NBA Power Rankings: Pelicans now among contenders; pressing questions for every team – The Athletic

Zach HarperMar 19, 2024

We’re in the stretch run of the 2024-24 NBA season, and we still have so much jockeying for position in both conferences, a great race for the top seed in the West and a lot to still figure out with all 30 teams — even the bad ones!

That means we have at least one pressing question for each squad in these final weeks. And we’re going to attempt to answer those questions in these Power Rankings. We’ll also keep up the streak of 22 straight weeks of flawless rankings absolutely nobody will object to.

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:

  • Eliminated – They’ve been eliminated from the Play-In race.
  • Season is over, just not mathematically — 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 22 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 7 – EliminatedExpand allCollapse allLoadingTry changing or resetting your filters to see more.Tier 1 – The Contenders1

Boston Celtics

1Last Rank

Stretch run question: Are the Nuggets deep enough for the playoffs?

We know the starting lineup is lethal. We know Reggie Jackson is a really good backup point guard option, and Peyton Watson has been tremendous as he grows into a more prominent role this season. That’s seven guys. Christian Braun had moments during last postseason but still played very limited minutes. He should at least be accustomed to the atmosphere enough if they need him to be over 20 minutes per night. Maybe you throw DeAndre Jordan out there occasionally? There just isn’t much size depth, but we know Michael Malone is going to play his starters big minutes.

Key StatsRecord47-21Offensive Rating117.6 (7th)Defensive Rating112.9 (10th)Net Rating4.7Rank over timeWinsat Heat100-88at Spurs117-106Lossesat Mavs107-105WesternTier 1 – The Contenders3

Oklahoma City Thunder

5Last Rank

Stretch run question: Are the Wolves going to be able to replace KAT’s offense?

Maybe the correct question to ask is whether they can replace enough of his offense to help Anthony Edwards out, but the Wolves already had a struggling offense with Towns healthy. They’ve been in the bottom half of the league in offensive rating pretty much all season. The good news is this means more Naz Reid opportunities, and he’s an excellent, versatile offensive weapon. But when Rudy Gobert is missing time with a rib injury, the depth makes it tough to keep pace with the Thunder and Nuggets in the West. Ultimately, the Wolves need to get a team effort offensively because one guy can’t make up for Towns’ absence.

Key StatsRecord47-21Offensive Rating114.6 (18th)Defensive Rating108.2 (1st)Net Rating6.4Rank over timeWinsat Clippers118-100at Jazz119-100at Jazz114-104WesternTier 1 – The Contenders5

New Orleans Pelicans

4Last Rank

Stretch run question: Once again, is Kawhi Leonard going to be fine for the playoffs?

We saw back spasms knock Leonard out of a primetime game, and then he seemed fine after that. In fact, he didn’t miss a game and shot the ball well, but the Clippers lost two of those three games, including a bad one to the Hawks. There’s a certain point where you wonder if seeding will become important to the Clippers, or if they’ll prioritize their team health, especially their stars. Are they confident enough to be willing to drop down to the fifth seed if it means they’re healthy enough to take on the Pelicans without home-court advantage? Or will the Pelicans force them down to fifth regardless of LA’s approach?

Key StatsRecord42-25Offensive Rating118.7 (5th)Defensive Rating114.8 (14th)Net Rating3.9Rank over timeWinsat Bulls126-111LossesWolves118-100at Pelicans112-104Hawks110-93WesternTier 1 – The ContendersTier 2 – Brink of Contention7

Milwaukee Bucks

10Last Rank

Stretch run question: Do the Mavs have another defensive gear in them?

The Kings and the Mavs are two teams I’m very intrigued by. Unfortunately, their lack of defense concerns me for potential deep playoff runs. We saw the Mavs finally play some defense in their win against Denver, but it’s such a rarity for them. Can they get timely stops in the playoffs? And, if they can’t, will the offense from Luka Dončić, Kyrie Irving and the supporting cast be overwhelming enough to get them to win a round or two? These last few weeks are when they can build the continuity on the court necessary to find a better defensive level.

Key StatsRecord39-29Offensive Rating117.9 (6th)Defensive Rating116.7 (21st tied)Net Rating1.2Rank over timeWinsWarriors109-99Nuggets107-105Lossesat Thunder126-119WesternTier 2 – Brink of Contention9

New York Knicks

8Last Rank

Stretch run question: Are the Cavs tough enough for the playoffs?

That’s essentially what we need to figure out to see if we’re going to believe in the Cavs this postseason. And it’s probably annoying to Cavs fans because this team is excellent. It’s handled injuries as well as you can expect. The Cavs remain in the hunt for the No. 2 seed and still have a top-three defense. But the offense has never really come around, and we’re still waiting for them to be healthy. And if they are, we’re waiting to see if they can execute on offense in the playoffs. This is going to be a great test on whether or not Donovan Mitchell can deliver for them this postseason.

Key StatsRecord43-25Offensive Rating115.1 (17th)Defensive Rating110.8 (3rd)Net Rating4.3Rank over timeWinsat Pelicans119-95at Pacers108-103Lossesat Rockets117-103EasternTier 3 – Playoff Teams11

Sacramento Kings

13Last Rank

Stretch run question: Can they get up to the No. 4 seed for the playoffs?

The Magic have been one of the best stories this season, even though they’re not getting a ton of national exposure. Their defense is one of the best in the league, and Jamahl Mosley has these young guys executing nearly perfectly on that end of the floor. And they’re only one game behind the Knicks for the No. 4 seed in the East. Orlando has a fairly easy schedule (19th in strength of schedule) the rest of the way, slightly easier than the Knicks (14th). Can the Magic snag home-court advantage and frustrate their first-round matchup? Could they upset the Knicks in a series?

Key StatsRecord40-28Offensive Rating112.8 (22nd tied)Defensive Rating111.1 (4th)Net Rating1.7Rank over timeWinsNets114-106at Raptors113-103Raptors111-96EasternTier 3 – Playoff Teams13

Phoenix Suns

12Last Rank

Stretch run question: Will the Pacers be able to regain the magic from the first third of the season?

Much of this has to do with Tyrese Haliburton and how he’s able to play. In the first 30 games of the season, Haliburton was averaging 24.9 points, 12.7 assists and 2.5 turnovers and throwing up 50.1/40.8/86.3 shooting splits. He flirted mightily with the 50-40-90 club. Since that hamstring injury? It’s not the same, and neither are the Pacers. In these last 22 games, he’s averaging 15.6 points, 9.2 assists and 2.3 turnovers and has 43.7/28.2/86.0 shooting splits. And they’re missing Bennedict Mathurin. The Pacers need Hali back to himself to regain the magic.

Key StatsRecord38-31Offensive Rating119.8 (2nd)Defensive Rating118.1 (25th)Net Rating1.7Rank over timeWinsat Thunder121-111Nets121-100LossesBulls132-129 OTCavs108-103EasternTier 3 – Playoff TeamsTier 4 – Play-In Tournament Teams Or Better15

Los Angeles Lakers

16Last Rank

Stretch run question: Will the Heat build back up to being the danger everybody hates in the East?

As someone who typically believes in the Heat – because of their infamous culture – when most others dismiss them as an Eastern Conference threat, Miami hasn’t shown a ton this season to inspire confidence. Or at least it hasn’t shown enough consistency to inspire that confidence. That’s what the Heat need to build. They should be trying to avoid the Play-In despite their success last postseason. They haven’t appeared to consistently be on the same page as a team most of this season. The Heat will need that to surprise in the playoffs once again.

Key StatsRecord37-31Offensive Rating112.8 (22nd tied)Defensive Rating112.3 (9th)Net Rating0.5Rank over timeWinsat Pistons108-95at Pistons104-101LossesNuggets100-88at Sixers98-91EasternTier 4 – Play-In Tournament Teams Or Better17

Golden State Warriors

18Last Rank

Stretch run question: Can the Bulls make anybody uncomfortable in the Play-In and maybe the playoffs?

Do we feel confident the Bulls can make it through to the playoffs? They put a massive scare into Miami last Play-In Tournament, and we’ve seen them pull off some pretty big clutch moments this season. I don’t think beating out Atlanta to get a chance for the No. 8 seed is crazy. But can Chicago get past Indiana or Philly or Miami or whomever it might face in that second matchup? If the Bulls get through, can they utilize their size to make Boston work a little bit harder in that first round and maybe even steal a game?

Key StatsRecord34-35Offensive Rating113.6 (19th)Defensive Rating115.3 (15th)Net Rating-1.7Rank over timeWinsat Pacers132-129 OTWizards127-98Blazers110-107LossesClippers126-111EasternTier 4 – Play-In Tournament Teams Or BetterTier 5 – Looking to make the Play-In19

Houston Rockets

19Last Rank

Stretch run question: Is it worth trying to bring Joel Embiid back for the postseason (if possible)?

I’m always worried when it comes to a team bringing a big man back (seemingly early?) from a knee injury, especially a meniscus tear or a displaced flap or whatever you want to call it. The Sixers are likely going to fall and remain in the Play-In Tournament by the end of the season. Then, they have to decide if they can and should bring Embiid back for that, or hope for the best before potentially bringing him into the first round. I would always use more caution with someone like Embiid, but that’s not my call. Regardless, I just hope he’s healthy when he’s finally back.

Key StatsRecord38-30Offensive Rating116.5 (13th tied)Defensive Rating113.8 (12th)Net Rating2.7Rank over timeWinsHornets109-98Heat98-91Lossesat Knicks106-79at Bucks114-105EasternTier 5 – Looking to make the Play-In21

Atlanta Hawks

23Last Rank

Stretch run question: Is Keyonte George the real deal as their franchise point guard?

While most of the season we’ve seen George struggle to make shots like he did at Baylor, the rookie has made massive improvements in his last 20 games. Over this stretch, he’s averaging 17.2 points and 4.8 assists and putting up 45.5/40.9/86.3 shooting splits. George has turned a corner and gone from a nice mid-first-round find for the Jazz to potentially their lead guard of the future. They don’t need to decide on that now, but continuing even close to this level of play settles that question easily.

Key StatsRecord29-39Offensive Rating115.5 (15th)Defensive Rating119.2 (29th)Net Rating-3.7Rank over timeWinsHawks124-122LossesCeltics123-107Wolves119-100Wolves114-104WesternTier 6 – Season is overjust not mathematically23

Brooklyn Nets

26Last Rank

Stretch run question: Can GG Jackson actually be a contributor when they’re good again next season?

Over Jackson’s last 17 games, he’s been a really intriguing player for the M.A.S.H. unit Grizzlies. They’re just throwing guys into the lineup who normally would barely make the roster — and certainly not the rotation — for a typically good Memphis squad. Jackson has been putting up 17.3 points per game on 44.6/36.3/75.7 shooting splits. Such production is nothing earth-shattering, but it’s pretty good for someone who is barely 19 years old. Is this transferable to the Grizzlies next season, when Ja Morant, Jaren Jackson Jr. and Desmond Bane are all in the mix? Will Jackson be a valuable player off the bench at such a young age?

Key StatsRecord23-46Offensive Rating106.9 (30th)Defensive Rating113.3 (11th)Net Rating-6.4Rank over timeWinsWizards109-97Lossesat Pelicans126-107Thunder118-112at Kings121-111 OTWesternTier 6 – Season is overjust not mathematically25

Toronto Raptors

30Last Rank

Stretch run question: How does Brandon Miller finish his rookie campaign?

We’ve seen a little bit of a dip in production and efficiency for Miller in the month of March after an extremely strong February. The Hornets are just taking a skeleton crew to the games most nights with Vasilije Micić, Tre Mann and Nick Richards starting for them. Miller and Miles Bridges are going to be the 1-2 combo for Charlotte. Will Miller be able to finish the season on a strong stretch, shoot the ball well and be ready to take off in his sophomore season?

Key StatsRecord17-51Offensive Rating108.3 (29th)Defensive Rating118.5 (26th tied)Net Rating-10.2Rank over timeWinsat Grizzlies110-98LossesSuns107-96at Sixers109-98EasternTier 6 – Season is overjust not mathematicallyTier 7 – Eliminated27

San Antonio Spurs

27Last Rank

Stretch run question: How is Scoot Henderson going to end the season?

Henderson is another G League Ignite prospect who has struggled to make the leap to the NBA. Some of that is speed and difficulty at the NBA level. Other parts involve injuries. Regardless, he’s just not making shots and having the impact many of us expected. How does he finish it out? After missing 10 of 12 games recently, Henderson has been back and still struggling to knock down shots consistently. A strong end to the season with efficiency, changing speeds and having an impact would go a long way to building confidence for next season. He’s shown flashes. Let’s see consistency.

Key StatsRecord19-49Offensive Rating108.7 (28th)Defensive Rating116.7 (21st tied)Net Rating-8.0Rank over timeWinsHawks106-102LossesKnicks105-93at Bulls110-107WesternTier 7 – Eliminated29

Detroit Pistons

28Last Rank

Stretch run question: Are they going to be the worst team in the league?

The infamous “at this point it’s like ‘don’t be that team’” tweet by Kyle Kuzma just gets louder and louder. It gets recirculated more and more with each loss. And the Wizards are now a game behind the Pistons – who lost an NBA record 28 straight games – in the standings. Jordan Poole is talking about how people are mad at his confidence, not realizing it’s his indifference. The Wizards should not be this bad, and they’ll likely end up with the league’s worst record, and it will not due to injuries.

Key StatsRecord11-57Offensive Rating110.2 (26th)Defensive Rating119.7 (30th)Net Rating-9.5Rank over timeLossesat Grizzlies109-97at Rockets135-119at Bulls127-98Celtics130-104EasternTier 7 – Eliminated

(Top photo: Stephen Lew / USA Today)

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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