“What happened to the most predictable (and allegedly boring) regular season in NBA history?
As they so often do.
The Cleveland Cavaliers lost Kevin Love indefinitely. The Golden State Warriors lost Kevin Durant indefinitely. The San Antonio Spurs just lost Kawhi Leonard and LaMarcus Aldridge, although it’s believed to be short term in Leonard’s case while it’s not yet clear with Aldridge.
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The Spurs have retained the top spot in ESPN.com’s weekly NBA Power Rankings on this Rankings Monday largely because they’ve played too well in 2017 to be downgraded by the Committee (of One) until we know more about Aldridge’s scary bout with arrhythmia. But the increasing health-related uncertainty plaguing the teams that have contested the past two NBA Finals, as well as their foremost challengers from South Texas, has spawned hope in cities such as Houston, Boston and the nation’s capital that another Warriors-Cavaliers showdown for the title isn’t the foregone conclusion so many of us have believed for months.
The Houston Rockets and Washington Wizards have capitalized on the sudden instability at the top to make the most notable jumps they’ve made all season. Houston is up to No. 2 and Washington has risen to a surprising No. 3, while the Cavs (No. 4) and especially the Warriors (No. 5) have tumbled to hard-to-believe depths. The Warriors, though, believe their uncharacteristic struggles are tied to their recent rough schedule as much as anything. We’ll soon see how right they are, with this week presenting much friendlier home dates against Philadelphia, Orlando and Milwaukee after Golden State played 17 of its previous 24 games on the road.
Don’t forget to tune into the overnight SportsCenter that airs Tuesday at 1 a.m. ET for our weekly video feature that accompanies these rankings. Profuse thanks, as always, go to ESPN Stats & Information and the Elias Sports Bureau — with ESPN research ace Micah Adams ru
ing the point — for all the background data they supply to assist the Committee’s efforts to arrange things here properly.
Previous rankings: Week 20 | 19 | 18 | 17 | 16 | 15 | 14 | 13 | 12 | 11 | 10 | 9 | 8 | 7 | 6 | 5 | 4 | 3 | 2 | 1 | Camp
1. San Antonio Spurs
2016-17 record: 51-14
Previous ranking: 1
Did you see how the Spurs clinched their 18th 50-win season in a row to extend a streak that began when Kawhi Leonard was just 7 years old? Without the just-resting Leonard and LaMarcus Aldridge, San Antonio rallied from 28 points down to beat Sacramento and clinch its biggest comeback (regular season or postseason) in nearly 1,900 games under Gregg Popovich, whose run of consecutive 50-win campaigns is now five longer than Pat Riley’s 13 in a row and 10 longer than Phil Jackson’s or Red Auerbach’s best runs (eight in a row). Leonard (concussion) and Aldridge (heart arrhythmia) have since left the lineup in worrying fashion, but it’s not really shaky health prompting ESPN’s Basketball Power Index to give the Spurs just a 32 percent chance of overtaking Golden State for the West’s No. 1 seed. It’s the schedule. Although San Antonio can seize the top spot in the conference as early as Monday night with a home win over Atlanta, Golden State has the more favorable ride for the rest of the regular season, with 11 of its 16 remaining games at home and just seven of those against .500-or-better teams. The Spurs play 10 of their remaining 17 games against .500-or-better teams. Of course, according to the trusty BPI, Golden State had 98 percent odds to finish with the No. 1 seed coming out of the All-Star break and has seen those odds reduced to 68 percent by the stubborn Spurs in less than a month.
2. Houston Rockets
2016-17 record: 46-21
Previous ranking: 4
The Rockets, even after Sunday night’s win over Cleveland, are a mere 15-16 this season against teams sporting .500-or-better records. They’re also just 15-12 since that 31-9 start that got folks so excited about Houston’s prospects in the first place. Do such #wellactually factoids make you in any way hesitant to say that James Harden & Co. are poised to capitalize on the potential health-related vulnerabilities that have cropped up in Golden State and San Antonio? Or are you more impressed by the fact that the Rockets emerged from what ESPN’s Basketball Power Index pinpointed as their most difficult six-game stretch of the season with a 4-2 mark thanks to the win over the Cavs? Houston ranks as one of just three teams all season that can claim wins over San Antonio, Golden State and Cleveland. Yet it sounds as though Harden himself has been hoping for more from the West’s No. 3 seed than we’ve seen of late, telling local reporters Sunday night: “We’ve proven [ourselves], but it’s been a while. Tonight was a big game for us.”
3. Washington Wizards
2016-17 record: 41-24
Previous ranking: 5
Consider Scotty Brooks firmly in the heart of the NBA’s Coach of the Year race. How could anyone argue after the Wizards won the first four games of a five-game swing through the Western Conference to climb to No. 2 in the East and give themselves a shot at a perfect trip if they can win Monday night in Mi
eapolis? After starting 1-7 this season in the second night of back-to-back sets, Washington has suddenly won its last five games in that situation, thanks to wins in Denver on Wednesday night and Portland on Saturday night. The road win over the Blazers was especially memorable because the Wiz overcame a 21-point halftime deficit; teams were 0-54 leaguewide this season when trailing by 21 or more at intermission. It was the biggest such comeback for the Wiz since the Committee’s senior year of high school — when they railed from 22 down at the half in Milwaukee in January 1987. The rally presumably clinched Eastern Conference Player of the Week honors for the ridiculously hot John Wall (who torched the Blazers for 39). The Wiz, folks, are 25-8 in 2017.
4. Cleveland Cavaliers
2016-17 record: 43-22
Previous ranking: 3
At 10-9 overall when Kevin Love doesn’t play and 6-6 since his latest injury, I think we’re safe in declaring that the Cavs miss him. The month of March, in fact, has quickly taken on a January feel for LeBron James and his pals, with Cleveland at 2-5 since leaving a fun February behind and losing newcomer Andrew Bogut in the cruelest of fashions. The Cavs, furthermore, rank 29th in the league in defensive efficiency this month and are bizarrely just 2-4 in the last six games to feature a LeBron triple-double. It was a 1-4 mark in such games until the Cavs prevailed Saturday night in Orlando, giving James his career-high-tying ninth triple-double of the season and first lifetime at the Amway Ceter, which is the 20th NBA building to witness one from The King. (Russell Westbrook, for the record, has recorded triple-doubles in 19 different arenas; Oscar Robertson holds the league record with 31). No stat in Cleveland, mind you, stands out at the minute more than the Cavs’ status as the league’s No. 22 team for the season in defensive efficiency. The last NBA team to win it all after finishing outside the regular season top 10 in DE was the 2001 Los Angeles Lakers, who featured a reserve guard named Tyro
5. Golden State Warriors
2016-17 record: 52-14
Previous ranking: 2
Let’s clear something up as Stephen Curry prepares to celebrate his 29th birthday Tuesday: Curry was shooting 40.7 percent from 3-point range this season when Kevin Durant went down with a knee sprain. That’s obviously short of the elite standard we’ve come to expect from Curry, but it’s also a stretch to suggest this has been some sort of long-term cold spell. Curry’s 18-for-76 shooting on 3s in his last seven games, resulting in an unsightly success rate of 27.7 percent, is u200ethe chief culprit in fueling the perception that the two-time reigning MVP has lost his way — with Durant essentially missing six of those games. The Warriors, though, have clearly suffered without No. 35 more than they ever imagined. After joining Michael Jordan’s Bulls as the only two teams in league history to win 50 games in back-to-back seasons before getting to game No. 60, Golden State has gone 2-5 and failed to reach 90 points three times, starting with the game in Washington in which it lost KD. The Warriors are also shooting less than 35 percent from deep as a team on the road for the season, which is going to be a costly problem in the playoffs if it persists.
6. Boston Celtics
2016-17 record: 42-25
Previous ranking: 8
Knowing that you’re the only team that can claim to be undefeated at Oracle Arena since the start of last season is nice. Of far greater significance to the Celtics, however, is the fact that they’ll enjoy what by all accounts ranks as the league’s weakest schedule from here to the regular-season finish line after wi
ing their Golden State date for the second successive spring, which should provide an opportunity to undo some of the damage caused by their 2-5 record so far this season against Toronto and Washington in the race for the East’s No. 2 seed. The combined wi
ing percentage of Boston’s 16 remaining opponents entering Sunday’s afternoon rout of Chicago was a mere .435. The Celts won’t leave the Eastern time zone for the rest of the season and will travel fewer than 3,000 miles between now and the playoffs. The average NBA team, according to research done by our own Micah Adams, will travel nearly 9,000 miles during the season’s final month.
7. Utah Jazz
2016-17 record: 41-25
Previous ranking: 7
It’s probably still somewhat difficult for longtime NBA watchers to process that the Jazz — who stand as the franchise Gregg Popovich sought to model the Spurs after when he took over as San Antonio’s coach early in the 1996-97 season — just surpassed 40 wins for the first time since the 2012-13 season. Utah has won seven of its last 10 games overall and boasts a record of 11-2 when Quin Snyder has the luxury of starting George Hill, Rodney Hood and Derrick Favors alongside All-Star guard Gordon Hayward and Defensive Player of the Year candidate Rudy Gobert. Snyder, though, didn’t have that luxury once last week, as injuries continued to force him to juggle lineups. The knee ailment that has bothered Favors all season, as well as Hill’s persistent toe woes, continue to be issues in the SLC.
8. LA Clippers
2016-17 record: 40-26
Previous ranking: 9
It’s playoff preview time Monday night in Salt Lake City, when the fourth-seeded Jazz play host to the fifth-seeded Clippers. The Clips are an underwhelming 5-5 since the All-Star break, but you can rest assured they have Utah’s attention after wi
ing (yikes) 17 of the teams’ last 18 regular-season meetings, including two comfortable victories this season and nine in a row as the visiting team. When these teams met a month ago on Utah’s floor, L.A. posted an 88-72 triumph despite the fact that Chris Paul wasn’t available to play, with Gordon Hayward and George Hill combining to shoot 4-for-23 from the field. Clippers center DeAndre Jordan is up to nine 20-rebound games this season, in case you’ve lost count, to move three ahead of Detroit’s Andre Drummond and Miami’s Hassan Whiteside for the league lead. Here’s an area where the Clips could stand to improve: They’re only 1-16 this season when trailing at any point in the fourth quarter; only 1-29 Brooklyn is worse in that situation.
9. Toronto Raptors”
“What happened to the most predictable (and allegedly boring) regular season in NBA history?