NBA Power Rankings Week 16: The Clippers Are Flying Under The Radar

The L.A. Clippers currently sit in the No. 4 slot in the Western Conference. Before the 2022-23 season began, that would’ve seemed like a relatively normal outcome, particularly when acknowledging Kawhi Leonard projects to avoid back-to-backs for the foreseeable future. However, it’s been a roller coaster for the Clippers in 2022-23, to the point where many would be surprised to see L.A. in the top half of the playoff picture.

As recently as one month ago, the Clippers were scuffling at an existential level. L.A. lost six straight games between late December and early January, falling back to the .500 mark in the process, and L.A. even dipped below .500 after back-to-back losses in mid-January. That wouldn’t be alarming for a lot of franchises, but the Clippers have been the definition of “all in” for a long time, particularly after the wild flurry of activity that saw the team mortgage its draft future (and Shai Gilgeous-Alexander) in pursuit of Kawhi Leonard and Paul George.

Quietly, though, the Clippers are right back in the mix after a 10-5 stretch, and two of those losses came on the second night of back-to-back sets with neither Leonard nor George on the floor. In fact, the Clippers look the part of a contender at full strength. In simple terms, L.A. is 21-10 in games when Leonard plays, and that is encouraging enough on its own. The Clippers are also 8-1 in the last nine games with Leonard on the floor and, for the season, L.A. has a +8.1 net rating in 999 minutes with Leonard in the mix. When adding George to the mix, the results are even better, as the Clippers have outscored opponents by 143 points in 626 minutes when the top-billed pairing shares the floor, translating to a +11.4 net rating with elite metrics on both offense and defense.

The Clippers do have questions, even beyond the simple reality that everything is tied to the health and availability of the superstars. L.A. was reportedly involved in the Kyrie Irving pursuit and, in recent years, the Clippers have been more than willing to jump into the trade market with little regard for luxury tax burden. That could manifest again with another lead guard or perhaps a bit of depth behind Ivica Zubac at the center spot, but it remains true that the Clippers have star power, depth, versatility, and experience. That’s not a bad combination for a team that seems to be flying largely under the radar into mid-February.

Where do the Clippers find themselves in this week’s DIME power rankings? Let’s explore.

1. Milwaukee Bucks (37-17, Last week — 1st)

Milwaukee was the showcase team a week ago in this space and all the Bucks did was win all three games this week. Giannis and company have the league’s longest winning streak (nine) and a bunch of headline-grabbing matchups in the near future.

2. Boston Celtics (38-16, Last week — 2nd)

Outside of Milwaukee, the top teams aren’t playing exceedingly well right now. That leads to Boston as a default No. 2 with the best season-long metrics, but the Celtics had a weird/bad loss at home to the Devin Booker-less Suns this week and Boston is just 3-4 in the last seven.

3. Denver Nuggets (38-17, Last week — 4th)

The Nuggets have won four of the last five and the only loss came without Nikola Jokic and Jamal Murray. Denver immediately avenged that defeat with a 34-point bludgeoning of Minnesota, and the Nuggets sit atop the Western Conference by 4.5 games.

4. Philadelphia 76ers (34-18, Last week — 3rd)

Wednesday’s matchup between Philadelphia and Boston at TD Garden should be a lot of fun. In zooming out, the Sixers are 22-6 in the last 28 games, even after a relatively “normal” road loss at MSG on Sunday.

5. L.A. Clippers (31-26, Last week — 8th)

The Clippers have four of the next five games at home, which is always nice. However, L.A. has the second-most difficult remaining schedule (.531 winning percentage) in the NBA, and it’ll be interesting to see how the Clippers navigate it with their eyes always on the playoffs.

6. Cleveland Cavaliers (34-22, Last week — 11th)

After a 9-11 stretch over a 20-game period, the Cavs got right this week. That included a three-game sweep of the Grizzlies, Pacers, and Wizards, and Cleveland has the chance to keep it running this week. In fact, it would be a disappointment if the Cavs didn’t go at least 3-1 against the Pistons, Pelicans, Bulls, and Spurs over the next seven days.

7. Phoenix Suns (30-26, Last week — 12th)

Devin Booker is back and that is an obvious game-changer for the Suns. To be fair, Phoenix did win its final two games without him, but Booker’s return on Tuesday makes it a lot easier to take the Suns seriously. Also, new ownership could mean a big roster swing in the near future, because the Suns have plenty of draft capital to throw around if they want to get wild.

8. Sacramento Kings (30-23, Last week — 9th)

The Kings haven’t been terribly impressive lately, but they benefit from the struggles of other teams in this range. Even with a 4-5 run in the last nine games, Sacramento is the No. 3 seed in the West. That’s good for a top-eight mark here.

9. Memphis Grizzlies (33-21, Last week — 5th)

There is a case for Memphis to slide even further than this. The Grizzlies are 2-8 (!) in the last ten games, and the wins came over Chicago and Indiana at home. Home fans were booing on Tuesday, and the vibes are suddenly horrendous. On the bright side, the Grizz are still a clear favorite to finish second in the West, but they need to find their footing sooner rather than later.

10. Brooklyn Nets (32-22, Last week — 6th)

Cam Thomas made some history with a bevy of 40-point games this week, and it was a lot of fun to watch. However, Thomas probably isn’t going to join Kevin Durant on the marquee in a big-picture sense, and the Nets have a lot of questions following the Kyrie Irving trade. Brooklyn did quite well to get some value given the lack of leverage, but there is still time before the deadline and Durant won’t return until after the All-Star break.

11. Golden State Warriors (28-26, Last week — 10th)

Are the Warriors going to push some chips in with a trade involving their young guys? It’s one of the more interesting questions of the week, but Golden State is also facing an odd situation in which their underlying metrics are strong when their key guys are on the floor, but the overall results are middling. Throw in a Steph Curry injury, and there is a ton of uncertainty, but Klay Thompson making 12 three-pointers on Monday was helpful.

12. Dallas Mavericks (29-26, Last week — 14th)

Luka Doncic won’t play on Wednesday, delaying the first joint appearance alongside Kyrie Irving. There will be plenty of attention paid to Wednesday’s debut for Irving against the Clippers, and Dallas is a wildly interesting team to watch over the next few weeks and, presumably, into the summer as Irving navigates free agency.

13. New York Knicks (30-26, Last week — 15th)

Some of these metrics can also be tied to noise, but it’s a bit odd that the Knicks are below .500 (14-15) at home. In fact, only six teams in the league have lost more than they’ve won in home games, and the other five teams represent the bottom five in the league standings.

14. Miami Heat (29-25, Last week — 7th)

The Heat only had two games in the last seven days. Both were road losses, which isn’t disastrous, but Miami just can’t seem to make a big run. The Heat were the No. 1 seed a year ago and, this time, they are in a tie for No. 6 with the Knicks with two-thirds of the season in the books.

15. New Orleans Pelicans (29-27, Last week — 22nd)

New Orleans recently lost ten games in a row, but the ship is seemingly on course now. The Pelicans just won three in a row, including a solid win on Tuesday against a full-strength Hawks team. Without Zion Williamson, the Pelicans don’t have the same ceiling, but Brandon Ingram changes a lot for the better, and New Orleans could make a move in the next two days with plenty of flexibility.

16. Minnesota Timberwolves (29-28, Last week — 13th)

We’ll learn a great deal about Minnesota in the next two weeks. The Wolves have seven of the next games on the road against conference foes, and none of those games project to be terribly favorable. The two home games come against Charlotte and Washington, providing a nice respite, but the Wolves are hovering around .500 and in a place they likely don’t want to be.

17. Oklahoma City Thunder (26-28, Last week — 20th)

The Thunder at least kind of spoiled the party in Los Angeles on Tuesday, beating the Lakers on a monumental night for LeBron James. OKC is just a pretty good basketball team right now and, in addition to the fantastic play of Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, Josh Giddey and Jalen Williams are excelling on a regular basis.

18. Atlanta Hawks (27-28, Last week — 19th)

Are the Hawks finally going to trade John Collins? How about Bogdan Bogdanovic or even Justin Holiday? Atlanta has been the picture of average so far this season, and that isn’t enough to satisfy expectations that were raised after the addition of Dejounte Murray. The Hawks did just play reasonably well on a five-game road trip, but it might be a busy week in Atlanta.

19. Utah Jazz (27-28, Last week — 16th)

“Trader Danny” Ainge might have his hands full this week. All things considered, the Jazz sitting at 27-28 is pretty impressive in the middle of a clear rebuild, but Utah also has a mismatched roster and it would behoove Ainge to garner some value for supporting pieces. Utah also starts a road trip on Friday, just hours after the deadline passes.

20. Los Angeles Lakers (25-30, Last week — 18th)

The entire sports world was focused on LeBron James on Tuesday and with good reason. He is now the all-time scoring leader, surpassing Kareem Abdul-Jabbar to break a record that seemed virtually unbreakable, and it was a wild scene in Los Angeles. Now, the attention can shift back to a Lakers team that isn’t playing very well and is clearly trying to pull some transactional strings before Thursday.

21. Chicago Bulls (26-28, Last week — 24th)

Every time the Bulls are truly in the wilderness, they seem to pull it back from the depths. That happened with three straight wins this week, and Chicago is No. 9 in the East at this moment. There is still an argument for a retooling, if not a rebuilding, process, but the Bulls do have a real chance to make the playoffs as constructed.

22. Portland Trail Blazers (26-28, Last week — 21st)

Portland probably needs to have a big week. The Blazers have the next four games at home and, beyond that, it wouldn’t shock anyone if Portland had a move or two up its sleeve when it comes to the deadline. At the moment, Portland is outside of the top ten in the West, and that is a letdown given some of the early buzz.

23. Toronto Raptors (25-30, Last week — 23rd)

As many have noted, Toronto is a team to watch closely this week, and the Raptors were reportedly in the mix for an expanded Kyrie Irving deal with Brooklyn that didn’t materialize. The Raptors also posted a very solid 4-3 record on a lengthy seven-game road trip that just ended, and that could impact organizational thinking.

24. Orlando Magic (22-33, Last week — 25th)

Orlando has the fifth-worst record in the NBA, but the Magic are a cut (or two) above the bottom four. For one, Orlando has a bunch of intriguing young talent, but the Magic are also 17-13 in the last 30 games. That is genuinely impressive for a rebuilding team over a growing sample.

25. Washington Wizards (24-29, Last week — 17th)

The Wizards just can’t be normal. It’s almost a bit at this point. Washington recently won six games in a row to climb back into the Play-In mix. On cue, the Wizards just went 0-3 this week, including a pair of home losses, and it’s difficult to figure out what the next step might be for Washington before Thursday.

26. Indiana Pacers (25-30, Last week — 26th)

Indiana has been dreadful for what amounts to a calendar month. The Pacers are 2-12 in the last 14 games, plunging into real danger at the bottom of the play-in race. Having Myles Turner secured on an extension is a nice bit of business, and it stands to reason that Indiana may want to pick up the activity on the trade market, even when acknowledging the Pacers are (much) better than this ranking when Tyrese Haliburton is actually playing.

27. Detroit Pistons (14-41, Last week — 29th)

Are the Pistons going to trade Bojan Bogdanovic by Thursday afternoon? Maybe. And, if they do, Detroit’s offense might crater even further than the current bottom-five mark it occupies. At least the Pistons have some interesting young guys in the mix and Cade Cunningham waiting in the wings.

28. Charlotte Hornets (15-40, Last week — 27th)

Small periods of encouragement lifted the Hornets out of the bottom three a week ago, but Charlotte just lost four straight again. Losses to Detroit and Orlando to end that run ensured the drop, and it is actually remarkable that the Hornets remain dead-last in offensive rating after finishing at No. 8 in the same category a year ago.

29. Houston Rockets (13-41, Last week — 28th)

I was ready to say some nicer things about the Rockets after a nice win over the Thunder on Wednesday. Houston decided to follow that up with three straight losses, and the Rockets allowed 293 (!!!) points in the last two games while losing by 52 combined points. If you’re scoring at home, the Rockets have a 145.8 defensive rating in the last 96 minutes, and DIME’s Robby Kalland notes that Houston is on pace to be the first team in more than 50 years to finish with the NBA’s worst record in three straight seasons.

30. San Antonio Spurs (14-40, Last week — 30th)

The Spurs still don’t have the worst record in the league, which says more about the Rockets than anything else. San Antonio has been absolutely brutal, though, and the Spurs are 1-14 in the last 15 games with the only win coming over a shorthanded Nets team at home. The Spurs are also on track for the worst defense in the history of the NBA (by the numbers), which probably isn’t great.