NBA Power Rankings: The Lakers are coming for the Bucks’ throne


After Sunday’s win over the LA Clippers, center JaVale McGee dubbed the Los Angeles Lakers the “best team in the world right now.” The Lakers beat the Clippers two days after beating Giannis Antetokounmpo and the Milwaukee Bucks at Staples Center, a win that clinched the Lakers a playoff berth. The Bucks maintained their spot at the top, even after a loss to the Phoenix Suns on Sunday, but how will they fare this week while Antetokounmpo recovers from a knee injury? Can LeBron James lead the Lakers into the No. 1 spot?

Meanwhile, the Boston Celtics continued to slide as the Toronto Raptors clinched a playoff berth. Damian Lillard and Stephen Curry both returned from injuries last week, with Lillard’s Portland Trail Blazers teammate Jusuf Nurkic expected to make his season debut in the coming week.

Our panel (ESPN’s Tim MacMahon, Bobby Marks, Kevin Pelton and Royce Young and The Undefeated’s Marc J. Spears) is ranking all 30 teams from top to bottom, taking stock of which teams are playing the best basketball now and which teams are looking most like title contenders.

Previous rankings: Week 20 |19 |18 | 17 | 16 | 15 | 14 | 13 | 12 | 11 | 10 | 9 | 8 | 7 | 6 | 5 | 4 | 3 | 2 | 1 | Training camp | Free agency | Post-Finals

1. Milwaukee Bucks
Record: 53-11
Week 20 ranking: 1

The Bucks lost three of four games this week — two tough road games against high-quality opponents and another without the reigning MVP — but they remain easily on pace for the top seed throughout the playoffs. The bigger concern for the team is the health of Giannis Antetokounmpo, who will miss time after spraining his knee in a hard fall Friday. For the rest of the season, the Bucks’ mantra is health over everything, especially for their dominant MVP candidate. — Snellings

This week: @DEN, BOS, GSW

2. Los Angeles Lakers
Record: 49-13
Week 20 ranking: 2

In defeating the Bucks and Clippers in consecutive games over the weekend, the Lakers defeated two of the top four teams in the NBA in back-to-back games for the first time since Feb. 5, 2009, when they beat the Celtics and Cavaliers, according to Elias Sports Bureau. That bodes well for LeBron James and the Lakers, as the 2009 Lakers went on to win the title. — Spears

This week: BKN, HOU, DEN

3. LA Clippers
Record: 43-20
Week 20 ranking: 3

Ahead of Saturday’s game against the Lakers, many players tried to downplay the matchup as “just another game.” Obviously, it wasn’t; that much was clear in the first five minutes. But that doesn’t mean you should overreact to the outcome. Going in, the Clippers were 10-0 at full strength. That lineup is what they’ve been working toward. That doesn’t mean just getting Paul George back; it means getting him back to a high level. Sunday’s game was a positive sign in that direction. — Young

This week: @GSW, BKN, NOP

4. Toronto Raptors
Record: 45-18
Week 20 ranking: 4

The Raptors snapped their three-game losing streak with wins over the Suns and Warriors that allowed them to become the second team in the NBA this season to clinch a playoff berth. Despite all of the injuries they have dealt with this season, head coach Nick Nurse has kept them on the winning path, and they maintain a 2.5-game lead over the Celtics with a month left in the regular season. — Snellings

This week: @UTAH, DET

5. Boston Celtics
Record: 42-21
Week 20 ranking: 5

The Celtics had a week to forget. Aside from a six-point win in Cleveland, Boston lost three home games to Brooklyn, Utah and Oklahoma City. The losses to the Nets and Thunder saw the Celtics fail to protect leads late in the fourth quarter. Boston blew a 13-point lead with just over four minutes left against Brooklyn and turned the ball over with eight seconds remaining against the Thunder. After shooting 49.4% from the field in the month of February, Jayson Tatum has dropped to 40% so far in March. — Marks

This week: @IND, @MIL, WAS, @CHI

6. Denver Nuggets
Record: 42-21
Week 20 ranking: 7

There’s a small identity crisis happening with the Nuggets right now. Coach Mike Malone is unafraid to rip his team when it plays poorly, so it isn’t outside the norm to feel the anxiety coming out of Denver. But Malone was on-point with his criticism after Saturday’s loss to the Cavaliers:

“Who are we? And who are we going to be? That’s a decision that we have to really think long and hard about and make that decision because we are not playing as well as we’re capable of, and that’s kind of scary for it to be this time of the season.” — Young

This week: MIL, @DAL, @SAS, @LAL

7. Utah Jazz
Record: 41-22
Week 20 ranking: 12

A soft stretch of games arrived just in time for Utah. After losing their first four games after the All-Star break, the Jazz have won five in a row, feasting on lottery-bound Eastern Conference competition. (The exception during that stretch: the injury-depleted Celtics.) Joe Ingles has adjusted well during his second stint as the Jazz’s sixth man. Utah is plus-62 in the 91 minutes Ingles and Jordan Clarkson have played together during the winning streak. — MacMahon

This week: TOR, @OKC, NOP, MEM

8. Miami Heat
Record: 41-23
Week 20 ranking: 9

Jimmy Butler didn’t seem too concerned about his nagging left toe, even though it sidelined him for most of the second half Sunday. The Heat were able to turn it around without him — largely thanks to seven 3s from Duncan Robinson — but as the stretch run approaches and the postseason nears, Butler needs to be 100 percent if the Heat want to make good on their dark horse contender status. — Young

This week: CHA, NYK, CHI

9. Houston Rockets
Record: 39-24
Week 20 ranking: 6

Coach Mike D’Antoni referred to Sunday’s blowout loss at home to the Magic as “rock-bottom” for the Rockets. It wasn’t that long ago that Houston was as hot as any team in the league, reeling off six straight wins. The Rockets followed that run with a four-game losing streak that included three losses to sub-.500 East teams and an embarrassing home outing against the Clippers.

“We’re not really worried. Just frustrating,” James Harden told reporters Sunday. “Seems like we’re just all going bad, but the only way to get out of it is keep pushing through. Keep fighting. We’ll make a turnaround.” — MacMahon

This week: MIN, @LAL, @POR

10. Oklahoma City Thunder
Record: 40-24
Week 20 ranking: 8

The Thunder were put in their place in back-to-back games by two of the league’s elites last week, so they had something to prove Sunday in Boston. Without their leading scorer, Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, the Thunder trailed by as many as 18 points. Then they did what they know how to do better than anybody: win a close game. Dennis Schroder added to his Sixth Man of the Year campaign by picking Kemba Walker‘s pocket and scoring the go-ahead bucket with 8.5 seconds left to steal a win against the Celtics. — Young

This week: UTAH, MIN, @WAS

11. Dallas Mavericks
Record: 39-26
Week 20 ranking: 11

The best stretch of Kristaps Porzingis‘s career was interrupted when the Pacers held him to nine points on 3-of-17 shooting Sunday. That ended a career-best streak of five 20-point, 10-rebound performances. In the previous 13 games, Porzingis had eight 25-point double-doubles, including five with at least 30 points. In 222 career games before that stretch, Porzingis had a total of eight 25-point double-doubles, including only three with 30 points. — MacMahon

This week: @SAS, DEN, PHX

12. Indiana Pacers
Record: 38-25
Week 20 ranking: 13

The Pacers have quietly found their level in recent weeks, winning eight of their past 10 games with their only losses in Milwaukee and in Toronto. Victor Oladipo has played well when healthy, averaging 14.5 points per game on 47.6% from the field in his past four outings, but he has missed four of the past eight games because of knee soreness. Point guard Malcolm Brogdon is also week-to-week with a muscle tear in his leg, as injuries threaten to derail the team’s recent success. — Snellings

This week: BOS, @PHI

13. Philadelphia 76ers
Record: 38-26
Week 20 ranking: 10

For a team without Ben Simmons, Josh Richardson and Joel Embiid, winning the back end of the West Coast trip to finish 2-2 would have been an accomplishment, especially after the Sixers lost the first two games to the Clippers and Lakers. Instead, Philadelphia was outscored 36-24 in the fourth quarter by a Golden State team missing Stephen Curry, Draymond Green and Klay Thompson. If there is a positive takeaway from the trip (besides Shake Milton vs. the Clippers), it is the play of Glenn Robinson III. In the losses to the Lakers and Warriors, Robinson III averaged 20 points on 14-of-20 from the field and 5-of-7 from 3. — Marks

This week: DET, IND

14. Memphis Grizzlies
Record: 32-32
Week 20 ranking: 15

Center Jonas Valanciunas, the veteran in the Grizzlies’ starting lineup at 27 years old, has been a major force during Memphis’ strong response to a post-break slump. Valanciunas has averaged 17.4 points and 15.6 rebounds while shooting 71.2% from the floor during the Grizzlies’ recent 4-1 run. The 27-year-old has been a steady presence for the Grizzlies all season, averaging career highs in rebounds (11.1 per game) and field goal percentage (58.1). — MacMahon

This week: ORL, @POR, @UTAH

15. Brooklyn Nets
Record: 29-34
Week 20 ranking: 17

The first week of March was full of surprises in Brooklyn. First, Caris LeVert scored a career-high 51 points (37 points in the fourth quarter and OT) and led Brooklyn to a comeback win over Boston. LeVert put up a triple-double three nights later in a home win over San Antonio. The play on the court, however, was overshadowed by the unexpected news Saturday that the Nets and head coach Kenny Atkinson had mutually agreed to part ways. Despite the change in head coach (Jacque Vaughn takes over), Brooklyn has more than a 99% chance to reach the postseason, according to BPI. — Marks

This week: @LAL, @GSW, @LAC, @SAC

16. Sacramento Kings
Record: 28-36
Week 20 ranking: 19

The Kings are tied with the Pelicans for the ninth spot in the Western Conference and are four games behind the Grizzlies for the eighth and final playoff spot in the Western Conference. The Kings host the Pelicans in a key game on Wednesday. — Spears

This week: NOP, BKN

17. Orlando Magic
Record: 29-35
Week 20 ranking: 16

The Magic lost two of four games this week after winning three of four the week before, and they continue to tread water in the playoff race. The Magic have found success against teams with poor records all season, but they have struggled against teams vying for playoff contention. Four of Orlando’s next five games are against the former, giving them a chance to solidify their playoff positioning. — Snellings

This week: @MEM, CHI, CHA

18. New Orleans Pelicans
Record: 28-36
Week 20 ranking: 14

“You’ve got to give Lonzo Ball a lot of credit,” Mavericks coach Rick Carlisle said. “This guy has really worked on his shooting, and he is really stroking it.”

Ball has made 21 of 36 attempts from 3-point range the past four games and is up to 38.3% from long range this season. His development as a shooter and his chemistry with Zion Williamson — lobs from half court have become regular highlights — make it easy to see Ball as the Pelicans’ point guard for the foreseeable future. — MacMahon

This week: @SAC, @UTAH, @LAC

19. Portland Trail Blazers
Record: 28-37
Week 20 ranking: 20

Damian Lillard returned this week, and though it’s obviously a vital boost, it didn’t immediately solve everything for Portland. The Blazers went 1-2, with losses in winnable games against the Suns and Kings. Jusuf Nurkic‘s reported return next week will be emotional and will surely send a charge into the Blazers, but the hole that has been dug might be too deep for this team to crawl out of. — Young

This week: PHX, MEM, HOU

20. San Antonio Spurs
Record: 26-36
Week 20 ranking: 18

The Spurs are on track for their first losing season since 1996-97, when they went 20-62, with Gregg Popovich taking over as head coach in early December. The Spurs have won at least 47 games in every season since the lockout 22 years ago. — MacMahon

This week: DAL, DEN, MIN

21. Phoenix Suns
Record: 26-38
Week 20 ranking: 22

Point guard Ricky Rubio might have had his best game with the Suns, recording a triple-double of 25 points, 13 rebounds and 13 assists in a win over Milwaukee on Sunday. The Spaniard was the first Suns player with at least 12 points, 12 rebounds and 12 assists since Steve Nash on March 30, 2005. Phoenix has quietly split its past 10 games. — Spears

This week: @POR, @DAL

22. Washington Wizards
Record: 23-40
Week 20 ranking: 21

For the first time in more than a month, Bradley Beal wasn’t the leading scorer for the Wizards in a game he played in. He had 20 points with time to spare before halftime Sunday against the Heat but finished with just 23. These are the kind of the things the Wizards have to hold on to right now. — Young

This week: NYK, @BOS, OKC

23. Charlotte Hornets
Record: 22-41
Week 19 ranking: 24

With a win at home Saturday against Houston and two losses by a combined three points to Denver and San Antonio, the Hornets are trending in the right direction. Despite their 22-41 record, head coach James Borrego has done a high-level job of keeping the Hornets competitive while not losing sight of the development of their young players. In the nine-point win against the Rockets, PJ Washington and Devonte’ Graham combined for 45 points on an efficient 15-of-23 from the field and 7-of-14 from 3. — Marks

This week: @ATL, @MIA, CLE, @ORL

24. Chicago Bulls
Record: 21-43
Week 20 ranking: 25

Rookie guard Coby White is averaging 25.2 points and 3.7 3-pointers per game since the All-Star break. The former North Carolina star averaged 11.1 points and 1.8 3-pointers in 55 games before the All-Star break. — Spears

This week: CLE, @ORL, @MIA, BOS

25. Detroit Pistons
Record: 20-45
Week 20 ranking: 26

The Pistons have lost four straight games and 11 of their past 12, and they haven’t beaten a team besides the Phoenix Suns since Feb. 2. The rest of this season is about their young players, and Christian Wood remains the shining star, averaging 23.3 points per game and 10.1 rebounds per game in his past nine outings. — Snellings

This week: @PHI, @TOR

26. New York Knicks
Record: 20-44
Week 20 ranking: 27

Only in New York could the hiring of president Leon Rose and the best win of the season against the Rockets be overshadowed by a feud between James Dolan and Spike Lee off the court. On the court, rookie RJ Barrett led the Knicks to a two-game win streak against Chicago and Houston, averaging 23 points on 18-of-28 from the field and close to five rebounds and assists per game. — Marks

This week: @WAS, @ATL, @MIA

27. Minnesota Timberwolves
Record: 19-44
Week 20 ranking: 28

The Timberwolves pulled off a two-game winning streak last week, marking only the second time since Nov. 27 that they have strung two wins together. The rest of the season is essentially an extended tryout for the role players on the team, and players such as Malik Beasley (21.9 points per game, 4.8 rebounds per game during the past 10 games) are taking advantage of the playing time to put up career numbers. — Snellings

This week: @HOU, @OKC, @SAS

28. Cleveland Cavaliers
Record: 19-45
Week 20 ranking: 29

Collin Sexton‘s 32-, 41- and 25-point performances did not go unnoticed by his teammates, earning a shout-out from Kevin Love on Twitter. In a two-point home win against Denver, Sexton shot 11-of-19 from the field, dished out five assists and grabbed six rebounds. Since the All-Star break, Sexton is averaging 25.4 points on 50.8% from the field and 43.1% from 3. — Marks

This week: @CHI, @CHA, @ATL

29. Atlanta Hawks
Record: 19-46
Week 20 ranking: 23

John Collins has 13 20-point, 10-rebound games in 39 contests this season, nine of which have come since Feb. 1. He has been hampered of late by a bruised right thigh. — Spears

This week: CHA, NYK, CLE

30. Golden State Warriors
Record: 15-49
Week 20 ranking: 30

The Warriors are 8-25 at the new Chase Center this season. Saturday’s win over the 76ers snapped a 10-game home losing streak. The Warriors had a chance to end the losing streak two nights prior, as Stephen Curry scored 23 points in his return from a broken hand, but the Raptors won by single digits. Golden State’s win over an undermanned Philadelphia team came without Curry, who was out due to illness. Eric Paschall and Damion Lee combined for 47 points in Curry’s absence. — Spears

This week: LAC, BKN, @MIL

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