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NBA Power Rankings: Six of the best have a hope of title as wannabe champions fall off the pace

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Expert
8th March, 2024
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With less than a quarter of the regular season left, the number of teams with a realistic chance of winning the trophy is dwindling.

Philadelphia are all but goners following Joel Embiid’s knee injury, New York are heading backwards, Dallas are falling off a cliff and Phoenix can’t string together enough wins to break out of the pack.

Boston and Denver are humming along and appear on a collision course to meet in the finals but Milwaukee are kicking into gear under new coach Doc Rivers, Minnesota are showing they’re the real deal and you can never count Miami out.

The LA Clippers are the wildcard in the main pack – they have the star power to go all the way but their Big Three of Kawhi Leonard, Paul George and James Harden have a history of going missing in the playoffs (injury wise that is for the first two).

Here’s how the teams are shaping up as they head down the stretch to the playoffs.

Boston Celtics
v
Indiana Pacers
1.22
4.40
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Minnesota Timberwolves
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Dallas Mavericks
1.55
2.45
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Thu, 23 May 2024, 10:35
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Tier 1: legit contenders (in with a shot)

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1 Boston Celtics (48-14) They’ve gone 16-4 over the past six weeks and they just want the playoffs to start now while everyone is still healthy. They should have too much firepower for anyone else in the Eastern Conference and remain the team most likely to prevent Denver from defending their crown. 

2 Denver Nuggets (43-20): another team that is motoring along without breaking much of a sweat. Nikola Jokic looks likely to collect his third MVP crown and his 32-point triple double in Friday’s win over Boston underlines the Celtics’ problem if they meet up in the Finals – they don’t have a big man who can nullify the Joker. Nobody does but he is not bothered by Kristaps Porzingis or Al Horford. 

BOSTON, MA - JANUARY 19: Nikola Jokic #15 of the Denver Nuggets talks with Jayson Tatum #0 of the Boston Celtics during the second quarter at TD Garden on January 19, 2024 in Boston, Massachusetts. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and/or using this Photograph, user is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. (Photo By Winslow Townson/Getty Images)

MVP candidates Nikola Jokic and Jayson Tatum. (Photo By Winslow Townson/Getty Images)

3 Milwaukee Bucks (41-22): Damian Lillard and Giannis Antetokounmpo took more than half the season to fully get used to each other but the mid-season addition of coach Doc Rivers has helped turn the tide with seven wins from their last eight matches. 

4 Minnesota Timberwolves (44-19): They have lost Karl-Anthony Towns indefinitely due to a torn meniscus so they could lose their grip on top spot in the West down the home stretch. But they should retain home-court advantage in at least the first round of the playoffs and be a post-season factor if Towns can return. Anthony Edwards has literally gone to another level – he hit his head on the rim as he pulled off a spectacular game-winning chase-down block this week. Wowsers.

5 LA Clippers (40-21): they have split their past 10 to lose a bit of the momentum that had taken them briefly to the top of the Western Conference. They’re healthy and that’s all they care about right now.

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6 Miami Heat (35-27): They won’t go away and are only a couple of wins back from the fourth spot in the East. Jimmy Butler is in regular season cruise mode but the likes of Duncan Robinson and Terry Rozier have been stepping up at the offensive end. And the Heat are now likeable after adding Patty Mills. 

Tier 2: fringe contenders (need a lot to go their way)

7 Oklahoma City Thunder (43-19): The Thunder have Shai Gilgeous-Alexander in the MVP conversation and rookie centre Chet Holmgren making an impact at both ends but even though they picked up Gordon Hayward at the trade deadline, they still lack the experience to go deep in the playoffs.

8 Phoenix Suns (37-26): Kevin Durant is quietly having a sensational season but the veteran forward’s 28-point output on typically high percentages is going to waste. Devin Booker is playing well but not like a superstar, Bradley Beal has not done enough and there is little punch from the rest of the roster. 

9 Philadelphia 76ers (35-27): Joel Embiid’s knee injury has sent the Sixers spiralling and after losing 14 of their past 23 outings, they may shut him down for the season even if he can get a medical clearance to return by the start of the playoffs. 

PHILADELPHIA, PA - JANUARY 28: Nikola Jokic #15 of the Denver Nuggets battles with Joel Embiid #21 of the Philadelphia 76ers at the Wells Fargo Center on January 28, 2023 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. (Photo by Mitchell Leff/Getty Images)

Nikola Jokic battles with Joel Embiid. (Photo by Mitchell Leff/Getty Images)

Tier 3: playoff hopes (could make second round but that’s it) 

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10 Cleveland Cavaliers (40-22): After rising as high as second in the East amid their 16-7 surge but now Donovan Mitchell could be out for a month with a knee injury so the team’s future is also clouded. 

11 New Orleans Pelicans (37-25): This team is flying under the radar, winning 12 of their past 19 to sneak up to fifth in the Western logjam. Young Aussie guard Dyson Daniels’ knee injury is a bummer and although they have a deep squad, the Pelicans will be first-round exits unless Zion Williamson can take it up a notch. 

12 Sacramento Kings (36-26): Just when they look like they’re going to cement a spot in the top six in the West, they drop a game or two against opposition they should wipe the floor with. 

13 New York Knicks (36-26): injuries to Julius Randle and Jalen Brunson have stalled their rise up the ladder and just when they looked like challenging for third spot, they’re now fighting to avoid the Eastern play-in bracket. 

14 Los Angeles Lakers (34-30): LeBron James and Anthony Davis have lifted them to a 13-8 record recently but they are struggling to get any better than the play-in range with most of the teams above them continuing to win. 

15 Dallas Mavericks (35-28): Deja vu in Dallas with Luka Doncic firing but the team fading and now in danger of missing the playoffs again. They’ve gone 10-10 recently and coach Jason Kidd will not be in the role beyond this season with the Mavs having little to no wriggle room with this roster. 

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16 Golden State Warriors (33-29): They have shown signs of life since Draymond Green returned from his suspension but the changing of the guard is happening swiftly in the Bay Area with Jonathan Kuminga and Brandin Podziemski stepping out of veteran superstar shadows. 

17 Orlando Magic (37-26): Another team that has taken advantage of the misfortune of New York and Philadelphia by scooting up to fourth in the East. Paulo Banchero is only in his second year so the Magic are ahead of schedule – anything from here for the rest or the season, and now likely the playoffs, is a bonus. 

18 Indiana Pacers (35-29): Trading for Pascal Siakam helps them long term but they will only go as far as All-Star guard Tyrese Haliburton takes them. He has been uncharacteristically inconsistent lately and the Pacers wont last long in the playoffs even if they make it. 

Tier 4: Late-season purgatory (play-in hopes but nothing to brag about)

19 Chicago Bulls (31-32): They couldn’t be more meh if they tried. Coby White has been arguably the most improved player in the NBA but there has been precious little else to write home about for the Bulls this season.

20 Atlanta Hawks (28-34): Trae Young may not play again this season because of a broken pinky and if the Hawks’ record improves it could give the front office food for trading thought in the off-season. 

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21 Houston Rockets (27-35): They are another side which is ready for the season to end after promising signs earlier on. Alperen Sengun is developing into a future All-Star but a few of their recent higher draft picks are treading water. 

22 Utah Jazz (28-35): After a decent start to the season, they are in tank mode now and have won just six of their past 20. 

Tier 5: Just waiting for the draft lottery 

23 Brooklyn Nets (25-38): Ben Simmons has failed to finish the season for a third straight year. His future looks bleak. The Nets’ forecast isn’t much better given they owe picks to Houston. 

24 Toronto Raptors (23-40): The Raptors are fading into irrelevance. Their 2024 draft pick will go to San Antonio if it’s in the top six so they have incentive to not totally bottom out this season. 

25 Memphis Grizzlies (22-41): With the worst injury record of any team this year, the Grizz could get a handy player in the draft to go straight back up the standings if they’re healthy next season. 

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26 Charlotte Hornets (15-47): They have won six of their past 10 to move out of the flat bottom four draft rankings. Sometimes when you win you lose. 

27 Portland Trail Blazers (17-44): Duop Reath put up a career-high 26 earlier this week and the Boomers big man shapes as a crucial component for their Paris Olympics campaign. 

28 San Antonio Spurs (13-50): Victor Wembanyama is a game changer. For the NBA, not just the Spurs. How good will it be when he has a decent team around him. 

29 Detroit Pistons (10-52): Cade Cunningham is becoming a more complete player, the Pistons need many more players of a better standard to complete their roster. 

30 Washington Wizards (9-53): With 15 losses on the trot, it’s just sad in the capital. They will probably get the top pick in the lottery knowing their luck, a year after Wemby and in a draft class expected to be one of the weakest for several years. 

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