Power Rankings, Week 21: Sixers finish at No. 1 as season wraps up
See where all 30 teams rank as the regular season enters the final week and the playoffs and Play-In Tournament await.
The 2020-21 regular season has just seven days left. Ready or not, the State Farm NBA Play-In Tournament begins next Tuesday and the 2021 playoffs tip off in 12 days.
And really, ready or not? Will LeBron James be ready? James Harden? The Los Angeles Lakers are the defending champs, but the best player of his generation has played just 59 minutes over last seven weeks. The Brooklyn Nets might have the most talented big three in NBA history, but one of those three guys has played just four minutes since April 1. There’s been talk of both James and Harden returning to action this week, but talk is just talk until they’re actually on the floor in a game that counts.
The list of important players on playoff teams (or potential playoff teams) who are currently sidelined by injuries (or health and safety protocols) goes well beyond those two former Kia MVPs. It also includes Will Barton, Bradley Beal, Miles Bridges, Malcolm Brogdon, Jaylen Brown, Mike Conley, Gordon Hayward, DeAndre Hunter, Serge Ibaka, Donovan Mitchell, Monte Morris, Kristaps Porzingis, Dennis Schroder and Myles Turner.
That’s a long list, and the chances that all of those guys return in the next week seems pretty slim. Attrition played a big role in the regular season, and it will certainly be factor in the playoffs.
But it is time to wrap this season up, say goodbye to the bottom five teams in each conference, and enjoy the first multiple-game Play-In tournament. It’s eight days away and it has to the potential to be very intriguing, given the teams and players that may be involved.
Plus-Minus Players of the Week
- Right Way: Danny Green (PHI) was a plus-79 in four games last week. Utah’s Rudy Gobert is the season-long leader (by a wide margin) in cumulative plus-minus as +669.
- Wrong Way: Darius Bazley (OKC) was a minus-76 in four games last week. Teammate Theo Maledon (-611) has the league’s worst cumulative plus-minus for the season by a wide margin.
Teams of the Week
- Make It Last Forever: Utah (4-0) — The Jazz still have time to end the season on their fourth winning streak of nine games or more.
- Something Just Ain’t Right: Oklahoma City (0-4) — The Thunder are 1-21 (the Celtics are the 1 in the 1-21) since April 1.
East vs. West
- The West is 233-204 (.533) against the East in interconference games, having clinched a better record for the 20th time in the last 21 seasons. The East’s winning percentage of .467 against the West is its fourth best mark over that stretch.
Schedule strength through Week 20
- Toughest: 1. Minnesota, 2. Oklahoma City, 3. Houston
- Easiest: 1. Phoenix, 2. New York, 3. Milwaukee
- Schedule strength is based on cumulative opponent record, and adjusted for home vs. away and days of rest before a game.
Movement in the Rankings
- High jumps of the week: L.A. Lakers (+6), Utah (+4), Milwaukee (+2)
- Free falls of the week: Denver (-4), Memphis (-3), New York, Toronto (-2)
Week 21 Team to Watch
- Golden State — The great thing about the Play-In is that every spot is better than the one below it. And within that 7-10 group, the difference between eighth and ninth place is probably the most important. The Warriors currently sit in eighth at 35-33, but they have their work cut out for them in regard to staying there.They begin the final week of the season by hosting the first-place Jazz on Monday (10 ET, NBA TV) and second-place Suns on Tuesday (10 ET, NBA League Pass) — each a possible first-round preview. They’ll have two days off before hosting the Pelicans on Friday. And finally, if they’re within a game of the Grizzlies (either way), their game on Sunday will be for eighth place.
Previous Power Rankings
- Thursday’s notebook: Best offenses ever, key Most Improved Player stats and more
- The archive: NBA.com Power Rankings
Pace: Possessions per 48 minutes (League Rank)
OffRtg: Points scored per 100 possessions (League Rank)
DefRtg: Points allowed per 100 possessions (League Rank)
NetRtg: Point differential per 100 possessions (League Rank)
The league has averaged 99.8 possessions (per team) per 48 minutes and 111.6 points scored per 100 possessions this season.
NBA.com’s Power Rankings, released every Monday during the season, are just one man’s opinion. If you have an issue with the rankings, or have a question or comment for John Schuhmann, send him an e-mail or contact him via Twitter.
Last Week: 2 ↑
Pace: 100.4 (12) OffRtg: 112.4 (13) DefRtg: 106.8 (2) NetRtg: +5.6 (5)
Things appear to be wide open in both conferences, but the Sixers are heading toward the playoffs looking very much like a legit No. 1 seed. They’ve won eight straight games, having held their opponents to just 101.4 points per 100 possessions over the streak. Philly is now 26-4 (15-0 at home) when it’s had its full starting lineup, with the only loss to an Eastern Conference opponent having come in Tampa on Feb. 21, when the starting lineup was a +21 in its 15.4 minutes and the Sixers were outscored by 28 points otherwise.
It will be interesting to see if Doc Rivers staggers the minutes of his starters in the playoffs more than he has in the regular season. The 20.7 minutes per game that the group has averaged is, by a healthy margin, the most for any lineup that’s played at least 10 games together and nine more minutes per game than last season’s starting lineup averaged (11.7) under super-staggerer Brett Brown.
Whether they finish first or second, this will be the highest-ranked defense that the Sixers have had in the 25 seasons for which we have play-by-play data. The offense will finish outside the top 10, but has scored 117.9 points per 100 possessions with Joel Embiid on the floor. That’s the fourth-highest mark (behind those of the Nets’ three stars) among Eastern Conference players who’ve averaged at least 15 minutes.
Week 21: @ IND, @ MIA, vs. ORL, vs. ORL
Last Week: 1 ↓
Pace: 97.9 (26) OffRtg: 115.9 (7) DefRtg: 110.1 (6) NetRtg: +5.8 (4)
In Cleveland on Tuesday, Mikal Bridges had, perhaps, the most dominating two minutes of individual defense from anybody this season, altering three shots and intercepting an inbounds pass to spark a 15-0 Suns run to start overtime. But, despite scoring just four points on nine overtime possessions, the Cavs had one of their most efficient games of the last month. The following night in Atlanta, the Hawks had their most efficient game of the season against the same Phoenix defense, scoring 60 points (on 71% shooting) in the paint. And in the the Lakers’ wire-to-wire win over the Suns on Sunday, Anthony Davis scored 33 of his 42 points in the paint or at the free throw line.
The Suns are still one of the three teams — the Jazz and Bucks are the others — that rank in the top seven on both ends of the floor. They still have the best record (26-10) in games between the 16 teams that are currently over .500, as well as the second best record (11-7) in games between *the eight “contenders.” And they have two of the best pull-up shooters in the league.
* The top three teams in the East, the top four teams in the West, and the Lakers. Brooklyn has the best record (10-6) within the group, while the Lakers have the worst (6-12).
But they don’t have much size beyond Deandre Ayton. The Suns aren’t the only West team that depends heavily on perimeter shooting, but as things stand, they’re the one most likely to face the defending champs in the first round.
Week 21: @ GSW, vs. POR, @ SAS, @ SAS
Last Week: 7 ↑
Pace: 99.5 (15) OffRtg: 116.7 (3) DefRtg: 107.6 (3) NetRtg: +9.2 (1)
The new Play-In format provides the top six teams in each conference five or six days off before Game 1 of the first round. That extra three days (vs. a normal season where the regular season ended on a Wednesday) will be important for a few of these teams, and the Jazz could be at the top of that list. On Friday, they announced that Donovan Mitchell’s sprained right ankle would be reevaluated in “one week,” and without those extra few days, that would be cutting things pretty close. With Mike Conley dealing with a hamstring issue, every day matters.
Without their starting backcourt, the Jazz have won five straight games to take first place in the West back from Phoenix. With Bojan Bogdanovic averaging 30 points on 60% shooting (with a career-high 48 against Denver on Friday), it’s been their best stretch of offense (119.6 points scored per 100 possessions) without Mitchell.
Despite the slippage prior to these last five games, the Jazz have remained the only team in the top five in both offensive and defensive efficiency. If they stay where they are, they’d be just the third team in the 25 years for which we have play-by-play data to finish in the top three on both ends of the floor. The other two — the 2014-15 Warriors (second and first) and ’16-17 Warriors (first and second) — went on to win the championship.
Week 21: @ GSW, vs. POR, @ OKC, @ SAC
Last Week: 6 ↑
Pace: 102.7 (3) OffRtg: 116.5 (5) DefRtg: 110.3 (7) NetRtg: +6.2 (2)
It’s been a “wait until the playoffs” season for the Bucks, the playoffs are almost here, and they appear to be ready. They’ve won five straight games, sweeping their two-game series with Brooklyn, beating the red-hot Wizards, and getting some clutch reps in along the way.
For most players, clutch shooting comes and goes. Jrue Holiday had the worst clutch field goal percentage (29.6%) over the last two seasons (2018-19 and ’19-20) among the 112 players with at least 50 attempts. He has better numbers this season, with a big game-winner in Memphis two months ago. On Wednesday, he was 0-for-3 down the stretch against Washington. But, with Khris Middleton missing the game and Giannis Antetokounmpo having fouled out, Holiday also had two assists on Pat Connaughton clutch 3-pointers and a huge block on Daniel Gafford to keep the Bucks up two. The Bucks are only 13-14 in games that were within five points in the last five minutes, but their clutch usage rate is much more balanced (Antetokounmpo, Middleton and Holiday all between 24% and 32%) than it was last season (when Antetokounmpo’s was much higher) and they have additional lineup versatility.
The Bucks don’t have the league’s No. 1 defense this year, but they’re the only Eastern Conference team in the top 10 on both ends of the floor. They’re in decent position to finish second in the East, which would likely keep them away from the Heat in the first round. With the final regular-season meeting on Saturday, the two teams haven’t met since December, when they split a back-to-back in Miami.
Week 21: @ SAS, vs. ORL, @ IND, vs. MIA, @ CHI
Last Week: 4 ↓
Pace: 100.5 (11) OffRtg: 117.1 (1) DefRtg: 113.3 (23) NetRtg: +3.7 (7)
The Nets’ win in Denver on Saturday was one of their most important victories of the season. Not only did they end a four-game losing streak and move back into *second place by coming back from 21 points down against one of the best teams in the West, but they also saw results when they brought real energy on the defensive end of the floor in the second half. It’s been written many times in this space that defense — activity and connectivity — will determine how far the Nets go in the postseason, and that’s no less true now than it was before. As noted previously, in the 25 years for which we have play-by-play data, no team has ranked 23rd or worse on either end of the floor and gone on to win the championship.
* The Bucks are a half game behind, but, holding the tiebreaker, still control the race for second.
The Nets may have been playing possum in starting DeAndre Jordan (and using him as the primary defender on Giannis Antetokounmpo) in both of their recent meetings with Milwaukee. Blake Griffin started the last two games, played exclusively at the five, and should be the favorite to start at center in Game 1 of the postseason.
James Harden said he’d be back this week and even if he isn’t, it’s good that he’s, at worst, close to a return. The Nets have two back-to-backs (Tuesday-Wednesday and Saturday-Sunday), so minutes management will likely play a role in where they land in the standings. Kevin Durant last played in both games of a back-to-back on Jan. 12 and 13 and the Nets probably aren’t going to take any risks for the sake of home-court advantage in a potential conference semifinal series against the Bucks.
Week 21: @ CHI, vs. SAS, vs. CHI, vs. CLE
Last Week: 5 ↓
Pace: 97.6 (28) OffRtg: 116.7 (2) DefRtg: 110.7 (10) NetRtg: +6.1 (3)
The Clippers got Patrick Beverley back last week and, more importantly, have had both Paul George and Kawhi Leonard for each of their last four games. But they’ve lost two of the four, failing to slow down the Nuggets’ offense and failing to score against the Knicks’ defense after strong starts (first-quarter, double-digit leads) in both games. Their record when they’ve had both George and Leonard (30-11, .732) is very similar to what it was last season (27-10, .723).
The Clippers again have all the shooters they might need (a league-high seven guys who’ve shot 38% or better on at least 100 3-point attempts), and Serge Ibaka’s return would allow them to put even more shooting on the floor. But their overall resume isn’t quite as strong as it was last season, when they ranked in the top five in both offensive and defensive efficiency. The next couple of months in Clipperland could tell us something about the value of intangibles.
With Denver holding the tiebreaker, the Clippers need to stay a game ahead of the Nuggets to keep the No. 3 seed, which may or may not come with a first-round matchup against the Lakers. The Clippers are the only West team that doesn’t have any remaining games against teams currently over .500. They’re 24-6 (10-3 on the road) against the 14 teams currently below .500, including 8-0 against the teams they play this week.
Week 21: @ TOR, @ CHA, @ HOU, @ OKC
Last Week: 3 ↓
Pace: 97.7 (27) OffRtg: 116.4 (6) DefRtg: 111.4 (12) NetRtg: +4.9 (6)
The shorthanded Nuggets have stumbled a bit, losing to the shorthanded Lakers, shorthanded Jazz and shorthanded Nets last week and allowing almost 128 points per 100 possessions (with Utah and Brooklyn shooting a combined 37-for-77 from 3-point range) over the weekend. Stop us if you’ve heard this one before, but the Nuggets struggled (getting outscored by 16.5 points per 100 possessions over the four games) with Nikola Jokic off the floor.
Jamal Murray’s absence will be felt in the playoffs, especially in those 4-5 minutes per half in which Jokic sits. But Michael Porter Jr.’s continued evolution — his per-game numbers go up every 10 games, but his efficiency remains high — does give the Nuggets another true bucket-getter with whom they could call on with Jokic off the floor. Mike Malone staggered their minutes in Utah on Friday and Denver was outscored by just one point in 9.6 minutes with Porter on the floor without Jokic. But a no-Porter second unit (with Aaron Gordon and Paul Millsap both out) struggled the following night against the Nets.
The Nuggets will finish the regular season on the road, still needing one more win (or a Dallas loss) to make sure that they start the playoffs at home. They still have a real shot at the 3 seed, but the Clippers (also on the road for their final four games) have the easier week ahead, with all four games against teams below .500.
Week 21: @ CHA, @ MIN, @ DET, @ POR
Last Week: 14 ↑
Pace: 98.9 (21) OffRtg: 109.6 (24) DefRtg: 106.8 (1) NetRtg: +2.8 (8)
Even with LeBron James and Dennis Schroder still out, Anthony Davis’ last two games – 78 points, 24 rebounds, 10 assists, three steals and four blocks – are enough to scare any potential Laker opponent in the Play-In or the first round. Davis’ aggressiveness resulted in 32 free throw attempts over the two games, more than he had over his first eight games back from injury (31). The Lakers have fallen into seventh place, but they went 2-2 against Denver, the Clippers, Portland and Phoenix last week, holding those four offenses (all which rank in the top seven) to just 108.2 points per 100 possessions. This will be the sixth top-five defense that LeBron James has been a part of, and it could be his first top-ranked defense if the Lakers defend better than the Sixers over the next seven days.
James intends to help the cause, with the Lakers having two back-to-backs, one at home on Tuesday and Wednesday and the other on the road on Saturday and Sunday. Given the difficulty of the Blazers’ last three games, a move back into the top six (and maybe a first round matchup with the Clippers) isn’t out of the question. No matter what, the champs are going to have a challenging obstacle in front of them as they try to navigate their way back to The Finals.
Week 21: vs. NYK, vs. HOU, @ IND, @ NOP
Last Week: 9
Pace: 97.9 (24) OffRtg: 114.5 (8) DefRtg: 111.7 (14) NetRtg: +2.8 (9)
Kristaps Porzingis has missed nine of the last 10 games, but the Mavs haven’t really missed him. They’ve won 10 of their last 12 (both losses were to the Kings!), with the league’s fourth-ranked offense over that stretch, to take control of the 5 seed in the West. Luka Doncic’s jumper remains inconsistent, but every other Mav who’s been shooting 3s has been shooting them well. Tim Hardaway Jr. has started seven of his last nine games (not enough to lose his Sixth Man of the Year qualification) and has averaged 27 points (shooting 32-for-61 from beyond the arc) over his last six.
The Mavs are actually a much worse team statistically than they were last season, when they outscored their opponents by 4.8 points per 100 possessions (the league’s sixth best mark), but were 17-24 in games that were within five points in the last five minutes. They haven’t been elite in the clutch this season (their clutch defense actually ranks 28th), but a 17-15 mark in games that were within five in the last five has put them in better position ahead of the postseason. In their quest to secure the 5 seed, the Mavs’ next game (Tuesday in Memphis) is their toughest and a chance for the Grizzlies to get some revenge for one of the wildest game-winners in recent memory.
Week 21: @ MEM, vs. NOP, vs. TOR, @ MIN
Last Week: 8 ↓
Pace: 96.6 (30) OffRtg: 110.4 (20) DefRtg: 108.1 (4) NetRtg: +2.3 (10)
The much-improved Knicks offense (No. 1 in the league over a 12-1 stretch) made it to Houston and Memphis, where they shot 51% (including 14-for-27) in the second game of a back-to-back on Monday. But it got lost on its way to Denver and the Knicks have scored just 102 points per 100 possessions (with Julius Randle shooting 1-for-14 from 3-point range) over the last three games of the six-game trip that ends Tuesday.
This team doesn’t need to score big to win games, though. And the Knicks used an old Tom Thibodeau formula — defense, depth and Derrick Rose — to grind out a win over the Clippers on Sunday and remain in control of fourth place in the East. Over their (now) 13-3 stretch, the Knicks have been 14.7 points per 100 possessions better with Rose on the floor (+13.0) than they’ve been with him off the floor (-1.7).
Those off-the-floor minutes have included some slow starts. For the season, the Knicks are a little better than even over the first six minutes of games. But in the last three, they’ve been outscored by a total of 28 points in the first six minutes of the first quarter. The Knicks’ starting lineup (with Elfrid Payton at point guard) has played the most minutes (501) of any five-man unit that’s been outscored over the course of the season. Thibodeau probably isn’t going to make a lineup change at this point in the regular season (Immanuel Quickley is out with an ankle sprain and Rose can’t play all 48 minutes), but it will be fascinating to see what happens if everybody’s healthy and a slow start contributes to a playoff loss.
To even think about about postseason losses in New York is a pretty good thing, though. The Knicks still need two more wins (or a win and a Boston loss) to officially end their seven-year playoff drought.
Week 21: @ LAL, vs. SAS, vs. CHA, vs. BOS
Last Week: 10 ↓
Pace: 99.0 (19) OffRtg: 116.6 (4) DefRtg: 115.2 (29) NetRtg: +1.4 (12)
Momentum generally doesn’t carry over from the regular season to the playoffs, but playing well over the last few weeks is certainly better than the alternative, especially if it puts you in a much more advantageous position in the standings. The Blazers have followed a 1-7 stretch with a 7-1 stretch, with the lone loss (Monday in Atlanta) coming in the second game of a back-to-back and after a surprise wake-up call.
Better bench minutes (they’ve outscored their opponents by 28 points per 100 possessions in Carmelo Anthony’s 148 minutes over the eight games) have come with a shorter rotation. The biggest win of the last seven came Friday against the Lakers, with the key stretch being a 16-5 run spanning the third and fourth quarters. Anthony and Enes Kanter were on the floor together for most of that stretch and L.A. shot just 1-for-12.
The Blazers still have some work to do to secure a spot in the West’s top six. They host Houston on Monday, but they finish the season against the Jazz, Suns and Nuggets, currently sporting an 0-9 record (and having allowed more than 125 points per 100 possessions) against the top four teams in the conference.
4-point play for Melo moves him into 10th in all-time scoring! 👏 pic.twitter.com/vsF1scCy42
— NBA (@NBA) May 4, 2021
Week 21: vs. HOU, @ UTA, @ PHX, vs. DEN
Last Week: 12
Pace: 97.1 (29) OffRtg: 110.1 (22) DefRtg: 110.5 (8) NetRtg: -0.4 (19)
The Heat have ranked in the top 10 defensively since mid-February, set to finish there for the 18th time in the 25 seasons for which we have play-by-play data, which is pretty remarkable. No team has allowed their opponents to take a greater percentage of their shots (46%) from 3-point range and the Heat are 4-16 when their opponents have shot better than 40% from beyond the arc, but they force a lot of turnovers and protect the rim without fouling.
The question was just how efficiently they could score, given that their two best players don’t shoot particularly well from outside of 15 feet. If they don’t climb two spots, they will finish in the bottom 10 offensively for the third time in the last four seasons, but as the Heat have won nine of their last 12 games, the Heat have scored 118.7 points per 100 possessions, the league’s third best mark over that stretch. In general, you are what your full-season numbers say you are, but this is a unique season and this is a team that similarly found itself late last year.
They Heat are currently 5-5 against the top four teams in the East, having swept the fourth-place Knicks. They’ll play the Sixers and Bucks on Thursday and Saturday, and they might just see the Nets in the first round of the playoffs.
Week 21: @ BOS, vs. PHI, @ MIL, @ DET
Last Week: 13
Pace: 98.4 (22) OffRtg: 114.2 (9) DefRtg: 112.6 (21) NetRtg: +1.5 (11)
Holding the head-to-head tiebreaker with the Heat, the Hawks control their own destiny in regard to the 4 seed and home-court advantage in the first round of the playoffs. And they’re one of three teams – the Nets and Clippers are the others – that don’t have any more games against the 16 teams that currently have winning records. But if there’s a below-.500 team that you don’t want to be facing right now, it’s the Wizards, who the Hawks will host on Monday and Wednesday. Atlanta held the Wiz under a point per possession (Russell Westbrook didn’t even have a double-double) in the first meeting, but that was in January.
The Hawks’ own offense has scored almost 126 points per 100 possessions in their four games in May, with their five leading scorers combining for an effective field goal percentage of 67%. Bogdan Bogdanovic has been rather ridiculous, shooting 90-for-183 (49.2%) from 3-point range over his last 20 games.
Only Brooklyn (+8.4) has seen a bigger jump in points scored per 100 possessions from last season than the Hawks (+7.2), who have gone from 25th to ninth on that end of the floor. And over these last six weeks, the Atlanta offense has been [flame emoji] with Bogdanovic and Trae Young on the floor together. But a return from De’Andre Hunter (he’s getting close) could really help on defense, where the Hawks got torched by the shorthanded Pacers on Thursday.
Week 21: vs. WAS, vs. WAS, vs. ORL, vs. HOU
Last Week: 11 ↓
Pace: 100.9 (8) OffRtg: 111.4 (16) DefRtg: 110.6 (9) NetRtg: +0.9 (14)
Since he made his season debut, the Grizzlies have been much better (especially defensively) with Jaren Jackson Jr. on the floor than they have with him off the floor. But he got his first start of the season over the weekend, reuniting a Grizzlies group that was outscored by 11.5 points per 100 possessions, the second-worst mark among lineups that played at least 150 minutes, last season. It outscored Toronto, 38-27, in its 13.9 minutes on Saturday, though De’Anthony Melton was on the floor instead of Jackson down the stretch, hitting three straight 3-pointers to draw separation from the Raptors.
They haven’t clinched a spot in the West’s top 10 just yet, but the likelihood that the Grizzlies will be in the Play-In for a second straight year is high. Last year, they had to win two games to take the No. 8 seed from the Blazers. This year, whether they’ll have to win one or two Play-In games could come down to game No. 72, when they visit Golden State with the head-to-head tiebreaker on the line. The Grizzlies have two more back-to-backs to play before they get there. In their two back-to-backs thus far in May, they’ve lost to the Magic and Pistons in the second games, allowing two bottom-five offenses to score a combined 69 points on 51 fourth-quarter possessions.
As it was last season, it’s a significant accomplishment for such a young team to get to the Play-In in a tough Western Conference. And real playoff experience against Phoenix or Utah would be huge for Ja Morant and company.
Week 21: vs. NOP, vs. DAL, vs. SAC, vs. SAC, @ GSW
Last Week: 15
Pace: 98.9 (20) OffRtg: 113.3 (10) DefRtg: 111.9 (18) NetRtg: +1.4 (13)
Since the All-Star break, the Celtics have been the league’s third best second-half team, having outscored their opponents by 9.4 points per 100 possessions over the third and fourth quarters. Unfortunately, games don’t start at halftime and the Celtics have had some rough starts. They’ve lost the first quarter in 19 of their last 29 games, having scored just 106.1 points per 100 first-quarter possessions over that stretch.
It’s cool that they came back from 32 points down against the Spurs 10 days ago, but they can’t keep trying to defy the odds. Teams are 19-439 when they’ve trailed by 20 points or more this season and the Celtics were down by 22 and 26 to the Bulls and Heat over the weekend. The two losses will make it climbing back into sixth place a tough task. They trail the Heat by two games, though the winner of their meeting on Tuesday will determine the tiebreaker.
Kemba Walker made 12 3-pointers in his first two games back from his oblique injury, but his absence was followed by one from Jaylen Brown and time is running out on the Celtics’ quest to find any kind of consistency (or energy) on defense. Only a really strong week on that end of the floor would prevent this from being just the second worse-than-average defense that the Celtics have had in the last 14 years (since they traded for Kevin Garnett).
Week 21: vs. MIA, @ CLE, @ MIN, @ NYK
Last Week: 16
Pace: 103.0 (2) OffRtg: 109.8 (23) DefRtg: 109.2 (5) NetRtg: +0.7 (15)
A soft schedule over the last two weeks has helped the Warriors climb back above .500. Their last five games — against the Rockets, shorthanded Pelicans (x2), and Thunder (x2) — have been their best defensive stretch (statistically, at least) of the season at 95.8 points allowed per 100 possessions.
As they rejoin the over-.500 club, we note that Golden State has the worst record (12-23, having scored just 107.3 points per 100 possessions) in games between the 16 teams that currently have winning records. That mark is better (6-9) since the All-Star break, but their last game against a good team (Apr. 27 against Dallas) was one of those blowouts that they’ve suffered pretty frequently.
Still, there’s Stephen Curry, who scored 49 points in less than 30 minutes on Saturday, his 22nd career game (and seventh this season) with 10 or more 3-pointers. And in a one-game situation — maybe a game against Memphis for the No. 8 seed on Sunday, maybe a Play-In game against the Lakers — anything is possible. (But note that two of the three games in which Curry has attempted fewer than eight 3-pointers have come against the defending champs.)
Week 21: vs. UTA, vs. PHX, vs. NOP, vs. MEM
Last Week: 18 ↑
Pace: 104.7 (1) OffRtg: 110.5 (17) DefRtg: 112.5 (20) NetRtg: -2.0 (23)
The Wizards are a league-best 15-4 over the last 4 1/2 weeks, with the fourth-ranked offense over that stretch. They’ve seen a huge offensive improvement in Russell Westbrook’s minutes on the floor, both with and without Bradley Beal. Through April 5, they had scored just 105.5 points per 100 possessions with Westbrook on the floor. Since then: 116.0, having seen big jumps in free throw rate and offensive rebounding percentage.
Westbrook, of course, has tied Oscar Robertson for the most triple-doubles in NBA history. You could say that his numbers are aided by the Wizards’ pace (their win over the Pacers on Monday was the second fastest-paced game in the 25 years for which we have play-by-play data), but Westbrook is the guy generating that pace. The 107.3 possessions per 48 minutes that Washington has averaged with him on the floor is the highest on-court mark (by a healthy margin) among all players that have averaged at least 15 minutes this season.
The Wizards, who were in 13th place before this 15-4 stretch, have a legit chance to climb to eighth in the East. They’ve lost the tiebreaker with the eighth-place Hornets, but if they can gain a game in the standings in the next six days (very possible given Charlotte’s schedule), Game 72 on Sunday would be a play-in for the No. 7-8 Play-In. The Wizards have had the league’s worst offense against Charlotte thus far this season, but both games took place before this 19-game surge and Bradley Beal missed the second meeting. He’s out for at least one of their two games in Atlanta, having suffered a hamstring strain after scoring 50 points in Indiana on Saturday.
🤯 Tie all-time triple-double record
🤯 Knock down go-ahead free throws
🤯 Seal the game with the clutch block
— NBA (@NBA) May 9, 2021
Week 21: @ ATL, @ ATL, vs. CLE, vs. CHA
Last Week: 17 ↓
Pace: 99.3 (16) OffRtg: 110.2 (21) DefRtg: 111.3 (11) NetRtg: -1.1 (21)
The Spurs are limping to the finish line. They’ve lost six of their last seven games, having been outscored by 15 points per game from 3-point range over that stretch. The drop-off from Patty Mills — 39.6% from 3-point range through March, 29.3% since April 1 — has been equally remarkable and damaging, given the lack of 3-point shooting elsewhere on the roster (especially with Derrick White out). Last season produced the end of the Spurs’ 22-year playoff streak and their first bottom-10 defense since they drafted Tim Duncan in 1997. This season could produce their first bottom-10 offense since the Duncan draft, and the guy who leads the Spurs in both scoring and assists (DeMar DeRozan) is a free agent.
The Spurs did win the most important game of the last seven, holding off the 12th-place and shorthanded Kings on Friday, thanks in part to three big buckets from Lonnie Walker IV in the final IV minutes. They hold the tiebreakers over both Sacramento and 11th-place New Orleans, but the Week 21 slate is a doozy. The Spurs are 11-25 (with seven straight losses) against the 16 teams that are currently over .500, though their last win against that group (April 17) was over the team (Phoenix) they play twice this week.
Week 21: vs. MIL, @ BKN, @ NYK, vs. PHX, vs. PHX
Last Week: 20 ↑
Pace: 100.5 (10) OffRtg: 113.3 (11) DefRtg: 113.1 (22) NetRtg: +0.2 (17)
It remains a strange season to the very end. With both Brandon Ingram and Zion Williamson in the lineup, the Pelicans couldn’t get a much-needed sweep of the Warriors last week, getting blitzed in the first quarter of the first game and never recovering. But after it was announced that both Williamson (broken finger) and Ingram (ankle sprain) are out indefinitely, the Pels went down to the wire in Philadelphia (where the Sixers are 24-4 with Joel Embiid) and won in Charlotte (behind a big game from Eric Bledsoe) to keep their slim Play-In hopes alive. Jaxson Hayes totaled 37 points and nine blocks off the bench over the two games and has recovered well from a rough start to the season that knocked him out of the rotation for a bit.
If the Spurs were to go 0-5 this week (not out of the question given the schedule and how the Spurs have been playing), the Pelicans would still need to win two of their four games (without Ingram and Williamson) to climb into 10th place. That, of course, is still two steps away from an actual playoff berth.
Before the season started, we could see that there were more (potentially) good teams in the West than there were spots in the playoffs. That doesn’t mean that the Pelicans’ season wasn’t disappointing. When you rank in the bottom five defensively for most of the season, you simply haven’t made the most of what you have. Of course, it wasn’t a lost season, because the Pelicans did establish Williamson as the focal point of an offense that would be in the top 10 if not for these last two games without him. They have a direction on that end of the floor, but obviously need to find more shooting with which to surround their star.
Week 21: @ MEM, @ DAL, @ GSW, vs. LAL
Last Week: 19 ↓
Pace: 99.1 (17) OffRtg: 110.4 (19) DefRtg: 111.8 (17) NetRtg: -1.4 (22)
The day after Gordon Hayward suffered his foot injury, the Hornets were in fourth place in the East, 7 1/2 games ahead of the 12th place Wizards. Now, 5 1/2 weeks later, only one game separates them in a fight for the most important spot in the Eastern Conference standings (for a team looking to end a playoff drought). Dealing with injuries and absences beyond that of Hayward (Miles Bridges and Devonte’ Graham missed all four of their games last week), the Hornets have been able to barely stay afloat by beating teams (Detroit and Orlando) playing for Lottery odds.
But they’ve run out of those teams on their schedule and they blew a big opportunity on Sunday, scoring just 14 points on 23 fourth-quarter possessions in a two-point loss to the shorthanded Pelicans. They haven’t seen a huge statistical drop-off on either end of the floor since the Hayward injury, but they’re 2-4 in games that were within five points in the last five minutes in April and May, with their record in those games prior (16-6) having played a big role in their status as a top four team in the East.
Overall, the Hornets have seen the league’s sixth biggest jump (from last season) in winning percentage and its fifth biggest jump in regard to point differential per 100 possessions (+5.6). The Play-In tournament will determine if that improvement results in the end of their
Week 21: vs. DEN, vs. LAC, @ NYK, @ WAS
Last Week: 22 ↑
Pace: 102.1 (4) OffRtg: 111.6 (15) DefRtg: 111.7 (16) NetRtg: -0.1 (18)
The Wizards’ 96 points in the paint against the Pacers on Monday were the most for any team in any game in the 25 years for which we have shot location data. However, it was two of the Kings’ 62 points in the paint on Wednesday that sparked a bizarre assistant-coach-player episode in the midst of reports of Nate Bjorkgren’s tenuous status as the man in charge. Myles Turner is definitely missed on on that end of the floor and the previous high for points in the paint this season (Memphis’ 88 against the Pacers on April 11) also came in a game in which Turner was out. But for the season, the Pacers have allowed their opponents to take 53% of their shots, the league’s highest opponent rate, in the paint and the rate when Turner has been on the floor (52%) isn’t significantly lower.
Though they’ve been without Domantas Sabonis or Malcolm Brogdon for each of the last 11 games, the Pacers have managed to put together some big offensive performances, like when they shot 62% (with 70 points in the paint themselves) against Atlanta on Thursday. Caris LeVert has three games in his career of at least 30 points and eight assists, two of the three have come in the last four days, and he took 14 of the Pacers’ 23 clutch shots in those two games.
Having been swept by the Wizards, the Pacers are the current No. 10 seed. If that’s where they remain, they’ll have to win two road games to keep their playoff streak (five straight years, all first-round exits) alive. But they do have the league’s biggest differential between their road record (19-15) and their home record (12-21).
Week 21: @ CLE, vs. PHI, vs. MIL, vs. LAL, @ TOR
Last Week: 23 ↑
Pace: 99.7 (13) OffRtg: 110.5 (18) DefRtg: 111.6 (13) NetRtg: -1.1 (20)
Zach LaVine has been the biggest force behind the Bulls’ offensive improvement this season. With LaVine seeing a big jump in efficiency (his true shooting percentage of 63.2% is up from 56.8% last season and ranks fifth among 46 players with a usage rate of 25% or higher), only four teams — the Nets, Hawks, Warriors and Jazz — have seen a bigger jump in points scored per 100 possessions than Chicago (+4.6).
So, it’s appropriate that LaVine’s return from an 11-game absence has sparked a three-game winning streak that has the Bulls still alive for the final Play-In spot in the East. It’s been the Bulls’ best three-game stretch of offense (119.5 per 100) since the All-Star break and has come with LaVine, Nikola Vucevic and Coby White all averaging 20+ points and shooting 40% or better on at least 20 3-point attempts.
Alas, with the 10th-place Pacers playing in Cleveland on Monday and in Tampa on Sunday, Chicago would probably need to win at least three of its last four games to grab 10th place with the head-to-head tiebreaker. Even with their win over the Celtics on Friday, the Bulls are just 8-28 against the 16 teams that currently have winning records. And their two games against Brooklyn are the first games of the Nets’ two back-to-backs.
Week 21: vs. BKN, vs. TOR, @ BKN, vs. MIL
Last Week: 21 ↓
Pace: 99.6 (14) OffRtg: 112.0 (14) DefRtg: 111.7 (15) NetRtg: +0.3 (16)
The door to the Play-In was slightly ajar for the Raptors, but they cared not to walk through, sitting Kyle Lowry (coming off a huge performance against the Lakers) for all three of their games last week. The skeleton crew kept it competitive against the Clippers, Wizards and Grizzlies, because they have to maintain that positive point differential (currently +13 for the season). As they stand, the Raptors have the lowest winning percentage in NBA history for a team that has outscored its opponents over the course of the season. To keep that distinction, they can’t win more than two of their four remaining games (or else they’d pass the 34-48, 1976-77 Suns) and can’t get outscored by more than 12 points over the next seven days. If any team can thread that needle, it’s this one.
With neither Lowry nor team president Masai Ujiri under contract beyond this season, it could be a pivotal summer for the Raptors. No matter what happens, they have three critical and experienced pieces — OG Anunoby (24 in July), Pascal Siakam (27) and Fred VanVleet (27) — under contract long-term. That group, no matter who it’s surrounded by, is one of the best defensive trios in the league (with significant skill on offense too) and will continue to keep the Raptors competitive to a certain degree. So bringing Lowry back for another season or two is far from a preposterous proposition.
Week 21: vs. LAC, @ CHI, @ DAL, vs. IND
Last Week: 24
Pace: 102.0 (5) OffRtg: 109.0 (25) DefRtg: 114.6 (28) NetRtg: -5.7 (26)
Climbing out of the bottom 10 on defense will be a tall task, but next season’s Wolves should have a pretty high ceiling (top 10?) on offense. They’ve ranked 11th on that end of the floor (113.4 points scored per 100 possessions) since the All-Star break with D’Angelo Russell having played only 18 of those 32 games, Malik Beasley having played in only four and with Anthony Edwards still looking like a rookie at times.
Edwards has looked like a future star enough to believe that the Wolves have something special with him and Karl-Anthony Towns, one of two players (James Harden is the other) to have averaged at least 20 points with a true shooting percentage of 60% or better in each of the last five seasons. The duo’s pick-and-roll numbers haven’t been good, but will improve as Edwards gains experience. His 0.77 points per possession as a ball-handler is the second worst mark among 52 players who’ve averaged at least five ball-handler possessions per game and nobody has shot worse on at least 100 pull-up 2-pointers. But he’s had some big shooting nights from the outside (like eight 3-pointers against Memphis on Wednesday) and we know he can finish at the rim.
Week 21: @ DET, vs. DEN, vs. BOS, vs. DAL
Last Week: 25
Pace: 100.7 (9) OffRtg: 113.0 (12) DefRtg: 116.8 (30) NetRtg: -3.8 (24)
With the Spurs having five tough games this week and with Zion Williamson injured, the door to the Play-In Club (amazingly) remains slightly ajar for the Kings. They blew their best opportunity in a back-and-forth second half against San Antonio on Friday (allowing the Spurs to score 35 points on 26 fourth-quarter possessions) and would still need a miracle to keep their playoff drought from matching the longest in NBA history (15 years). If they were to catch the Spurs, they’d have do it with a couple of wins against the team (Memphis) that would likely be their opponent in the No. 9-10 game. The Kings have won their last four road games, despite missing De’Aaron Fox and Harrison Barnes for all four.
Assuming the miracle doesn’t happen, the Kings will again have a lot of questions to answer in the offseason (as they do every offseason). Fox’s five-year extension kicks in next summer and 21-year-old Tyrese Haliburton is a budding star who can play on or off the ball. The Kings have outscored their opponents by 4.5 points per 100 possessions (scoring 118.3 per 100) in 937 total minutes with five of their top six guys on the floor. But they’ve been held back by a lack of depth and the league’s worst defense by a wide margin. Losing Richaun Holmes in free agency would be a big step backward.
Week 21: vs. OKC, @ MEM, @ MEM, vs. UTA
Last Week: 26
Pace: 98.1 (23) OffRtg: 108.0 (26) DefRtg: 112.1 (19) NetRtg: -4.1 (25)
The jury is obviously still out on Killian Hayes, whose rookie season was derailed by a hip injury suffered in his seventh game. The 19-year-old sees the floor well and can drop some dimes (here’s one, two, three from the last week), but has not been able to get to the basket or to the line very much. Maybe more layups and free throws come with better health and maybe Hayes will need to be a much better shooter from the outside (in the mold of a D’Angelo Russell) to make up for his inability to get to the cup.
The Pistons clearly hit on their other two first round picks from last year’s Draft. Saddiq Bey (currently at 38.4% on 427 attempts) could be the first rookie to ever shoot 38% or better on at least 400 3-point attempts. Isaiah Stewart leads all rookies in rebounding percentage (19.4%) and blocks per 36 minutes (2.2). And the Pistons have allowed just 104.7 points per 100 possessions in their 725 minutes on the floor together.
They’ll add another top-10 pick in this year’s Draft. While Jerami Grant’s role is probably too big for his own skill set, he does keep the young guys from having to extend themselves too much.
Week 21: vs. MIN, vs. DEN, vs. MIA
Last Week: 28 ↑
Pace: 99.1 (18) OffRtg: 104.8 (29) DefRtg: 113.5 (25) NetRtg: -8.8 (29)
It’s a huge summer for the Magic, who went from mediocre to bad and then dove right into a rebuild. It’s not just big because they’ll likely have two Lottery picks: their own and that of the Bulls (if it’s not in the top four). Just as important as the work of the scouting department is that of the medical team and the player development group. The former has Markelle Fultz and Jonathan Isaac working their way back from torn ACLs. The latter has five months of work with six other 23-and-under guys who were drafted in the first round.
In the wake of the Magic’s trade-deadline fire sale, the cupboard is far from bare and there’s intrigue in both the backcourt and the frontcourt. Cole Anthony was able to find a rhythm after returning from a two-month absence, he’s had a couple of games of 20-plus points, and he’s shot 13-for-31 (42%) on pull-up 3s since his return. Up front, Chuma Okeke flashed skills on both ends of the floor, shooting a solid 43% from mid-range and averaging 3.1 deflections per 36 minutes (fourth among rookies).
Week 21: @ MIL, @ ATL, @ PHI, @ PHI
Last Week: 27 ↓
Pace: 101.6 (7) OffRtg: 106.6 (27) DefRtg: 113.9 (27) NetRtg: -7.3 (27)
The Rockets have seen the eighth biggest season-to-season drop in winning percentage in NBA history (an 0-4 Week 21 would make it the sixth biggest drop) and have four fewer wins than any other team. The league’s worst record gives them a 52% chance of keeping their pick (if it lands in the top four) and a 48% chance of having to give No. 5 to the Thunder (thanks to their trade for Russell Westbrook) in exchange for the Heat’s pick. Lottery night will be tense, but even if they get a top-four pick, he won’t be joining much of an existing young core. Jae’Sean Tate was a nice find, but the only former first round pick under the age of 25 on the Houston roster is Kevin Porter Jr. (No. 30 in 2019).
Of course, John Wall, Eric Gordon (who’s played just 75 games over the last two years) and Christian Wood are all under contract for two more seasons. Kelly Olynyk is a free agent and has done himself a favor by averaging 18.8 points on 57% shooting in his 23 games with the Rockets, but the defense has been bad (117.4 points allowed per 100 possessions) in 436 minutes with Olynyk and Wood on the floor together. There’s some semblance of a rotation here if the young guys get better and the vets get healthy, but it’s probably not one that’s going to compete in the Western Conference while Wood (one of five players who’ve averaged at least 20 points, nine rebounds and one block per game) is still under contract. And it’s going to take a long time for the James Harden trade to bear fruit.
Week 21: @ POR, @ LAL, vs. LAC, @ ATL
Last Week: 29
Pace: 97.9 (25) OffRtg: 105.2 (28) DefRtg: 113.5 (26) NetRtg: -8.3 (28)
The Cavs have, by a healthy margin, the league’s worst record (59-156) over the three seasons since LeBron James left for L.A. Team-wise, there wasn’t much progress this season, which should be the third straight in which Cleveland ranks in the bottom six on both ends of the floor. What was a top-10 defense through the first seven weeks didn’t hold up beyond that, and the Cavs haven’t ranked higher than 23rd offensively in any month of the season.
Individually, Darius Garland saw one of the league’s biggest jumps in per-36 numbers, while also seeing jumps in effective field goal percentage and free throw rate. Collin Sexton also saw small jumps across the board, but the long-term viability of the small backcourt remains in question. Sexton would seemingly be an ideal sixth man, so it would help if Isaac Okoro can develop a jump shot – he’s 36% from the corners, but his 29.6% from 3-point range ranks 19th among 21 rookies with at least 100 attempts – and play some minutes at the two.
The Cavs will add another top-10 pick in the Draft, but they’ll have to pay to keep Jarrett Allen, who’s a restricted free agent in the summer. Kevin Love is still owed $60 million over the next two years.
Week 21: vs. IND, vs. BOS, @ WAS, @ BKN
Last Week: 30
Pace: 101.6 (6) OffRtg: 102.7 (30) DefRtg: 113.4 (24) NetRtg: -10.7 (30)
Last season, the Thunder were better than expected and embraced it, keeping their veterans (including those on expiring contracts) at the trade deadline and finishing fifth in the West. This season, the Thunder were better than expected again and, um, did not embrace it. Al Horford was given eight weeks of PTO, Shai Gilgeous-Alexander was given days off before being shut down with a foot injury, and a pair of 19 year olds were given the keys. The Thunder have gone 2-24 since the last time Gilgeous-Alexander played, sliding from 11th to 14th in the West.
Even when they were 19-24, the Thunder’s record belied their point differential. And with a league-high 22 losses by 20 points or more (13 of those since Gilgeous-Alexander last played), they’re 21-48 with the point differential (worst for any team since the 2011-12, 7-59 Bobcats) of a team that’s 12-57, close to the all-time record (held by the 1985-86 Clippers) for the biggest differential between a team’s actual wins and its “expected” wins.
Gilgeous-Alexander (who turns 23 in July) is special and Luguentz Dort (just turned 22) is also a keeper. The two 19 year olds – Theo Maledon and Aleksej Pokusevski – still have a lot of developing to do, but next season could be a lot like this one and the Thunder will have many more bites at the apple over the next few years. They’ll have two first round picks – their own and that of either the Rockets (if it’s outside the top four) or Heat – in this year’s Draft.
Week 21: @ SAC, vs. UTA, vs. LAC