DimeMag

NBA Power Rankings Week 18: Can The Blazers Right The Ship?

The Portland Trail Blazers boasted a 29-18 record at the end of March. By any objective definition, that 47-game run was a monster success for Damian Lillard and company, and Lillard was showered with deserved praise, including MVP murmurs.

Since then, however, the Blazers haven’t been quite the same and, with a deeper look, that was almost entirely foreseeable. Portland is just 3-10 in April, losing their last five games and nine of the last 11 overall. That seems like a sharp regression, to be sure, but the Blazers were also unsustainably “hot” in certain ways to compile the aforementioned 29-18 mark.

Portland was outscored by 10 points in the first 47 games, which is very difficult to do when a team wins 29 of those 47 contests. Some of that can be attributed to a borderline impossible +32.7 net rating in situations defined as “clutch” by NBA.com through the end of March. In short, the Blazers were awesome in high-leverage situations and, even on a team with Lillard, that wasn’t going to hold up in the long term.

On cue, Portland is just 1-5 in those same “clutch” situations in April, leaving their overall metrics to do the work. For the full season, including the 29-18 start, the Blazers have the second-worst defensive rating in the NBA, giving up 116.1 points per 100 possessions. That is virtually untenable, even for a team with a legitimately potent offense, and Lillard is enduring his worst shooting month (37.1 percent from the floor) in April as he battles injury and a massive workload.

In examining Portland’s supporting talent, it isn’t entirely surprising to see them compile an unsightly defensive profile, but that is also worrisome on the biggest stage. The Blazers face one of the most difficult remaining schedules in the NBA, and that begins with a six-game road trip on Tuesday. From there, Portland finishes with a treacherous trio of games at the end of the season against Utah, Phoenix and Denver, meaning they need to right the ship well before then.

At present, the folks at FiveThirtyEight still make the Blazers a significant favorite to reach the playoffs, and that is backed up when examining their place in the Western Conference standings, sitting in 7th a game back of Dallas to avoid the play-in and just a game ahead of the 9th place Spurs. Still, there are rumblings of the “hot seat” surrounding head coach Terry Stotts and, in an almost annual tradition, the whispers are beginning on how the Blazers should move forward after a middling campaign. Portland can quiet some of that noise with a strong finish but, with a negative point differential for the season, it is hard to argue that the Blazers are a significant threat to make a deep run in the West playoffs.

Where does Portland stack up in our DIME power rankings this week? Let’s explore.

1. L.A. Clippers (43-20, Last week — 1st)

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Admittedly, we’re kicking the can down the road here. There isn’t a clear No. 1 this week, and the Clippers were here a week ago. They still have the best record (11-3) in April, and L.A. has weathered the storm without Kawhi Leonard for several games. His status is a major factor, obviously, but they haven’t lost with Kawhi in the lineup since Apr. 1. Losing to the Pelicans on Monday wasn’t great, but it’s explainable.

2. Brooklyn Nets (41-20, Last week — 6th)

Being without James Harden for a while certainly isn’t ideal for the Nets. Brooklyn has the loftiest possible goals and, at this point, one has to assume the Nets won’t be at full strength very much before the brightest lights begin to shine. Still, Kevin Durant had an encouraging return this week, and the Nets just have enough firepower to withstand a lot. Brooklyn also beat both Phoenix and Boston this week to bolster their profile.

3. Phoenix Suns (43-18, Last week — 2nd)

It wasn’t a great week for the Suns with back-to-back losses. The defeats came on the road against quality opponents, though, and Phoenix bounced back by beating the scalding-hot Knicks on Monday. The Suns still have the second-best record in the league and they’re playing at a high level.

4. Philadelphia 76ers (40-21, Last week — 4th)

The Sixers lost four straight this week and I really didn’t blink. Part of that is that Philly has been undermanned, with Ben Simmons missing all four losses and both Joel Embiid and Tobias Harris missing time. Part of it was that the losses came to Milwaukee (twice), Phoenix and Steph Curry. The entire top tier is a jumbled mess right now, so we’re punting on the Sixers this week.

5. Denver Nuggets (40-21, Last week — 5th)

Denver is 9-3 since Jamal Murray went down. That may not paint the most accurate picture of their chances on the grand stage without their best guard, but the Nuggets continue to play well. They can potentially add to that run with home dates against New Orleans and Toronto this week.

6. Utah Jazz (44-17, Last week — 3rd)

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It’s probably a little bit punitive to move Utah this low. After all, the Jazz (still) have the best record in the league. Utah is just 6-6 in the last 12 games, though, and they inexplicably flop against Minnesota every time. The Jazz just got swept by the lowly Wolves for the season, which probably doesn’t mean much but is a really bad look.

7. Milwaukee Bucks (37-23, Last week — 7th)

There were highs and lows for the Bucks this week, resulting in stagnation here. Milwaukee beat Philly twice, only to lose to a shorthanded Hawks team on Sunday. If you want to pile on, Milwaukee is 8-9 in the last 17. When you introduce context, there isn’t a lot to worry about.

8. New York Knicks (34-28, Last week — 9th)

New York’s nine-game winning streak came to an end with a hard fought loss to Phoenix on Monday. Of course, there is no shame in losing to the Suns and, at the end of that run, the Knicks are tied for the No. 4 spot in the East. They also own the tiebreaker over the Hawks, and there is a real chance New York has home-court in the first round of the East playoffs. What a world.

9. Atlanta Hawks (34-28, Last week — 8th)

The injury bug just keeps biting the Hawks, almost to a comical degree. They lost two more pieces in the fourth quarter on Monday, and Atlanta continues to operate without Trae Young, De’Andre Hunter and others. Still, Nate McMillan and his group picked up two of their best wins over the season in beating Miami and Milwaukee without Young, and Monday’s loss to Detroit can be explained away by a brutal schedule spot. If they can get healthy at any point, the Hawks will be in great shape.

10. Los Angeles Lakers (36-25, Last week — 11th)

It wasn’t all smooth sailing for the Lakers on Monday, as they trailed the struggling Magic in the second half. From there, Los Angeles turned on the jets to a double-digit win, and it was also the best showing for Anthony Davis since he returned. The Lakers’ recent play isn’t befitting of a top-10 slot in the rankings, but everyone knows the deal here as they wait for LeBron’s return (which is set to arrive sooner than later).

11. Boston Celtics (32-29, Last week — 10th)

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Boston had a red-hot stretch, then beat Phoenix on Thursday in impressive fashion. Seemingly on cue, they then lost to Brooklyn and Charlotte (by 21 points), leaving some uncertainty. That performance against the Hornets was particularly vexing, but the Celtics are also 9-4 in the last 13 games.

12. Golden State Warriors (31-30, Last week — 13th)

Steph Curry is averaging 38.1 points per game in April and he already has the record for three-pointers in a calendar month. The Warriors have two more games in April, so that speaks for itself. On top of that, Golden State is 7-2 in the last nine games and they have a real path to avoiding the play-in, or at least getting the No. 7 or 8 seed, if they can stay hot.

13. San Antonio Spurs (31-29, Last week — 18th)

The Spurs have the most difficult remaining schedule in the lead by a wide margin, with opponents compiling a .611 combined winning percentage. As such, San Antonio might have a hiccup or two down the stretch, but they’ve won five of that last six. That stretch was absolutely enormous to set up their play-in position.

14. Dallas Mavericks (33-27, Last week — 14th)

Dallas just can’t seem to avoid the potholes. They’ve lost to Sacramento (twice) and Houston in April, all while posting a respectable 8-6 record this month. It will be very, very interesting to see how Tuesday’s nationally televised tilt goes between the Mavericks and Warriors.

15. Memphis Grizzlies (31-29, Last week — 16th)

The Grizzlies are 4-3 in the last seven games. That may not seem like much, but six of those contests came against Denver (twice), Portland (twice), Milwaukee and the Clippers. Navigating that stretch in acceptable fashion is a considerable win for Taylor Jenkins and company, and Jaren Jackson’s return brings even more optimism.

16. Miami Heat (32-30, Last week — 12th)

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Miami earned a great deal of respect in the bubble, and they are led by a great coach and two legitimate stars. With that out of the way, this has been a vexing season. That was on display again this week when Miami lost by 15 points to the shorthanded Hawks, then blew a fourth quarter lead to the Bulls on Monday. Their highs are high but, if you judge only this season, the Heat are pretty uninspiring.

17. Washington Wizards (27-34, Last week — 17th)

The Wizards came very close to extending their winning streak to nine on Monday, losing to the Spurs in overtime. The result of that strong stretch is that Washington is now the frontrunner for the No. 10 seed in the East, and that was pretty much unthinkable a few weeks ago. Credit to Scott Brooks for engineering a top-10 defense for the last several weeks. That doesn’t make much sense with Washington’s personnel.

18. Charlotte Hornets (30-30, Last week — 19th)

Charlotte hasn’t been good without LaMelo Ball and Gordon Hayward, but they’ve held up. The Hornets are 5-7 since Hayward went down, and that allows them to stick around at the .500 mark. That’s enough to keep them in position and both players are expected back in the near future to make a stretch run push.

19. Indiana Pacers (29-31, Last week — 22nd)

Injuries to the frontcourt have taken a lot away from the Pacers, but they had a good week. Indiana is on a three-game winning streak and, while the wins came against subpar competition, they still count in the standings. At minimum, they are now a big favorite to stay in the top ten of the East.

20. Toronto Raptors (26-35, Last week — 20th)

The Raptors have flirted with tanking maneuvers, especially when injuries were already taking their toll. Right now, though, Toronto is on the upswing after five wins in six games. They’re only one game out of the play-in, and Khem Birch (!?!?!) has helped to save their playoff chances.

21. Chicago Bulls (26-35, Last week — 21st)

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Chicago is undeniably playing better. They’ve won four of the last six games, and they are still hanging around on the edge of the play-in chase. Zach LaVine won’t be back until at least Friday, though, and the sledding can be tough without him to juice the offense.

22. Portland Trail Blazers (32-28, Last week — 15th)

It might be fair to say the next five games could dictate Portland’s season. They face the Pacers, Grizzlies, Nets, Celtics and Hawks on the road in the next seven days, and that is a brutal stretch.

23. New Orleans Pelicans (27-34, Last week — 23rd)

The play-in race looks to be almost over in the West, but the Pelicans are the one team that could play spoiler. They helped their chances by beating the Clippers on Monday, but New Orleans really needs a sustained run. They’re four games back of the No. 10 spot with 11 games to play.

24. Detroit Pistons (19-43, Last week — 24th)

Every caveat should be assigned to Detroit’s win over Atlanta on Monday. The Hawks were wildly shorthanded, the Pistons had the rest edge and the game was in Detroit. Still, that was a solid win for the Pistons, and they have been more competitive than you may think.

25. Sacramento Kings (25-36, Last week — 26th)

The Kings have two wins over the Mavericks in the last ten days, including a seven-point win on Monday. Nothing else is going too well for Sacramento, but that’s nice.

26. Minnesota Timberwolves (18-44, Last week — 25th)

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As noted earlier, the Wolves just swept the Jazz for the season, which is wild to consider. More broadly, Minnesota has been respectable since the All-Star break, posting an 11-15 record and ranking No. 14 in offense. That is closer to where they were supposed to be in the preseason, and having D’Angelo Russell and Karl-Anthony Towns certainly helps matters.

27. Cleveland Cavaliers (21-40, Last week — 27th)

The Cavs are not playing very well as a team and that is backed up by their 21-40 record. We’ll choose positivity here in pointing out that Isaac Okoro is showing flashes, and Darius Garland has been tremendous. In his last 11 games, Garland is averaging 22.9 points and 7.4 assists per game on 49/43/88 shooting. If that is even remotely real, it would be huge for Cleveland’s future.

28. Houston Rockets (15-46, Last week — 28th)

It looks like John Wall is done for the season, further emphasizing that Houston is playing out the string. The Rockets are 4-36 in their last 40 games and 2-14 in the last 16. Are there two teams worse? Yes, somehow there are.

29. Orlando Magic (18-43, Last week — 29th)

The Magic had a lead after three quarters against the Lakers on Monday… only to lose by double digits. That followed a 35-point (!) home loss to the Pelicans and a 19-point home loss to the shorthanded Pacers. Orlando would normally have earned the No. 30 slot with this stretch of play, but there is one team worse.

30. Oklahoma City Thunder (20-41, Last week — 30th)

Dismal feels like a good word to describe the Thunder right now. There is a method to the madness, of course, but OKC has a -20.7 net rating in the last 14 games. They’ve lost them all and rarely are they even in the game by the mid-fourth.

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