Kyrie Irving in a period of hours. That morass also doesn’t include the 27-win Lakers, with the bright lights always on LeBron James, Anthony Davis, and a retooled cast around them on one of the league’s flagship franchises. So, needless to say, uncertainty reigns across more than half of the league, and the shuffling will be fast and furious during the final quartile of the campaign.

Today, we’ll take our first post-break glance at the DIME power rankings. Be gentle.

1. Milwaukee Bucks (41-17, Last week — 1st)

When the Bucks return to the floor on Friday, they will be more than a month removed from their last loss. A 12-game winning streak is a good way to stay atop this list, and Milwaukee got some positive news when it was revealed Monday that Giannis Antetokounmpo did not suffer severe damage to his wrist. As long as the Bucks are at full strength, they are threatening to any opponent.

2. Boston Celtics (42-17, Last week — 2nd)

Boston finished up the pre-break run with five wins in six games, and the only loss came in overtime to Milwaukee on a night when the Celtics were violently shorthanded. The Celtics continue to sport the best win-loss record and net rating in the league, and Boston is generally terrifying.

3. Denver Nuggets (41-18, Last week — 3rd)

Denver has a pair of highly interesting road tests coming to begin the post-break stretch. The Nuggets will visit the Grizzlies and Cavaliers in a three-day period, and both are difficult spots. At the moment, though, Denver has the best profile of any Western Conference team by a significant margin.

4. Philadelphia 76ers (38-19, Last week — 4th)

Since mid-January, Philadelphia has the second-best record in the league at 13-3. Joel Embiid is making an MVP charge, James Harden is playing well, and the Sixers look scary. Can they crack the top two in the East? Maybe not, but they feel dangerous.

5. Cleveland Cavaliers (38-23, Last week — 6th)

Cleveland had a seven-game winning streak snapped in its final outing before the break, but there is no shame in that. The loss came in Philadelphia by a narrow margin, and it is Cleveland, not Philadelphia nor Milwaukee, that is No. 2 in the East in point differential.

6. L.A. Clippers (33-28, Last week — 5th)

We touched on the Clippers a couple weeks ago, and L.A. isn’t fading. The Clippers are 10-4 in the last 14 games with top-tier offensive metrics. Russell Westbrook is now coming to town and it remains to be seen what the impact of that addition might be, but it at minimum adds to the drama in L.A. heading into the stretch run.

7. Phoenix Suns (32-28, Last week — 7th)

ESPN swapped Suns-Thunder into a national spotlight on Friday, furthering speculation that Kevin Durant could debut. Even if he doesn’t, Durant is getting close, and the buzz on Phoenix is palpable.

8. Memphis Grizzlies (35-22, Last week — 9th)

Memphis has been frustratingly ordinary for a while, and the Grizzlies have quite a stretch upcoming over the next two weeks. Aside from a quick trip to Houston, nothing is easy on the schedule, and Memphis opens the post-break schedule with a road trip to Philadelphia.

9. New York Knicks (33-27, Last week — 13th)

The Knicks have a top-eight offense in the league, and it’s still rolling right now. New York scored more than 1.2 points per possession over the last six games before the break and the Knicks are hanging on to a top-six seed out East.

10. Sacramento Kings (32-25, Last week — 8th)

When evaluating where the losses came from, Sacramento’s 6-7 record over the last 13 games doesn’t look so bad. However, the Kings are now only three games clear of the No. 7 seed, and the heat will be on for Sacramento when play resumes.

11. Golden State Warriors (29-29, Last week — 11th)

So… are the Warriors going to make a run? Golden State is 29-29 as the break arrives. No one believes that is indicative of the team’s overall performance when healthy, but it’s not a small sample either. Golden State faces the Lakers on the road on Thursday but, after that, five straight games at home could pad the record.

12. Brooklyn Nets (34-24, Last week — 10th)

It feels weird that the Nets are being ignored. It’s also logical after dealing Durant and Irving, but Brooklyn remains ten games over .500 and comfortably clear of the Play-in muck in the East with a roster that still has depth and talent.

13. Miami Heat (32-27, Last week — 14th)

In the first nine games after the break, the Heat play the Bucks on the road, the Sixers twice, the Hawks twice, and the Cavs twice. Let’s just agree that run could be enlightening on the overall team quality in Miami, and Kevin Love is now in the mix for the Heat.

14. Minnesota Timberwolves (31-30, Last week — 16th)

The Wolves blew a 20-point lead in maddening fashion in the team’s final game before the break. That was pretty on-brand for an up-and-down season, but perhaps Mike Conley’s steady hand will have a positive impact and Karl-Anthony Towns is on the way back.

15. New Orleans Pelicans (30-29, Last week — 15th)

The Pelicans had a total nightmare with 10 losses in a row at the end of January. Since then, New Orleans is 4-2, which is nice, but the most recent update on Zion Williamson didn’t paint the best picture. That hurts their overall outlook.

16. Dallas Mavericks (31-29, Last week — 12th)

Dallas slips in the rankings out of necessity following three straight losses. The Mavericks’ losses came to Sacramento, Minnesota, and Denver, and none of those results are damning. That said, the defense is a real question in Dallas, and even Jason Kidd seems resigned to the fact that this group is going to have to outscore opponents rather than rely on stops.

17. Oklahoma City Thunder (28-29, Last week — 17th)

Raise your hand if you had the Thunder in the top ten of the West at the All-Star break. OKC won four of the last six before the break and scored at least 133 points in all four victories. When the Thunder have it going on offense, they are extremely difficult to handle.

18. Washington Wizards (28-30, Last week — 25th)

We’ve covered it throughout the season, but the Wizards just can’t be normal. Washington predictably ended the pre-break run with four wins in five games, and the Wizards are hanging tough alongside Atlanta and Toronto for the East play-in.

19. Toronto Raptors (28-31, Last week — 23rd)

Signs of life in Toronto? The Raptors just won five of the last six games. Toronto’s defense stiffened during that stretch, and the addition of Jakob Poeltl will be quite helpful on that side of the floor. There is a long way to go, but the Raptors are one game out of the No. 8 spot in the East despite the 2022-23 roller coaster.

20. Atlanta Hawks (29-30, Last week — 18th)

It was a very ugly finish for the Hawks before the break, losing to the Hornets (yikes) before a lopsided home loss to the Knicks. Atlanta also has one of the three most difficult remaining schedules in the league, and the Hawks just can’t seem to get any traction.

21. Los Angeles Lakers (27-32, Last week — 20th)

The first week of action after the break will reveal a great deal about Los Angeles. The Lakers face the Warriors at home before heading to Dallas and Memphis. While a 1-2 mark in that run wouldn’t be too bad in normal circumstances, the margin for error is quite slim with how much ground they need to make up in a short period of time.

22. Utah Jazz (29-31, Last week — 19th)

Utah has been quite ordinary, to be kind, for a long while, and the Jazz project to be worse after deadline deals that angle toward the future. The Jazz do have San Antonio twice near the start of the post-break run, though, and that is a recipe for success.

23. Portland Trail Blazers (28-30, Last week — 22nd)

Portland is only a half-game out of the play-in right now. That doesn’t seem so bad, but the Blazers are still maddening. Portland lost by approximately 100 points to the Wizards at home to end the first “half” and the Blazers are just 9-13 in the last 22.

24. Orlando Magic (24-35, Last week — 24th)

Orlando remains almost in its own tier between the bottom and the enormous middle of the league. The Magic do have the chance to get a couple of wins after the break with home tilts against Detroit and Indiana, but Orlando’s main attention should be paid to youth development.

25. Indiana Pacers (26-34, Last week — 26th)

It feels off to see the Pacers actually climbing in the pecking order right now. After all, Indiana is just 3-16 in the last 19 games, but the Pacers managed to beat the Bulls before the break and that’s enough to jump a spot.

26. Chicago Bulls (26-33, Last week — 21st)

Chicago is now two games out of the play-in and the offense is reeling. The Bulls are on a six-game losing streak, scoring less than a point per possession, and it was a very quiet deadline for a team that probably needed real upgrades to make a tangible run.

27. Charlotte Hornets (17-43, Last week — 28th)

It was a nice mini-stretch for Charlotte before the break. The Hornets beat the Hawks and Spurs in succession and actually looked the part of a functional offense. It is obviously too little, too late, but it’s something.

28. Detroit Pistons (15-44, Last week — 27th)

Over almost four weeks, the Pistons have two wins, beating the Hornets and Spurs at home. The Pistons also had their semi-annual bizarre transaction (hello, James Wiseman) and held on to veterans despite a bottom-five record in the sport.

29. Houston Rockets (13-45, Last week — 29th)

With the worst record in the league and seven straight losses, you may be wondering how Houston isn’t dead-last. That is a fair question that will be answered below. The Rockets do deserve the basement, though, and the final two losses of last week came by 56 combined points.

30. San Antonio Spurs (14-45, Last week — 30th)

To be generous, San Antonio’s last six games came on the road before the hiatus. That is useful context, but the Spurs are still on a 14-game losing streak with only two wins since the calendar flipped to 2023. The Spurs are playing young guys at least, but it’s not great.