NBA Power Rankings Week 20: Don’t Overlook Joel Embiid And The Sixers

After 24 games, the Philadelphia 76ers were seemingly in the mud. Philadelphia approached the 2022-23 season with considerable promise after moves to strengthen the team’s depth alongside Joel Embiid and James Harden, but the 76ers were just 12-12 in mid-December. Philadelphia’s underlying fundamentals were stronger than the .500 record would suggest but, with Embiid, Harden, and Tyrese Maxey all sidelined for at least a handful of early games, the 76ers were generally disappointing.

Since then, Philadelphia has been the best team in the league. Embiid, Harden, and Maxey have been healthier alongside valuable and important contributions from the likes of De’Anthony Melton and Tobias Harris. The 76ers are 33-10 over the last 43 games, headlined by an active five-game winning streak, and no team can best Philadelphia’s +5.8 net rating over that sample. Granted, a +5.8 net rating doesn’t usually mean “best team in the league” but, in a wide-open NBA landscape, Philadelphia is staking its claim.

The 76ers are heavily keyed by a dominant offense, with Philadelphia posting top-five metrics virtually across the board this season. With the exception of offensive rebounding, which the 76ers willfully eschew, Philadelphia maintains incredibly strong efficiency, with a transcendent force in the middle (Embiid), a suddenly underrated lead creator (Harden), and pieces that fit well on the margins.

Not everything has to be an MVP referendum, and it is acceptable to simply state that Embiid is enjoying an incredible season. He leads the NBA with 33.4 points per game and, during the 33-10 run, Embiid is averaging 34.1 points on 55/39/86 shooting and anchoring a top-10 defense. Harden is leading the NBA with 10.8 assists per game to go along with real potency as a scorer, and the supporting pieces are filling it up when called upon by Doc Rivers and company.

Needless to say, there is a faction that simply will not stake belief in the 76ers until playoff success arrives and, honestly, that is defensible. After all, Harden’s playoff failures are well-documented, Embiid always seems to be banged up at the wrong time, and Philadelphia isn’t that far removed from maddening postseason exits at the hands of the Heat (2022) and Hawks (2021) in consecutive seasons. At the moment, though, the 76ers really are playing tremendous basketball and, if that continues, Philadelphia is within reasonable striking distance of the No. 2 seed in the East.

Where do the 76ers land in this week’s DIME power rankings? Let’s explore the space.

1. Milwaukee Bucks (50-19, Last week — 1st)

With apologies to the red-hot Sixers, Milwaukee still has the best profile in the league. The Bucks are 5-1 in the last six games, and the only loss came without Giannis, in overtime, against the Warriors in San Francisco. With Denver and Boston hitting rough patches, Milwaukee’s lead for home-court advantage throughout the playoffs is three full games.

2. Philadelphia 76ers (45-22, Last week — 3rd)

The 76ers have a nationally televised road test in Cleveland on Wednesday. After that, Philly has four relatively friendly matchups in a row before a road gauntlet in San Francisco, Phoenix, and Denver. It will be quite interesting to see how this stretch goes.

3. Cleveland Cavaliers (44-27, Last week — 6th)

The Cavs aren’t garnering overwhelming attention, but they’re playing well at a time when some of the other top squads are not. Cleveland has won five of six, and the only blemish was a tight road loss in Miami that is more than understandable. Cleveland is very likely to stick in the No. 4 spot in the East, but the season-long profile is quite strong.

4. Boston Celtics (47-22, Last week — 7th)

Two nights after doing anything they wanted to do on offense against the Hawks, the Celtics shot 12-for-42 from three-point range, had only 19 assists, and lost to the Rockets. Boston is now 2-4 in the last six games with the next four games coming away from TD Garden.

5. New York Knicks (41-30, Last week — 5th)

The Knicks followed nine straight wins with three straight losses. That isn’t fantastic, but New York did bounce back with road wins over the Lakers and Blazers to end the week. New York realistically isn’t a top-five team in the league, but as noted above with Cleveland, the Knicks benefit from the carnage around them.

6. Memphis Grizzlies (41-26, Last week — 9th)

It appears Ja Morant may not be playing for a while and, first and foremost, the hope is that he gets the help he’s seeking off the court. On the court, Memphis is on an unexpected three-game winning streak, just as panic was potentially setting in without Morant, Brandon Clarke, and Steven Adams. Sweeping a home-and-home with Dallas was nice work.

7. Sacramento Kings (40-27, Last week — 8th)

The Kings are so much fun. Yes, Sacramento lost to Milwaukee on Monday, but that was a highly entertaining basketball game. Sacramento is also 8-2 in the last ten games with a real chance to grab the No. 2 seed in the West. It’s a remarkable story.

8. Denver Nuggets (46-23, Last week — 2nd)

Alarm bells are sounding in Denver. The Nuggets are on their longest losing streak (four) of the season, and this wasn’t exactly a gauntlet of a schedule. Losing to Chicago, Brooklyn, and Toronto at home is bad enough, but the Nuggets also lost to the Spurs and gave up 1.25 points per possession in the four-game swoon.

9. Phoenix Suns (37-32, Last week — 4th)

Unlike Denver, Phoenix’s losses came against quality competition. Still, the Suns have lost three in a row and Kevin Durant is still dealing with an ankle injury.

10. Golden State Warriors (36-33, Last week — 12th)

Well, the Warriors will probably need to win on the road at some point. Golden State picked up very nice wins over Milwaukee and Phoenix this week, but the Warriors begin a five-game road trip against the Clippers on Wednesday. As a reminder, Golden State is a mindblowing 7-26 away from San Francisco this season.

11. L.A. Clippers (36-33, Last week — 15t)

The Clippers are taking advantage of a home-friendly stretch. L.A. opened it with three straight wins, earning the No. 6 spot in the West as of this post. A Wednesday showdown against Golden State should command attention, but the Clippers are in the middle of a run with nine out of ten at home. That’s just helpful for any team.

12. Miami Heat (37-33, Last week — 11th)

Miami is now as close to the No. 6 seed (2.5 games) as the No. 8 seed, which isn’t a bad predicament after the way this season has gone. The Heat are 4-2 in the last six games and, while it isn’t always aesthetically pleasing, Jimmy Butler is dragging the Heat to success.

13. Brooklyn Nets (39-30, Last week — 10th)

Even with the Knicks continuing to rack up wins, Brooklyn is just one game behind New York for the No. 5 seed. That is a coveted spot given the situation at the top of the East, and the Nets have weathered the storm behind Mikal Bridges since the rough start in the post-KD era.

14. Minnesota Timberwolves (35-34, Last week — 14th)

With a hat-tip to John Schuhmann of NBA.com, Minnesota’s weird season can partially be explained by one stat. The Wolves are 4-7 against the Hornets, Pistons, Rockets, and Spurs this season. Frankly, that should be impossible with the current state of those four teams. The Wolves did play quite well in a blowout win over the Hawks on Monday, but if you’re wondering why Minnesota is hovering around .500, the failure to beat the (very) bad teams in the league is a starting point.

15. Los Angeles Lakers (34-35, Last week — 17th)

With LeBron still out, the Lakers are playing about as well as anyone could’ve expected. Los Angeles is 5-3 in the first eight games since James’ extended absence began, and the Lakers get the Rockets (albeit on a road back-to-back) on Wednesday.

16. Oklahoma City Thunder (34-35, Last week — 18th)

The Thunder are tied for the No. 8 seed and playing as well as anyone in the middle of the West. OKC is 6-1 in the last seven games, throttling opposing offenses with a 107.6 defensive rating and taking care of the ball with an 11.8% turnover rate.

17. Toronto Raptors (33-36, Last week — 16th)

Toronto started March with a five-game road trip that didn’t go particularly well at 1-4. That nearly precipitated a big drop in this space, but the Raptors turned around and blasted Denver on Monday.

18. Dallas Mavericks (34-35, Last week — 13th)

Dallas is below .500 and just one game ahead of the No. 11 spot in the West. Granted, the Mavs just operated without both Luka Doncic and Kyrie Irving while being swept in a mini-series by the Grizzlies, but the losses are stacking up.

19. Atlanta Hawks (34-35, Last week — 20th)

Atlanta’s loss to Boston on Saturday was easily explainable, as it came in the sixth game in nine days against a red-hot shooting team. Then, the Hawks laid an egg against the Wolves at home on Monday, and that one inspired more alarm. Atlanta is more in information-gathering mode than anything else due to its coaching change, but the results are middling and perplexing.

20. Chicago Bulls (31-36, Last week — 23rd)

Every time the Bulls seem to be falling out of the mix, they jump back in. This time, it was a road win over Denver that jarred Chicago back to life, and the Bulls avoided a backslide by winning in Houston. The next five games are very tough, however, as the Bulls face the Kings, Wolves, Heat, and 76ers (twice).

21. Washington Wizards (32-37, Last week — 19th)

None of the performances were particularly gross, but the Wizards have lost five of the last seven. That isn’t that bad on the surface, but the only wins came against Detroit (twice) and you can scroll down to find the Pistons.

22. Utah Jazz (33-36, Last week — 25th)

The Jazz are currently out of the play-in but, if Utah wants to crash the party, it seems like this is a big week. Utah has the next four games at home, but three of the four opponents are high-end playoff teams (Boston, Sacramento, Milwaukee) and tough opponents at home can often differentiate between the haves and the have-nots.

23. Indiana Pacers (31-38, Last week — 27th)

The Pacers are 28-26 when Tyrese Haliburton plays. That encouraging play is enough to keep the Pacers within just one game of the play-in, even if it has sometimes felt as if Indiana was playing out the string.

24. New Orleans Pelicans (33-36, Last week — 22nd)

It’s almost unbelievable how bad the Pelicans have been for two months. Since MLK Day, New Orleans has the fourth-worst record (7-19) in the NBA with a -5.6 net rating to boot. Zion Williamson’s absence explains some of that, but not all of it, and New Orleans is in real danger of missing the play-in after once being considered at least a fringe contender to make the NBA Finals.

25. Portland Trail Blazers (31-38, Last week — 21st)

It really might be over for Portland. The Blazers have flirted with that in the past, but four straight losses push Portland into the No. 13 spot in the West and two games behind the No. 12 team. If there is a turnaround coming, it needs to come now with seven of the next eight at home.

26. Orlando Magic (28-41, Last week — 26th)

Paolo Banchero is probably going to win Rookie of the Year, but efficiency has been a challenge. With that in mind, it is nice to see Banchero average 24.5 points on 47 percent shooting and 42 percent from three-point range in the last six games. A loss to San Antonio isn’t fantastic, but the growth of young players is more important.

27. Charlotte Hornets (22-49, Last week — 24th)

Following a nice mini-surge, Charlotte is on a three-game losing streak. All three losses came at home with gross metrics on both offense and defense. It’s a light upcoming week for the Hornets with only two games, so perhaps they can reset.

28. Houston Rockets (16-52, Last week — 28th)

Houston is 3-3 in the last six games, which signals a large step forward. Though it is noteworthy that the Rockets probably don’t win to win too often for lottery purposes, Jabari Smith Jr. is turning the corner and Houston is undeniably playing better.

29. San Antonio Spurs (18-50, Last week — 30th)

Break up the Spurs! San Antonio just had perhaps its best stretch of the season at 5-2 over a seven-game period. You would think that the Spurs would be higher as a result, but two of the three losses came to Houston.

30. Detroit Pistons (16-54, Last week — 29th)

Detroit’s injury report is overflowing on a nightly basis. The Pistons are also 1-12 in the last 13 games, including home losses to Indiana and Charlotte. With the league’s record at this moment, the Pistons are the fairly easy choice for the basement.

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