NBA Power Rankings Week 17: The Suns Are On A Mission For Ping-Pong Balls

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When the Phoenix Suns lost the first three games of the season by a combined 92 points, it was easy to assume that it would be a (very) long campaign for the franchise. That ineptitude led to Eric Bledsoe being traded to Milwaukee and head coach Earl Watson being fired but, for a short period of time, the Suns looked to be on an improved trajectory that included mediocre on-court results instead of horrific ones.

Recently, though, the Suns are back to their old ways and, after a Monday evening blowout loss to the Warriors, Phoenix is 4-16 since the calendar flipped to 2018. Beyond that, Devin Booker and company have dropped six in a row and 14 of 16 games on the way to potential pole position in the race for ping-pong balls.

In some ways, Phoenix’s season-long peripheral numbers are still being impacted by the opening stretch of disaster (and recent injury issues for Booker) but the Suns are, in fact, struggling at a high level. Oddly, the Suns almost became buyers at the trade deadline, picking up Elfrid Payton at a highly reduced cost, but that infusion of talent at point guard can only go so far and, even with Phoenix’s young players displaying encouraging individual signs, the overarching picture is fairly ugly for the Suns at the moment.

There is a multi-way battle going on for the top few spots in the NBA Draft Lottery and the Suns are simply one entity involved. If the team plays the way it has in 2018, though, there is every reason to believe that Phoenix will enter that fateful night in May with the best chance at the No. 1 overall pick.

Where do the Suns land this week in our Dime Power Rankings? Let’s go to the tape.

1. Golden State Warriors (44-13, Last week — 1st)

The Warriors have actually lost three of seven but, in the same breath, Golden State has reeled off three consecutive victories including a lopsided triumph over San Antonio. It’s going to take more than this to drop the Dubs from the top spot. Sorry, Rockets fans.

2. Houston Rockets (42-13, Last week — 2nd)

Houston is very, very good and that has been on full display during an active eight-game winning streak. As noted a week ago in this space, the Rockets are in a tier by themselves at the moment and, in a typical NBA season without the Warriors in existence, this is a No. 1 overall resume.

3. Toronto Raptors (39-16, Last week — 4th)

Sleep on the Raptors at your own peril. Canada’s team has won five in a row, including blowouts over Boston and Portland, and this isn’t your older brother’s Toronto squad.

4. Cleveland Cavaliers (33-22, Last week — 11th)

Trying to evaluate Cleveland in a big-picture sense is very difficult. As you can see, the Cavs make a big jump this week and much of that comes as a result of the blowout win in Boston on Sunday. Still, we don’t know that the team’s issues are fixed and, until we do, best of luck attempting to make educated guesses.

5. Boston Celtics (40-18, Last week — 3rd)

The Celtics still have a sizable lead over the field for the fourth-best record in the NBA and it isn’t as if the sky is falling. Boston’s performance against Cleveland was troubling, though, and this is a below-average offense at the moment. That throws things into flux.

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6. Utah Jazz (29-28, Last week — 12th)

It would be a significant leap of faith to believe in Utah to this degree. Still, the Jazz are in the midst of a ten-game winning streak and it includes victories over the Warriors, Raptors and Spurs (twice). If nothing else, Rudy Gobert and the crew look to be bound for the playoffs after appearing dead not long ago.

7. San Antonio Spurs (35-23, Last week — 7th)

There is some reason to worry about the Spurs. San Antonio has lost four of five and, well, Kawhi Leonard isn’t walking through the door. Still, the Spurs are the Spurs and they get the benefit of the doubt — at least to some degree.

8. Milwaukee Bucks (31-24, Last week — 8th)

Milwaukee is quietly terrifying. The Bucks have won eight of ten, Giannis Antetokounmpo is a terror and there is actual roster balance at the moment. Just something to file away for the playoff future.

9. Minnesota Timberwolves (35-24, Last week — 6th)

Technically, the Wolves are 3-4 in their last seven games and that does matter. The margins of defeat, though, were all five points or less and, aside from an inexplicable Bulls loss, there isn’t much to see here.

10. Washington Wizards (32-24, Last week — 5th)

The electric winning streak is over and whispers about John Wall can slow, at least for now. The Wizards are back to being moderately above-average.

11. Philadelphia 76ers (29-25, Last week — 17th)

Four straight wins will cure many ills. The Markelle Fultz saga continues but, when T.J. McConnell throws up a triple-double and Joel Embiid does Joel Embiid stuff, things seem better.

12. Indiana Pacers (32-25, Last week — 14th)

In the 1,761 minutes with Victor Oladipo on the floor this season, the Pacers have outscored opponents by 7.4 points per 100 possessions. In the 985 minutes without Victor Oladipo on the floor the season, the Pacers have been outscored by 8.1 points per 100 possessions. I’m sensing a trend.

13. Oklahoma City Thunder (32-25, Last week — 10th)

OKC’s 20-point win in Oakland felt weird because it was. Aside from that positive hiccup, the Thunder are legitimately struggling and the loss of Andre Roberson looms large in several ways.

14. Denver Nuggets (30-26, Last week — 9th)

The Nuggets haven’t lost to a team other than the Rockets, Spurs and Celtics since mid-January. It’s almost unfair to drop them but such is life.

15. Portland Trail Blazers (31-26, Last week — 16th)

Portland should have a nice barometer when they host Golden State on Valentine’s Day. The Blazers shouldn’t be “expected” to win there but a competitive showing would go a long way.

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16. Los Angeles Clippers (29-26, Last week — 15th)

This being a solid basketball team doesn’t make a ton of sense but it’s still true. The Clippers have won six of eight and, in mid-February, this is a team within a half-game of the Western Conference Playoffs.

17. New Orleans Pelicans (30-26, Last week — 18th)

The Pelicans are suddenly firing on offense, averaging 128 points in their past two victories. It would be a stretch to think that is sustainable but New Orleans hasn’t gone into the tank without Boogie Cousins and that is encouraging.

18. Miami Heat (30-26, Last week — 19th)

The bleeding has been stopped. Miami’s five-game losing streak ceased to exist with a win over the Bucks and, in the process, that performance saved the Heat from a precipitous drop in these rankings.

19. Detroit Pistons (27-29, Last week — 13th)

Before the Blake Griffin trade, the Pistons lost eight games in a row. Then, Detroit won five games in a row. Now, the Pistons have lost three in a row and that stretch includes two home defeats and a bad road loss in Atlanta. I have no earthly idea.

20. Los Angeles Lakers (23-32, Last week — 20th)

Since early January, the Lakers are 12-5. That is an unthinkable stretch for a team with this roster but, amid all the whispers about July, Luke Walton’s team is flat out playing well.

21. Charlotte Hornets (23-33, Last week — 21st)

Kemba Walker and company are closer to No. 20 than they are to No. 22 but this is a perch that makes sense. The Hornets have lost four straight and, even with all of those defeats coming against quality opponents, there is little to be excited about in Charlotte.

22. Atlanta Hawks (18-39, Last week — 26th)

The Hawks shouldn’t be trying to win but they can’t help themselves with a quality head coach and a bunch of competent (or at least semi-competent) pieces. In fact, Atlanta probably got better at the trade deadline without doing anything, as Mike Budenholzer’s team has actually outscored opponents for the season when Marco Belinelli doesn’t take the floor. He’s in Philly and the Hawks… might be… almost… decent?

23. Dallas Mavericks (18-39, Last week — 25th)

Dallas is a mystery. The Mavs have much better peripherals than any team in the bottom tier but they just can’t seem to find any victories. That’s probably “good” in a sense of the future of the franchise (and providing a running mate for Dennis Smith Jr.) but it doesn’t help him in this particular space.

24. Chicago Bulls (20-36, Last week — 30th)

Before Monday evening, the Bulls would have been, at the very least, behind the Magic. Then, they held serve against Orlando and had to be bumped up a line. It’s still bad.

25. Orlando Magic (18-38, Last week — 28th)

Despite back-to-back losses, the Magic rise this week because, well, they won three games in a row before that. Losing to the struggling Bulls isn’t great but Orlando has been better lately and we have to at least note that reality.

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26. New York Knicks (23-35, Last week — 22nd)

In a shocking twist, the Knicks appear to be quite inept in the absence of Kristaps Porzingis. New York might be on the (very) short list of worst teams in the league without him but, unfortunately in the lottery pursuit, the Knicks simply have too many victories already in the bank.

27. Brooklyn Nets (19-39, Last week — 24th)

It has been popular to discuss how the Nets first round pick, owned by the Cavs, may not be as valuable as once thought. Meanwhile, Brooklyn is in the midst of a six-game losing streak and the team is firmly within the league’s bottom tier. There are several outcomes in play.

28. Sacramento Kings (17-38, Last week — 29th)

Sacramento still owns the worst net rating (and the fewest wins) in the league and, now, George Hill isn’t walking through that door. An argument could be made that the Kings aren’t currently as bad as their peripherals indicate but we’re splitting hairs. It’s ugly.

29. Memphis Grizzlies (18-37, Last week — 23rd)

The Grizzlies have lost six straight, including a ghastly, 26-point loss to the Hawks. Memphis has the look of a “worst team in the league” contender and, given preseason expectations (and the team’s choice to hang on to Tyreke Evans), that is a mind-blowing reality.

30. Phoenix Suns (18-40, Last week — 27th)

Maybe the youth movement will suddenly inspire improved play in Phoenix, and Devin Booker’s absence clearly hurts. However, from what we’ve seen so far, this is pretty much the only place to slot the Suns until something changes.