NBA Power Rankings: Bucks back in top tier; third-quarter grades; revisiting preseason predictions – The Athletic

Zach HarperMar 5, 2024

We’ve made it three quarters of the way through the 2024-24 season, and we’re shaping up for an unbelievable finish to the regular season, an epic Play-In Tournament (in the West) and an incredible playoff run for two NBA Finals-bound teams. With one quarter left, it’s time to bust out that red pen and throw down some grades on each team through the season.

We also have the bold predictions we made right before the season, so we’ll update how those are looking. (Spoiler alert: Some of them are really not great!) And, as always, we’ll flawlessly rank all 30 teams without a single disagreement.

And then, as always, we’ll flawlessly rank all 30 teams.

Reminder: The Power Rankings don’t just rank the 30 teams. We divide these teams into tiers, which teams can move in and out of. We currently have the tiers broken into seven new categories:

  • Incomprehensibly bad – These guys are historically inept right now.
  • Not tanking but maybe someday — They haven’t started tanking yet, but it’s on the table this season.
  • Looking to make the Play-In — They’ve been rebuilding/retooling and think they can crack the top 10 in their respective conference.
  • Play-In Tournament teams or better — They should be in the mix unless something disastrous happens.
  • Playoff teams — Probably don’t have to worry about dropping down to the Play-In Tournament.
  • On the brink of contention — A piece away from us believing they can win the title.
  • Contenders — They are contending for the championship, barring a massive injury.

As always, I am sure we will all agree on the placement of all 30 teams, especially your favorite team.

Here’s how the Power Rankings work:

  • It’s up to my discretion how the rankings shake out. For some teams, they’ll be hit in the short term. Others will be given the benefit for the long term. Yes, it is entirely subjective.
  • If I have a team ahead of another team, there’s no reason to ask why they’re ranked above the team you like. The answer is pretty simple: I think that team is set up better for success.
  • Yes, I watch the games. And yes, I watch your favorite team.
  • This is supposed to be fun, so let’s have fun.

With all that said, let’s dive into Week 20 of The Athletic’s NBA Power Rankings. Stats and records are through Monday’s action.

Conference Eastern WesternTier Tier 1 – The Contenders Tier 2 – Brink of Contention Tier 3 – Playoff Teams Tier 4 – Play-In Tournament Teams Or Better Tier 5 – Looking to make the Play-In Tier 6 – Not tanking yet but maybe someday Tier 7 – Incomprehensibly badExpand allCollapse allLoadingTry changing or resetting your filters to see more.Tier 1 – The Contenders1

Boston Celtics

3Last Rank

First-quarter grade B | Ranked fourth

Second-quarter grade A- | Ranked third

Third-quarter grade A-

This Nuggets team is just casually competing for the No. 1 seed in the West and doing the very calm, poised thing of just making sure they’re as healthy as they can be. No pressure or scrambling to make sure they get the top seed at all costs. They’re confident in who they are and know they can beat anybody.

Preseason prediction update: Denver leads the league in offensive rating.

They’re not even close on this one. Denver is eighth in offensive rating, and sits 4.3 points per 100 possessions behind first place.

Key StatsRecord42-19Offensive Rating117.4 (8th)Defensive Rating113.0 (9th)Net Rating4.4Rank over timeWinsKings117-92Heat103-97at Lakers124-114WesternTier 1 – The Contenders3

Minnesota Timberwolves

2Last Rank

First-quarter grade A | Ranked fifth

Second-quarter grade A+ | Ranked second

Third-quarter grade A+

I understand their size issue, which I think will eventually be their undoing should they match up with Denver in a seven-game series. But we also must remember the Thunder have been so good this season that we’ve jumped them up to, “How do they win a title?” expectations. This Thunder team is awesome on both ends of the floor. It might have the MVP with Shai Gilgeous-Alexander. The Thunder already have an identity, despite their youth, and they play a certain style of basketball that is really hard to plan against.

Preseason prediction update: Josh Giddey has a dozen triple-doubles.

He has just one on the season. He doesn’t even have 12 for his career. He’s currently at nine. Going to need a busy final month and a half!

Key StatsRecord42-19Offensive Rating119.1 (3rd)Defensive Rating111.5 (5th)Net Rating7.6Rank over timeWinsRockets112-95at Suns118-110Lossesat Spurs132-118at Lakers116-104WesternTier 1 – The Contenders5

Milwaukee Bucks

5Last Rank

First-quarter grade C+ | Ranked 16th

Second-quarter grade A | Ranked fourth

Third-quarter grade A-

We’ve seen a little bit of slippage lately with the Clippers, but they were also winning at a bit of an unreasonable pace once they “figured it out.” Still, you have to love where this Clippers team is, outside of the Russell Westbrook injury. The Clippers have so much firepower on offense that it’s kind of underselling Norman Powell’s Sixth Man of the Year odds. The defense could be better, and I think it will be. Is this the best we’ve felt about the Clippers … ever?

Preseason prediction update: They don’t land James Harden before the trade deadline.

It happened before the paint dried on those new In-Season Tournament courts.

Key StatsRecord39-21Offensive Rating118.8 (5th)Defensive Rating114.2 (12th)Net Rating4.6Rank over timeWinsWizards140-115at Wolves89-88LossesLakers116-112at Bucks113-106WesternTier 1 – The ContendersTier 2 – Brink of Contention7

Cleveland Cavaliers

9Last Rank

First-quarter grade B | Ranked ninth

Second-quarter grade B | Ranked 10th

Third-quarter grade B

We keep having to wait to see what this team looks like healthy for an extended period of time. Now they’re dealing with a Bradley Beal minutes restriction and Devin Booker’s ankle injury. I still like this team’s peak, even if it feels like we have a small chance of seeing it. At this point, positioning can’t take precedent over health. If they have to get through the Play-In Tournament, then so be it. They also have to stop giving the ball to the other team so much. They consistently cough it up, and it kills them from being an elite offensive squad – which is what they were supposed to be.

Preseason prediction update: Devin Booker makes first team All-NBA.

I’m not sure Booker is going to be able to pull this off. I’m guessing Luka Dončić and Gilgeous-Alexander have the top spots locked up, and Booker isn’t a lock for even being on the second team with how competitive guard play is this season.

Key StatsRecord35-26Offensive Rating117.1 (11th)Defensive Rating114.3 (13th)Net Rating2.8Rank over timeWinsRockets110-105LossesRockets118-109Thunder118-110WesternTier 2 – Brink of Contention9

Dallas Mavericks

11Last Rank

First-quarter grade B | Ranked 17th

Second-quarter grade B- | Ranked 13th

Third-quarter grade B+

Nobody wants to believe in this team, but that’s exactly what it seems to do to people every single season. Do the Heat have another “surprise” postseason run in them? The biggest problem with this Heat team is it simply can’t build enough continuity to have a consistently dangerous offense. The Heat are shockingly bad inside the arc. But we all should know by now Jimmy Butler can carry them through some muck.

Preseason prediction update: The Heat make the Eastern Conference finals.

This is going to be extremely tough, but it’s still very doable. They’re healthy enough and look pretty good when the whole squad is there.

Key StatsRecord34-26Offensive Rating113.4 (21st)Defensive Rating112.6 (8th)Net Rating0.8Rank over timeWinsat Blazers106-96Jazz126-120Lossesat Nuggets103-97EasternTier 3 – Playoff Teams11

New Orleans Pelicans

14Last Rank

First-quarter grade A+ | Ranked seventh

Second-quarter grade B | Ranked 17th

Third-quarter grade A-

This Magic team is doing it for me. It’s the same story all season long. The offense is mediocre, but the defense is top notch. Paolo Banchero is a star. Franz Wagner is pretty awesome. And, even though I wouldn’t pick them to win a playoff series, their defense might be so good that this becomes a team you don’t want to have to go through in the first round. Jamahl Mosley hasn’t received nearly enough credit for just how good they are.

Preseason prediction update: Paolo Banchero averages 25 points per game.

Banchero is up to 22.9 points per game on the season. He’s averaging 24.7 over his last 32 games, but this one looks like it won’t happen.

Key StatsRecord35-26Offensive Rating113.1 (23rd)Defensive Rating111.4 (4th)Net Rating1.7Rank over timeWinsNets108-81Jazz115-107Pistons113-91EasternTier 3 – Playoff Teams13

New York Knicks

13Last Rank

First-quarter grade B | Ranked 15th

Second-quarter grade B- | Ranked 14th

Third-quarter grade B

The Kings seem to be the forgotten team in the West. The top four in the conference have separated themselves. Everybody is trying to figure out if the Warriors and Lakers can actually matter. And, when talking about the traffic jam in fifth through eighth, others just concentrate on the Suns and Mavs. De’Aaron Fox and Domantas Sabonis have been so good. I’d like to see Keegan Murray get back to hitting 3-pointers, but the rest of his play has been excellent. The Kings just need the rest of the supporting cast to be consistent.

Preseason prediction update: The Kings finish top six in the West.

It’s very doable, but the Kings are battling Phoenix, New Orleans and Dallas to finish in the fifth or sixth spots in the West. They’re currently a half game behind sixth.

Key StatsRecord34-26Offensive Rating116.7 (14th)Defensive Rating116.5 (20th tied)Net Rating0.2Rank over timeWinsat Wolves124-120 OTLossesat Nuggets117-92WesternTier 3 – Playoff TeamsTier 4 – Play-In Tournament Teams Or Better15

Los Angeles Lakers

17Last Rank

First-quarter grade A- | Ranked sixth

Second-quarter grade A | Ranked fifth

Third-quarter grade B-

They’re still in survival mode, hoping Joel Embiid will be back and healthy enough in time for the postseason. Philadelphia is another team trying to avoid the Play-In Tournament with a late-season slide. Since Embiid went down with his injury, this is the second-worst defense in the league. They literally just have to hope their offense is hitting enough to get some wins because they can’t stop anybody without him.

Preseason prediction update: Harden is traded before 2024 hits.

This one definitely happened, but if you missed the Clippers entry, you’ll laugh at that prediction.

Key StatsRecord35-25Offensive Rating117.8 (6th)Defensive Rating114.4 (14th)Net Rating3.4Rank over timeWinsHornets121-114at Mavs120-116Lossesat Celtics117-99EasternTier 4 – Play-In Tournament Teams Or Better17

Golden State Warriors

15Last Rank

First-quarter grade A- | Ranked 13th

Second-quarter grade B | Ranked 12th

Third-quarter grade B

The offense fell off enough to where this isn’t just a highlight factory anymore. Since the start of February, the Pacers are 10th in offensive rating, which means they’re no longer scoring at a historic rate. And their defense is so bad that we’re seeing this team look a lot more ordinary. We also haven’t seen the same Tyrese Haliburton during this time. Maybe he’s still working his way back from injury. The Pacers could still finish in the top six in the East, but we’re missing that special level of execution.

Preseason prediction update: Tyrese Haliburton averages at least 25 points and 10 assists per game.

Haliburton is not scoring nearly as much as he did at the beginning of the season, so he’s down to 20.8 points per game. He’s at 11.3 assists per game, which is easy enough. But the scoring average won’t happen.

Key StatsRecord34-28Offensive Rating120.1 (2nd)Defensive Rating118.9 (26th)Net Rating1.2Rank over timeWinsPelicans123-114Lossesat Pelicans129-102at Spurs117-105EasternTier 4 – Play-In Tournament Teams Or BetterTier 5 – Looking to make the Play-In19

Chicago Bulls

20Last Rank

First-quarter grade A- | Ranked 18th

Second-quarter grade B | Ranked 19th

Third-quarter grade C

It’s been getting worse with each quarter of the season, but that’s not such an unforgivable thing with this Rockets squad. We have to remember that, even though they brought in a good coach and some veterans to help them figure out how to win, it’s still a very young core. And despite OKC’s and Orlando’s performances this season, it’s still very hard to win with a lot of youth. Ime Udoka and the Rockets have laid a great foundation for the future, and Alperen Şengün is a star.

Preseason prediction update: Dillon Brooks reaches 20 technical fouls.

He’s second in the league with 14 right now, but I’m not sure he’s getting six more even with all that guaranteed money.

Key StatsRecord26-34Offensive Rating112.1 (24th)Defensive Rating112.5 (7th)Net Rating-0.4Rank over timeWinsat Suns118-109Lossesat Thunder112-95at Suns110-105WesternTier 5 – Looking to make the Play-In21

Brooklyn Nets

23Last Rank

First-quarter grade C- | Ranked 21st

Second-quarter grade C | Ranked 21st

Third-quarter grade D+

Trae Young is out for weeks, and the Hawks are now looking very vulnerable when it comes to potentially missing the Play-In Tournament altogether. Dropping two games to Brooklyn has put their Play-In hopes in jeopardy. This Hawks team needs an overhaul. It’s been disappointing the entire time after that surprise conference finals appearance in 2021. The Hawks don’t need to move Young at all, but most of this roster should see massive changes. No more blaming the coaches.

Preseason prediction update: Trae Young becomes the fourth player to average 30 points and 10 assists per game.

Young is currently at 26.4 points and 10.8 assists per game, and he’s still out a few weeks with hand surgery. He’d have to be on an absolute scoring tear in the short amount of time he’s back, assuming he comes back this season.

Key StatsRecord26-34Offensive Rating117.2 (10th)Defensive Rating119.4 (29th)Net Rating-2.2Rank over timeWinsJazz124-97Lossesat Nets124-97at Nets114-102EasternTier 5 – Looking to make the Play-In23

Utah Jazz

22Last Rank

First-quarter grade C- | Ranked 22nd

Second-quarter grade C- | Ranked 25th

Third-quarter grade D+

Really disappointed in how this season has played out for the Raptors because I do like so many components on this roster. I also really like the move they made in acquiring RJ Barrett and Immanuel Quickley. It’ll be interesting to see how Masai Ujiri handles the offseason. This team should be more successful than it has been, although that might just be growing pains with building around a young star in Scottie Barnes kind of on the fly. I have high hopes for the future, though.

Preseason prediction update: Pascal Siakam is traded before the deadline.

This one ended up being correct! And it happened well before the deadline too.

Key StatsRecord23-38Offensive Rating114.0 (19th)Defensive Rating117.1 (23rd)Net Rating-3.1Rank over timeWinsHornets111-106LossesMavs136-125Warriors120-105EasternTier 6 – Not tanking yet but maybe somedayTier 7 – Incomprehensibly bad25

San Antonio Spurs

29Last Rank

First-quarter grade C- | Ranked 26th

Second-quarter grade D+ | Ranked 26th

Third-quarter grade D-

To be fair to the Blazers, they’ve had a lot of injuries and guys in and out of the lineup for a squad that wasn’t going to be all that good when healthy. But they probably put up a better fight than we’ve seen most nights if healthy. Scoot Henderson hasn’t lived up to the billing yet, but I still hold out hope. Injuries have kept Shaedon Sharpe from being on the court consistently, but I liked what we saw early on. The good news is Anfernee Simons continues to look like the real deal.

Preseason prediction update: Scoot Henderson leads all rookies in scoring.

This doesn’t seem very possible, does it? He’s fourth in scoring average at 12.9 per game with Wemby leading at 20.9 per game. If we want to get cute and go off total points, he’s down to sixth.

Key StatsRecord17-43Offensive Rating108.5 (29th)Defensive Rating116.5 (20th tied)Net Rating-8.0Rank over timeWinsat Grizzlies122-92at Grizzlies107-100LossesHeat106-96at Wolves119-114WesternTier 7 – Incomprehensibly bad27

Memphis Grizzlies

28Last Rank

First-quarter grade F– | Ranked 30th

Second-quarter grade F- | Ranked 30th

Third-quarter grade F

The Pistons went into the season hoping they could be in the mix in the Play-In race if everything broke right for them. They’re 42 games under .500 and ended up with the longest in-season losing streak ever. Surprisingly, you can still take some positives with Cade Cunningham at times, Jalen Duren’s presence, and I think Ausar Thompson has a bright future. Jaden Ivey has given them some flashes too. But Monty Williams has to do a better job with lineups and the rotation moving forward.

Preseason prediction update: Cunningham averages 20-7-7 on the season.

He’s at 22.2-7.4-4.1 on the season. The rebounds won’t come close unless he decides to watch a lot of Dennis Rodman tape.

Key StatsRecord9-51Offensive Rating110.6 (25th)Defensive Rating119.3 (27th tied)Net Rating-8.7Rank over timeWinsat Bulls105-95LossesCavs110-100at Magic113-91EasternTier 7 – Incomprehensibly bad29

Charlotte Hornets

30Last Rank

First-quarter grade F- | Ranked 28th

Second-quarter grade F | Ranked 29th

Third-quarter grade F–

You know how bad a team has to be for them to be the most embarrassing team in a season in which a different squad set the record for most consecutive losses in one season? That’s the Wizards. Tyus Jones and Kyle Kuzma have been good. Deni Avdija has been really strong. Bilal Coulibaly looks like the right pick and project for the franchise to develop. And everything else has been an outright disaster.

Preseason prediction update: Jordan Poole leads the league in scoring.

He was recently moved to the bench because the malaise was so thick. This was an all-time bad bold prediction.

Key StatsRecord9-52Offensive Rating110.5 (26th)Defensive Rating119.9 (30th)Net Rating-9.4Rank over timeLossesWarriors123-112at Lakers134-131 OTat Clippers140-115at Jazz127-115EasternTier 7 – Incomprehensibly bad

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(Top photo of Damian Lillard and Giannis Antetokounmpo: Ethan Miller / Getty Images)

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Zach Harper is a staff writer for The Athletic, covering the NBA. Zach joined The Athletic after covering the NBA for, CBS Sports and FRS Sports since 2009. He also hosts radio for SiriusXM NBA and SiriusXM Mad Dog Sports Radio. Follow Zach on Twitter @talkhoops