NBA Power Rankings: Houston, Utah and the battle waging in the West

The battles for home court in the first round of the playoffs are heating up as we hit March. Which teams are in the driver’s seat to host an opening-round matchup?

Throughout the regular season, our panel (ESPN’s Kevin Arnovitz, Tim MacMahon and Andre’ Snellings, The Undefeated’s Marc J. Spears and FiveThirtyEight’s Chris Herring) ranks all 30 teams from top to bottom, taking stock of which are playing the best basketball and which 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

1. Milwaukee Bucks
Record: 48-15

Dealing with an array of injuries as his team prepared to take on the Jazz, Mike Budenholzer rolled out a starting five with four players who stand 6-foot-10 or taller, making it the NBA’s tallest starting lineup since 2003. On some level, it worked: The Bucks jumped out to a 11-0 lead to begin the game, and their No. 1 defense reduced Rudy Gobert to a terrible showing. Yet Donovan Mitchell finished with 46 points, and cited the big lineup’s lack of foot speed as a reason for Utah’s comeback victory. — Herring


2. Golden State Warriors
Record: 44-19

Despite losing two of their past three, the Warriors are now 21-11 on the road this season and are the only team in the Western Conference with more than 18 road wins. Golden State has also secured a winning road record for a franchise-best sixth consecutive season. Previously, the Warriors had seven total seasons with a winning road record in its 67-year history, according to Elias Sports Bureau research. — Spears


3. Toronto Raptors
Record: 46-18

We know the Raptors are dangerous, and with the recent acquisitions that has never been more true. The question that has loomed for much of the season has surrounded whether a unit that’s been together only sporadically has logged enough time on the floor to fully realize its potential. Load management aside, the quartet of Kyle Lowry, Danny Green, Kawhi Leonard and Pascal Siakam have outscored opponents by 21.9 points per 100 possessions since the All-Star break, whether Marc Gasol or Serge Ibaka is the man in the middle. — Arnovitz


4. Denver Nuggets
Record: 42-20

On Saturday, the Nuggets started their preferred lineup of Nikola Jokic, Paul Millsap, Will Barton, Gary Harris and Jamal Murray for the first time since Oct. 20 after battling a series of injuries all season. The Nuggets have a 3.5-game lead for second place in the West, which affords them some time and opportunity for their lineup to mesh and find their level over the final 20 regular-season games before the playoffs begin. — Snellings


5. Portland Trail Blazers
Record: 39-24

The Blazers had to be ecstatic that newcomer Rodney Hood finally had a breakthrough game. The veteran swingman had 27 points, all after the 2:27 mark in the third quarter, in a win at Charlotte on Sunday. Hood had missed 25 of 32 field-goal attempts and nine of 10 3-pointers in the previous five games. — Spears


6. Houston Rockets
Record: 38-25

The Rockets are 12-0 when Chris Paul dishes out at least 10 assists. That includes three games during Houston’s current five-game winning streak, when Paul is also averaging 17.8 points per game. “He’s being aggressive, and that’s what we need,” James Harden said. Paul’s aggressiveness eases the burden on Harden, but the reigning MVP is still carrying a historic load, averaging 39.5 points in four games since recovering from a cervical strain. — MacMahon


7. Philadelphia 76ers
Record: 40-23

It’s difficult to make wholesale evaluations about the Sixers’ potential this spring while Joel Embiid remains sidelined with tendinitis in his left knee. The team is 3-2 during his recent absence, with Tobias Harris as its leading scorer — 24.8 points, 8.6 rebounds, two assists and a block per game. Tied with the short-handed Pacers in the loss column, and 2.5 games up on Boston, the Sixers have the inside track to the third seed, their path of least resistance in the Eastern Conference this spring. — Arnovitz


8. Oklahoma City Thunder
Record: 39-24

The Thunder have lost five of their past seven games, and are in clear danger of sliding down to the 5-seed in the West. Paul George has missed three straight games with a right shoulder injury, and his health is paramount. If George and Russell Westbrook are both healthy going into the playoffs, the Thunder will have a puncher’s chance against any opponent, regardless of their ultimate playoff seeding. –– Snellings


9. Utah Jazz
Record: 36-26

Coming off wins over the Nuggets and Bucks, the Jazz have the No. 3 seed in the West in their sights. Utah is two games behind the Thunder and Trail Blazers now and has the NBA’s softest schedule in the final quarter of the season. Speaking of finishing strong, Donovan Mitchell scored 28 points on 11-of-16 shooting in the fourth quarters of those wins over Denver and Milwaukee. — MacMahon


10. Indiana Pacers
Record: 41-23

It was a tough week for the Pacers, who dropped three of their four games while also losing hyper-efficient big man Domantas Sabonis toward the end of their loss in Detroit. The common denominator in three defeats: The Pacers’ opponents shot far better from the arc in those games than Indiana did. In their lone victory, over Minnesota, the Pacers caught fire from deep, drilling 16 of 27 attempts that night. — Herring


11. San Antonio Spurs
Record: 35-29

Once again, the Spurs have shown signs of life after sinking to historic lows. San Antonio has never had a worse Rodeo Trip than the one the 1-7 odyssey the Spurs just wrapped up, which included five double-digit losses. But the Spurs bounced back immediately by beating the Pistons and Thunder at home, holding on to one of the West’s last playoff spots. — MacMahon


12. LA Clippers
Record: 36-29

The reconstituted Clippers are now 6-3, making good on owner Steve Ballmer’s desire to qualify for the postseason, lottery pick be damned. Among the reinforcements, rookie shooting guard Landry Shamet has been a boon for the playoff drive — 12.4 points in 28.1 minutes per game on a true shooting percentage of 64.8, including a 46.6 percent clip from beyond the arc. –– Arnovitz


13. Boston Celtics
Record: 38-26

The Celtics have to decide who they are moving into the postseason. They are not the prohibitive favorite to come out of the East that they were when the season began, but they can’t afford to be an unformed, “potential” squad when the playoffs begin or their postseason will end quickly. They have just over a month to establish the team hierarchy and lean into their roles, and their current stretch of seven losses in 10 games reflects the growing pains of that effort. –– Snellings


14. Detroit Pistons
Record: 31-31

No team has been more efficient on offense over the past month than the Pistons, who, after their Sunday win against Toronto, are averaging 118.1 points per 100 possessions in that span. The run doesn’t figure to hold forever. Before this recent stretch, that has seen them hit 40.9 percent of their 3-pointers (second best in the NBA), the Pistons ranked dead last in 3-point shooting. But the timing couldn’t be better as Detroit attempts to close in on a playoff spot for just the second time in 10 seasons. — Herring


15. Brooklyn Nets
Record: 32-33

Saturday’s loss at Miami, one of their ugliest of the season, dropped the Nets below .500 for the first time since Jan. 16. Brooklyn has sculpted an identity as a free-flowing team of perimeter players, often surrounding just a single big man. But right now, the Nets are getting annihilated on the glass. After ranking league-average for much of the season, the Nets’ team rebounding rate since the All-Star break stands below 46 percent — only Phoenix has been worse. — Arnovitz


16. Sacramento Kings
Record: 31-31

Marvin Bagley III enjoyed his best month of his young career in February before spraining his left knee last Wedneday against Milwaukee. The rookie forward averaged 17.9 points and 9.4 rebounds in just 20.9 minutes per game. The Kings are leaning on rookie forward Harry Giles in Bagley’s absence. — Spears


17. Orlando Magic
Record: 30-35

The Magic have won nine of their past 12 games to surge into a tie for eighth in the East, including impressive wins over the Warriors, at the Bucks and at the Raptors. Their only stumbling blocks of late have been teams deep in the lottery, as their most recent losses have been to the Bulls, Knicks and Cavaliers. After their next game in Philadelphia on Tuesday, the Magic play seven straight games against teams on pace for the lottery. — Snellings


18. Los Angeles Lakers
Record: 30-33

We hear a lot about the “statement win” for an aspirational team looking to forge an identity, but on Saturday, the Lakers gave us the definitive statement loss at Phoenix. Though the Lakers were playing the second of a back-to-back, they surrendered 118 points in 97 possessions to the league’s No. 29 offense. Once an overachieving defensive unit that was quick to react, the Lakers rank bottom 10 since the calendar flipped to 2019 — and bottom five on the defensive glass. — Arnovitz


19. Minnesota Timberwolves
Record: 29-34

About the only bright spot on the Wolves’ disappointing and injury-plagued season is the play of Karl-Anthony Towns. The two-time All-Star has scored at least 30 in the past three games and is on pace to set career-highs in points, rebounds and blocks per game. — Spears


20. Miami Heat
Record: 28-34

The Heat have curbed their free-fall, winning two of their past three after having lost nine of the previous 11. All three efforts were impressive, with a Dwyane Wade game-winner over the Warriors, a close loss at the Rockets and a blowout win over the Nets indicating that the Heat are currently playing at a level consistent with the best in the league. They’ll need to maintain that level to get into the postseason, as they remain just outside of the eighth seed in the East. — Snellings


21. Charlotte Hornets
Record: 29-34

Sources said Hornets forward Frank Kaminsky was interested in getting a buyout due to his minimal role, but Charlotte wasn’t interested in giving him one before Friday’s deadline to be playoff eligible elsewhere. Kaminsky was averaging career-lows of 5.2 points, 2.4 rebounds and 10.4 minutes per game entering Thursday and had played in just three games since Jan. 1. But over the past two games, Kaminsky has averaged 16.5 points and 7.0 rebounds. — Spears


22. New Orleans Pelicans
Record: 29-36

As the awkward saga with Anthony Davis continues, Jrue Holiday continues to be a steady star for the Pelicans, averaging 22 points, 7 assists, 5 rebounds and 2 steals per game since the All-Star break despite decreased minutes. The Pelicans are 3-3 in that span, including wins in both games that Davis sat out. New Orleans has an interesting decision to make with the 28-year-old Holiday. Do they want him to be the leader of the post-AD era or cash in on his tremendous value in the trade market? — MacMahon


23. Washington Wizards
Record: 26-37

There isn’t much joy these days in watching the Wizards close out what has been a brutal season so far. The novelty of Bobby Portis and Jabari Parker has largely worn off, and All-Star Bradley Beal can only do so much by himself. But 21-year-old big man Thomas Bryant has been one of the team’s few bright spots, and has illustrated he can likely be a solid rotation piece going forward. — Herring


24. Dallas Mavericks
Record: 27-35

The Mavs, who traded 80 percent of their starting lineup and will wait until next season to reap the benefits with Kristaps Porizingis, are as bad as anyone right now. They have a net rating of minus-12.2 over the past seven games, managing to win only one of those. Dallas is the NBA’s worst defensive (116.7 points allowed per 100 possessions) and rebounding (46.6 percent rate) team in that stretch. — MacMahon


25. Chicago Bulls
Record: 18-46

The Bulls have averaged 115.5 points per 100 possessions over the past month of play — fourth in the NBA during that stretch, and slightly better than the two-time defending champion Warriors. They exploded for 168 points in a 4OT victory over Atlanta on Friday. The flip side of all this, both in that win and over the past month generally, is that they’ve given up nearly just as many scores on the other end of the floor. Getting back Wendell Carter Jr., should he be able to return to the lineup before season’s end, would likely help shore up the defense. — Herring


26. Atlanta Hawks
Record: 22-42

These days, the only way to slow down Trae Young is to eject him, as officials did on Sunday in Chicago when the Hawks rookie buried a 3-pointer from 30 feet then stared down Kris Dunn. Entering play on Sunday, Young had averaged 25.3 points, 9.8 assists and 4.5 rebounds per game since Feb. 1, with a true shooting percentage of 58.7. — Arnovitz


27. Memphis Grizzlies
Record: 25-40

Give coach J.B. Bickerstaff’s Grizzlies credit for playing hard despite the odds and all the turmoil. Memphis ranks first in the league in defensive rating since the All-Star break, allowing only 101 points per 100 possessions. Chandler Parsons‘ shooting hasn’t been pretty (23.6 field goal percentage since returning from his forced sabbatical), but opponents are scoring only 86.8 points per 100 possessions with him on the floor in the past six games. — MacMahon


28. Cleveland Cavaliers
Record: 16-48

Cedi Osman has logged double-figures in each of his past 12 games, the longest streak of his career. During that span, the 23-year-old has averaged 18.5 points, 5.4 rebounds and 3.4 assists on 53.9 percent shooting overall and 50 percent from 3-point range. Cleveland has won six of the past 12 games Osman has played in. — Herring


29. Phoenix Suns
Record: 13-51

Deandre Ayton, the No. 1 pick in the 2019 NBA draft, may have played his most impressive game as a pro in a win over LeBron James and the Lakers on Saturday. Offensively, Ayton had 26 points on 11 shots with 10 rebounds, 3 assists. Defensively, the 7-footer surprisingly guarded James well for most of the contest and had two steals and a block. — Spears


30. New York Knicks
Record: 13-50

The Knicks have a 4.5-game “lead” on the Bulls to retain one of the top-three lottery positions, a strong cushion with less than 20 games remaining in the season. This frees them up to play the best basketball that their young core can manage, as these young guys are given a rest-of-the-season tryout for a spot in the future. Mitchell Robinson‘s electric play of late is building a buzz of excitement among Knicks fans. — Snellings

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