NBA Power Rankings – Storylines, must-see games and predictions for every team

March 9, 2021 4:03 am by Web Desk


The NBA’s second half is here. Which stars, storylines and matchups are we watching down the stretch?

Can LeBron James and the defending champion Los Angeles Lakers wrestle the Western Conference lead from the Utah Jazz? Can Stephen Curry and the Golden State Warriors stay in the hunt? Can the New York Knicks challenge the Eastern Conference elite for home-court advantage?

With the March 25 trade deadline looming, which teams will add another star, and which will be dealing for the future? With the addition of a play-in tournament in each conference, more teams than ever are candidates to make a splash.

There’s drama around every corner as teams prepare for the playoff push. Let’s reset the season and check where all 30 squads stand.

Note: Throughout the regular season, our panel (ESPN’s Tim Bontemps, Nick Friedell, Andrew Lopez, Tim MacMahon, Dave McMenamin, Eric Woodyard, Royce Young and Ohm Youngmisuk) 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 1 | Week 2 | Week 3 | Week 4 | Week 5 | Week 6 | Week 7 | Week 8 | Week 9 | Week 10 | Week 11


1. Utah Jazz
2020-21 record: 27-9
Previous ranking: 1

Second-half storyline: Can the Jazz maintain their grip on the NBA’s best record?

There hasn’t been anything fluky about Utah’s first-half success, as the Jazz have the league’s best point differential (plus-8.8 per game) by a wide margin, although Utah lost four of its past seven games. The Jazz go into the break with a 2.5-game lead in the West and have the league’s softest schedule in terms of opponents’ winning percentage the rest of the way, putting them well on the path to the West’s top seed. The thought was that finishing in first would allow the Jazz to avoid the L.A. teams until the conference finals, but — surprise — it’s the Suns who are in second place at the moment.


Must-see games

  • March 24 vs. Nets: Utah gets a chance to measure up to arguably the league’s most talented team on national TV. The Jazz had their worst performance of the season in a 130-96 loss in Brooklyn despite the fact that Kevin Durant did not play and James Harden hadn’t forced his way to the Nets yet.

  • April 17 at Lakers: As if the team with the best record vs. the defending champions isn’t an enticing enough storyline, LeBron James added some juice to this matchup by snubbing the Jazz’s All-Stars when picking teams.

  • May 7 vs. Nuggets: The Nuggets knocked the Jazz out of the bubble playoffs and, more recently, ended Utah’s 11-game winning streak in January, when Nikola Jokic had 47 points, 12 rebounds and five assists.


Bold prediction: The Jazz will join the 1999-2000 Indiana Pacers as the only teams to make the most 3s and allow the fewest.

MacMahon

This week: HOU, @GSW

2. Brooklyn Nets
2020-21 record: 24-13
Previous ranking: 3

Second-half storyline: Can Brooklyn keep everyone on the court?

Health will be the top priority as Steve Nash manages the remaining regular-season schedule. The flipside, however, is the fact that the Nets’ big three have played together for a total of only 186 minutes in seven games. The talent is overwhelming — especially with the acquisition of former All-Star Blake Griffin — but as the games get important in April and May, chemistry will be a question, and there is a necessity to get some reps for the trio.

Games to watch

  • March 15 vs. Knicks: Three months ago, not many anticipated this being a compelling — and important! — Eastern Conference matchup. But there will be serious hype around this one and a lot of intensity because for the first time in quite a while, the battle of New York matters.

  • April 10 vs. Lakers: The Lakers make the trip to Brooklyn for a possible Finals preview. The first meeting in L.A. was good, but it was also missing key components (Kevin Durant, Anthony Davis). This one could be scaled more accurately to size.

  • April 14 vs. 76ers: The Nets and Sixers have created some separation as the two favorites in the East, and while it’s not guaranteed they’ll meet in the Eastern finals, it is a possible look ahead at a blockbuster playoff showdown.


Bold prediction: The Nets get better at defense. OK, so maybe this doesn’t seem like a bold prediction, but have you watched the Nets play defense? If they are going to achieve their goals, they are going to have to develop on the defensive end, and with that as a priority, they will show at least some signs of improvement.

Young

This week: BOS, DET

3. Philadelphia 76ers
2020-21 record: 24-12
Previous ranking: 7

Second-half storyline: Will Ben Simmons stay aggressive?

The Sixers know what they’re going to get from Joel Embiid, who is arguably the NBA’s best center, and certainly is their most dominant low-post presence. But Simmons has recently turned up his level of aggression at the offensive end, and it has made a notable difference. The most eye-popping display of this came against the Utah Jazz last month, in a game in which Embiid didn’t play and Simmons scored a career-high 42 points. But it also has happened plenty when Embiid has shared the court with him in recent games. And when Simmons is aggressive like that, using his singular combination of size and strength to attack the defense, Philadelphia becomes a different team. Embiid deservedly gets the most attention. But Simmons’ offense could be what ultimately determines just how high Philadelphia’s ceiling is.


Games to watch

  • March 25 at Lakers: The night of the trade deadline, the Sixers will visit the Lakers in a game that could help shape the narrative for this year’s MVP award — a race that right now is arguably being led by LeBron James and Joel Embiid.

  • March 30 at Nuggets: Who is the best center in the league: Joel Embiid or Nikola Jokic? After Embiid missed the first game between these teams because of the NBA’s health and safety protocols, we’ll see who can get the better of this showdown near the end of a very long Sixers road trip.

  • April 14 vs. Nets: This might be the most anticipated game in the second half — period. The top two teams in the East will square off, and we’ll see how the Nets will handle Embiid inside, which should be a clear advantage for Philadelphia.


Bold prediction: Joel Embiid will be the NBA’s Most Valuable Player. The Sixers should be a top-two team in the East, so if Embiid can stay healthy, he’ll have a great chance at snagging his first MVP. If he does, he’ll be the first center to win it since Shaquille O’Neal 20 years ago.

Bontemps

This week: @CHI, @WAS, SAS

4. Los Angeles Lakers
2020-21 record: 24-14
Previous ranking: 2

Second-half storyline: How much will chasing the No. 1 seed in the West matter to the defending champs?

The Lakers secured the top spot in the conference last year all for naught, with every game of their title run played on a neutral court in the bubble. With Jared Dudley already calling the fan-less Staples Center “probably the weirdest arena to play in,” will there be incentive to push the pedal down the stretch to secure a home court that might not be all that much of an advantage? Or can L.A. prioritize health and rest as it heads toward the playoffs over jockeying for seeding position by sweating out results?


Games to watch

  • March 25 vs. 76ers: The Sixers have had success against the Lakers the past couple of seasons, with Ben Simmons locking in on LeBron and Joel Embiid counterbalancing Anthony Davis. This one could have MVP implications for James and Embiid.

  • April 4 vs. Clippers: Every Lakers-Clippers game since opening night of last season has been must-see TV, and this Sunday afternoon matchup on ABC is no different. It will be a measuring stick to see how far both teams have come since that meeting in October 2019.

  • April 10 at Nets: The first Lakers-Nets affair was robbed of its juice, with AD and KD both sidelined. The rematch, with everyone healthy, could be an NBA Finals preview. Plus, LeBron will have had some time to stew on Kyrie Irving talking trash on his free throw shooting ability.


Bold prediction: LeBron will win his fifth league MVP award, tying Bill Russell and Michael Jordan for the second most all time behind Kareem Abdul-Jabbar‘s six. He has finished second for the award two out of the past three seasons. This year he’ll break through to win it for the first time since 2013.

McMenamin

This week: GSW, @NOP

5. Phoenix Suns
2020-21 record: 24-11
Previous ranking: 6

Second-half storyline: How hot will the Suns get in the final 37 games of the season?

Phoenix finds itself with the second-best record in the league and is staring up at only the Utah Jazz. The only time Phoenix has truly struggled this season was following a week of postponements because of the coronavirus, when they dropped four of five — including two tough overtime losses to Denver. After a loss to Oklahoma City dropped Phoenix to 8-8, it responded by winning 16 of 19. The biggest question now is how far the Suns’ two All-Stars — Chris Paul and Devin Booker — will take them.

play

1:28

Stephen A. Smith explains why the Suns are legitimate contenders after their 114-104 win over the Lakers.

Games to watch

  • April 28 vs. Clippers, April 30 vs. Jazz, May 9 at Lakers: I’m lumping these games together because they are the last three times the Suns will face the teams currently alongside them in the top four of the Western Conference standings. The Suns went 2-1 against those teams in the first half of the year, beating the Jazz and Lakers and dropping one to the Clippers, and they’ll play each team twice in the second half. All three games will be crucial — as will games in the second half against Portland and Denver.


Bold prediction: The Suns will finish as a top-two seed in the West.

Lopez

This week: @POR, IND

6. LA Clippers
2020-21 record: 24-14
Previous ranking: 4

Second-half storyline: Are the Clippers better than last year or are they headed toward another disappointing finish?

Through 28 games, the Clippers have looked like a better offensive team, even with Sixth Man of the Year Montrezl Harrell gone and Lou Williams‘ inconsistent play. But in the clutch against strong teams, Kawhi Leonard and Paul George have shown a tendency to get too stagnant and could use a little help. The Clippers’ defense has yet to live up to its elite expectations. Like last season, the Clippers have had injuries and other health issues disrupt the team’s continuity and chemistry. As long as Ty Lue has a healthy Leonard and George, the Clippers’ play will be closer to that of their 21-8 start than their 3-5 slide into the break.


Games to watch

  • March 27 vs. 76ers: Doc Rivers makes what should be an emotional return to Staples looking to prove he’s in a better place with Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons after the Clippers let him go following seven seasons in LA.

  • May 1 vs. Nuggets: We should know a lot more about both teams after each had its share of ups and downs in the first half. MVP candidate Nikola Jokic will be a good test for the Clippers’ defense.

  • May 6 vs. Lakers: The Clippers and Lakers will be gearing up for the final 10 days before the postseason begins, and hopefully this won’t be the last time they face each other this season.


Bold prediction: The Clippers will show signs that they are better than a year ago. George will continue his bounce-back campaign, Leonard will remain a steady MVP contender and the offense will be better under Lue.

Youngmisuk

This week: GSW, @NOP

7. Milwaukee Bucks
2020-21 record: 22-14
Previous ranking: 5

Second-half storyline: Can the Bucks find their groove for the playoffs?

Giannis Antetokounmpo continues to play at an MVP level, showing why he has won the award in back-to-back seasons. However, this year’s Bucks team has experienced its highs and lows as they try to develop a rhythm for the postseason. That’s their only focus for the second half, because regular-season success is no longer the ultimate goal. Entering the break, Milwaukee has won six of its past seven games following a five-game losing streak. “I think everybody is ready for a break, and our guys are going to take advantage of it and get away a little bit,” said Bucks coach Mike Budenholzer following Thursday’s win in Memphis. “I think the team’s in a good place.”


Games to watch

  • March 31 at Lakers: According to the players, regular-season games don’t matter. This one, however, could be an exception. It’s the best of the best from the East and West. Expect a good one.

  • May 4 vs. Nets: One of the Bucks’ biggest threats in the East is the new super team, and James Harden, Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving will have a point to prove. Milwaukee will have to bring its A-game.

  • May 15 vs. Heat: The Bucks, much like the late, great James Brown, will be after “the big payback.” Last season, the Miami Heat had Milwaukee’s number when they eliminated them in the postseason.


Bold prediction: The Bucks will leapfrog the 76ers and Nets to finish with the best record in the Eastern Conference.

Woodyard

This week: NYK, @WAS

8. Portland Trail Blazers
2020-21 record: 21-14
Previous ranking: 10

Second-half storyline: Can the Blazers rise into a contender?

As the Blazers get whole again with the returns of CJ McCollum and Jusuf Nurkic, is that enough to vault them into the upper tier of the West? They have stayed afloat — and then some — behind the crunch-time brilliance of Damian Lillard and the contributions of quality role players like Enes Kanter, Carmelo Anthony and Robert Covington. But when the Blazers are at full strength, they are deep and have a backcourt tandem that can stack up against anyone.

Games to watch

  • Thursday vs. Suns: Right out of the break, the Blazers get a measuring bar matchup against the Suns. Not only is it a team they are still conceivably chasing in the standings, but it’s an opportunity to see where they are as the trade deadline approaches.

  • March 23 vs. Nets: The backcourt matchup could be something to behold — assuming McCollum is back — with the Blazers duo taking on the contrasting style of Harden and Kyrie.

  • April 20 vs. Clippers: There hasn’t been much heat to the Paul George/Lillard beef this season, but any time something is simmering on the stovetop, all it takes is a little fire to get it boiling again.


Bold prediction

The Blazers will stand pat at the deadline. They could get involved in the buyout market if something presents itself, but as pieces return from injury, the Blazers will effectively be making roster additions organically, and that may be enough.

Young

This week: PHX, @MIN, @MIN

9. Denver Nuggets
2020-21 record: 21-15
Previous ranking: 9

Second-half storyline Can Michael Porter Jr. raise the Nuggets from West contender to West power?

Sounds weird to say that about a team coming off a Western Conference finals appearance, but Porter really could elevate the Nuggets to another level. Nikola Jokic has played at a historic pace for a center and Jamal Murray is showing signs of getting healthier and back to his bubble form, scoring 22 or more points in 12 straight games. The Nuggets have been hit by injuries and COVID-19, so it isn’t all on Porter. But when Porter plays with force and consistency, Jokic and Murray are even deadlier. Porter has a double-double in five of the past six games. The Nuggets won four of those five games.


Games to watch

  • March 30 vs. 76ers: No center has won MVP since Shaquille O’Neal in 1999-2000. Now Joel Embiid and Jokic are arguably two of the top three MVP contenders, and this clash should be epic.

  • May 3 at Lakers: The final regular-season matchup between last season’s two Western Conference finals combatants. The Nuggets would love to start the final two weeks of the regular season with a win over the champs.

  • May 7 at Jazz: Even if Murray and Donovan Mitchell don’t put on the show that they did in the bubble, Jokic versus Rudy Gobert is always entertaining. Jokic had 47 and 12 against Gobert earlier this season.


Bold prediction: It’s hard to imagine after an incredible first half, but Jokic’s MVP case will only get stronger. Barring health issues, the streaky Nuggets will be more consistent and successful to give Jokic more MVP juice.

Youngmisuk

This week: @MEM, DAL

10. San Antonio Spurs
2020-21 record: 18-14
Previous ranking: 8

Second-half storyline: How will the Spurs balance the youth movement with the veterans?

All four of the Spurs’ players over 30 years old — DeMar DeRozan (31), Patty Mills (32), Rudy Gay (34) and LaMarcus Aldridge (35) — are set to be free agents at the end of the season. DeRozan is still averaging 20 points a night and a career-high 7.2 assists a game. Mills is averaging a career-high 13.3 points a game and Gay is roughly the same player he has been since he made it to San Antonio. Aldridge may be better suited for a bench role and has done so in his last three games, giving way to Jakob Poeltl in those contests.


Games to watch

  • Wednesday vs. Mavericks: Why not tune in for the start of the second half of the season? The Spurs and Mavericks (as well as the Wizards and Grizzlies) get things started before most of the league gets back to work Thursday.

  • March 24 vs. Clippers: It’s always fun when Kawhi Leonard returns to San Antonio, where he started his NBA career. Also, this is part of a NINE-game homestand for the Spurs.

  • May 16 vs. Suns: After a stretch of 10 of 12 games, the Spurs end the season with back-to-back games against the Phoenix Suns as San Antonio will look to return to the playoffs after its record-tying streak ended last season.


Bold prediction: No Spurs player will end up playing in every game in the second half of the season. Because of COVID-19 and injury issues, only Mills, Poeltl and Dejounte Murray have played in every game so far, but with 40 games in the second half, Gregg Popovich will find time to rest his key guys.

Lopez

This week: @DAL, ORL, @PHI

11. Dallas Mavericks
2020-21 record: 18-16
Previous ranking: 15

Second-half storyline: Can Kristaps Porzingis prove he’s the second-best player on a legitimate playoff threat?

It’s the same big question from the start of the season, and Porzingis certainly didn’t provide any sort of affirmative answer in the first half of the season, when he was working his way back into shape after missing the beginning of the season following knee surgery. Porzingis had the worst defensive rating among NBA rotation players until recently, but he has shown evidence of physical improvement over the past month. The Mavs need him to be a consistent two-way force to complement superstar Luka Doncic.

Must-see games

  • March 15 vs. Clippers: The Mavs beat the Clippers (minus Kawhi Leonard) by 51 when the bubble playoff foes met in the first week of the season. That adds some juice to the two-game set the teams will play in Dallas.

  • April 22 vs. Lakers: This is the opener of a two-game set against the other L.A. team. Do you really need an explanation for why Luka vs. LeBron is worth spending a couple of hours on the couch?

  • April 27 at Warriors: The last Mavs-Warriors meeting — when Doncic and Stephen Curry combined to score 99 points in a 134-132 contest — might have been the most entertaining game so far this season.


Bold prediction: The Mavericks will finish high enough in the standings to avoid the play-in tournament.

MacMahon

This week: SAS, @OKC, @DEN

12. Miami Heat
2020-21 record: 18-18
Previous ranking: 12

Second-half storyline: How much gas does Jimmy Butler have left in the tank?

After carrying the Heat to the brink of a championship in the bubble last October, Butler had a very short offseason and then dealt with some nagging injuries and COVID-19 protocols throughout the first half of the season. Few in the league are as mentally tough as Butler, but it will be interesting to see how much energy he has left down the stretch after such a long and arduous year of basketball.


Games to watch

  • April 8 vs. Lakers: Jimmy vs. LeBron in a Finals rematch in Miami.

  • April 18 vs. Nets: A late-season showdown between KD and the Nets should give Bam Adebayo and the Heat a good idea of where they stack up in the East heading into the playoffs.

  • May 15 at Bucks: Playoff seeding figures to be on the line in a rematch of last season’s East semis, in which the Heat slowed Giannis and forced somebody else to beat them.


Bold prediction: The Heat will reel off 10 consecutive wins in the second half.

Friedell

This week: ATL, @NOP

13. Boston Celtics
2020-21 record: 19-17
Previous ranking: 16

Second-half storyline: Will Boston use the trade exception before the trade deadline?

As the Celtics have gone through their many ups-and-downs over the past couple of months, the topic on everyone’s mind in Boston has been what they could do with the massive trade exception they created when Gordon Hayward signed with the Charlotte Hornets during the offseason. If the Celtics can go get a difference-making player — presumably a big wing who can guard power forwards — to play alongside All-Stars Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown, all-world defender Marcus Smart and Kemba Walker, Boston has a chance to make a deep playoff run once again. It’s unclear, however, whether such a player will be available in what could be a thin trade market, and whether Boston, which hasn’t acquired a player in an in-season trade since Isaiah Thomas six years ago, will be able to land him. But it is the one question Celtics fans will be asking until the trade deadline passes.


Games to watch

  • April 6 vs. 76ers: These two teams played twice in January, but Boston was at less than full strength. This will be the final meeting of the season between them and will be a chance for the two rivals to gauge each other.

  • April 23 at Nets: Kemba Walker and James Harden weren’t part of the first meeting between these teams, while Kevin Durant and Marcus Smart likely won’t be part of the second meeting next week. Here’s hoping everyone will be available in April, as Boston may be the team best suited to match up with the Nets because of its perimeter defensive talent.

  • May 9 vs. Heat: After squaring off in the Eastern Conference finals, the Heat and Celtics will play twice in the final week of the season — games that could play a huge role in sorting out what currently is a compact Eastern Conference playoff picture.


Bold prediction: Either Jaylen Brown or Jayson Tatum (or both) will make an All-NBA team. Both are going to have plenty of competition for an All-NBA spot, but with both having terrific seasons and the Celtics likely to finish among the top four or five in the East, I think at least one will get an All-NBA honor at season’s end.

Bontemps

This week: @BRK, @HOU

14. Golden State Warriors
2020-21 record: 19-16
Previous ranking: 11

Second-half storyline: How much is James Wiseman going to play down the stretch?

Much of the focus will be on how Steph Curry can carry the Warriors down the stretch, but the bigger question for the organization is what kind of impact the 19-year-old rookie will have after dealing with the highs and lows of his first stretch in the league. Wiseman showed glimpses of talent at times, but he is still trying to find a feel for the game, and he missed almost a month because of a wrist injury. His development will be crucial if the Warriors want to lock down a playoff spot in a crowded Western Conference playoff picture.

Games to watch

  • March 15 vs. Lakers: The Warriors split a pair of games at Staples in the first half — now Steph and LeBron get another chance to square off in the pair’s first game against each other at Chase Center.

  • April 19 at Sixers: Wiseman vs. Embiid should provide the rookie center with a challenging litmus test as the Warriors should be in the midst of a final playoff push.

  • May 10 vs. Jazz: Both teams figure to have playoff positioning on the line as Donovan Mitchell and the Jazz look to close out an impressive regular season against the former kings of the Western Conference.


Bold prediction: After averaging just about 20 minutes a game in the first half, Wiseman will play at least five more minutes per game and average at least 15 points a game in the second half, up from about 12 in the first half.

Friedell

This week: @LAC, UTA

15. New York Knicks
2020-21 record: 19-18
Previous ranking: 14

Second-half storyline: How real is this?

The Knicks were not supposed to be in the middle of the East playoff picture at the halfway point, a half-game behind the Celtics and ahead of teams like the Raptors, Heat and Pacers. And yet that’s exactly where New York is in Tom Thibodeau’s first season in New York. It has been an impressive season for the Knicks so far, but one that leaves lots of questions to be answered over the next couple of months, all of which will answer the biggest question: Is this an actual playoff team? For as good as Julius Randle has been, can he sustain this level of play through the end of the regular season? Can the young players, led by RJ Barrett and Immanuel Quickley, continue to improve? Will the Knicks try to add to this roster for the playoff run?

It has been a very fun season in New York. We’ll see how much fun the Knicks can make it over the next couple of months.


Games to watch

  • March 13 vs. Thunder: Sandwiched between games against the Bucks, Nets and Sixers to start the second half of the schedule, the Knicks desperately need to get this game in Oklahoma City, the one game they’ll be given a significant chance of winning during that stretch. With lots of big-name opponents on the schedule in the second half, the Knicks must win the games they’re supposed to.

  • April 16 at Mavericks: With Kristaps Porzingis scuffling a bit in Dallas, this game will serve as a marker for where both teams stand a couple of years following the blockbuster deal that brought Porzingis to Dallas after he became a fan favorite in New York.

  • May 15 vs. Hornets: The Knicks were thought to be interested in LaMelo Ball during the pre-draft process. Now, they’ll have Ball and the Hornets come to Madison Square Garden on the final weekend of the regular season in a game that could have massive implications for both teams.


Bold prediction: The Knicks will miss the playoffs. I know this will draw the ire of Knicks fans. Thibodeau has done an amazing job this year, and Randle was a deserving All-Star and has undergone a remarkable transformation over the past couple of seasons. But the Knicks have a brutal schedule over the second half of the season, and they enter the second half in fifth place in the East, just 2.5 games ahead of 11th. They’re actually closer to 13th place than first. I think gravity will pull them down in the end, though the foundation they’ve laid in Thibodeau’s first season is impressive regardless.

Bontemps

This week: @MIL, @OKC

16. Toronto Raptors
2020-21 record: 17-19
Previous ranking: 13

Second-half storyline: What will happen with Kyle Lowry?

The greatest player in the history of the franchise, Lowry will be a free agent at the end of the season. That leaves Toronto with a question: Is Lowry going to be part of its future? And if the answer is not a definitive yes, how should that impact the Raptors’ thought process heading into the trade deadline? Especially in a thin trade market, Lowry will all but certainly be the best player available if Toronto chose to move him somewhere. That would give the Raptors — who have seen four key free agents (Kawhi Leonard, Danny Green, Serge Ibaka and Marc Gasol) leave without compensation over the past two years — some pieces to continue to build around their core of Fred VanVleet, Pascal Siakam and OG Anunoby.

But is making that move worth throwing away a chance at yet another deep playoff run? Does it make a difference that the two most likely teams with the wherewithal to trade for Lowry are the Sixers and Heat — fellow Eastern Conference contenders? None of these questions has a clear answer.


Games to watch

  • March 26 vs. Suns: With some speculation around the Raptors and the future of Lowry, what will this team look like the day after the trade deadline?

  • May 4 at Clippers: Leonard will play the Raptors in Tampa for the first time this season, as Toronto will potentially be looking to move up in the East playoff standings.

  • May 16 vs. Pacers: The final game of the regular season features two teams that expect to be in the East playoffs — and it’s a game that could easily have seeding implications for both them. Given the new format, there’s also a chance it could determine whether one of these teams will be playing in the play-in tournament.


Bold prediction: Toronto will finish fourth in the East. The Raptors have gone 15-11 since their 2-8 start — and that includes a couple of losses to end the first half without most of their team. If that form can return, Toronto should be able to rack up a bunch of wins and earn a top-four seed.

Bontemps

This week: ATL, @CHA, @CHI

17. Memphis Grizzlies
2020-21 record: 16-16
Previous ranking: 18

Second-half storyline: Once Jaren Jackson Jr. comes back from knee surgery, can he make a difference?

The Grizzlies are banking on the 21-year-old Jackson joining Ja Morant as franchise cornerstones for years to come. At 6-foot-11, Jackson has a rare blend of size, athleticism and deep shooting range, but injuries have delayed his development. Memphis has stockpiled quality, young complementary pieces, hitting on Brandon Clarke, Desmond Bane and Xavier Tillman with relatively late picks in the past two drafts. The ceiling for this generation of Grizzlies could be determined by whether Jackson develops into a star.


Must-see games

  • March 10 vs. Wizards: How will Russell Westbrook respond after Morant torched the Wizards for 35 points and 10 assists in a win this week?

  • April 23 at Trail Blazers: This is the first of three meetings in less than a week between the Grizzlies and Blazers. Morant and Damian Lillard had a memorable duel the last time these teams saw each other, a Portland play-in win.

  • May 16 at Warriors: There’s a good chance that this regular-season finale could have significant play-in seeding implications.


Bold prediction: The Grizzlies will fade late and finish under .500, victims of being forced to play 40 games after the break.

MacMahon

This week: WAS, DEN, @OKC

18. Charlotte Hornets
2020-21 record: 17-18
Previous ranking: 19

Second-half storyline: Can LaMelo close out his Rookie of the Year campaign?

LaMelo Ball is the runaway favorite to win the Rookie of the Year award after shining brightly on offense throughout the first half. He comes into the second half averaging 15.8 points, 6.3 assists and 6 rebounds for a Charlotte team that has actually become fun to watch after years in basketball exile. Ball appears to have the star power to gain people’s interest, but whether he has the kind of game to deliver the Hornets back to the postseason in his rookie year remains to be seen.

Games to watch

  • March 18 at Lakers: LaMelo and LeBron square off for their first meeting ever.

  • April 4 at Celtics: Gordon Hayward goes back to Boston for the first time after leaving in free agency last fall. Terry Rozier also gets a chance to see some former teammates.

  • April 18 vs. Blazers: Seeing Damian Lillard and Ball go back and forth on offense should offer one of the most exciting offensive duels in the second half. Both teams can run and gun behind the point guards.


Bold prediction: LaMelo notches five triple-doubles in the second half and leads the Hornets to the play-in tournament.

Friedell

This week: DET, TOR

19. Indiana Pacers
2020-21 record: 16-19
Previous ranking: 17

Second-half storyline: Can the Pacers find another gear?

Domantas Sabonis continues to prove why he’s an NBA All-Star for the second time, with four triple-doubles this season, but the first half has gotten off to a bumpy start in Indiana under first-year coach Nate Bjorkgren. In addition to Sabonis, Myles Turner and Malcolm Brogdon are having strong individual seasons, but the Pacers are in the middle of the league pack in terms of offensive and defensive efficiency. The goal in Indiana is playoff success, since they haven’t advanced past the first round since 2013-14. However, they have to get on the same page.


Games to watch

  • Friday at Lakers: Fresh off the All-Star break, the Pacers will face the ultimate test against the well-rested defending champs.

  • March 22 at Bucks: There are not many Eastern Conference teams that will provide a better test than reigning back-to-back MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo and the Bucks. Domantas Sabonis won’t back down, but it won’t be an easy night.

  • May 16 at Raptors: In the final game of the regular season, it’ll be the last chance to see how good this team really is on the road.


Bold prediction: Myles Turner will finish the season with the team’s highest blocks per game average in two decades, surpassing Theo Ratliff‘s mark (3.74) in the 2000-01 season.

Woodyard

This week: @LAL, @PHX

20. Chicago Bulls
2020-21 record: 16-18
Previous ranking: 20

Second-half storyline: Are the Bulls playoff-worthy?

If the postseason were to start today, the Bulls wouldn’t make the cut, but they’re right on the cusp, currently in ninth place in the East. This offseason, Chicago completely revamped its front office while bringing in new coach Billy Donovan, and so far it’s working. Donovan has brought the best out of Zach LaVine in his first All-Star season and has done a great job of working players in and out of the lineup due to injuries and health and safety protocols. Can they make the playoffs for the first time since the 2016-17 season?


Games to watch

  • Thursday vs. 76ers: Prominent Bulls home games during the second half of the campaign include the Philadelphia 76ers on Thursday and May 3. Joel Embiid put up a career-best 50 points versus Chicago on Feb. 19.

  • March 22 vs. Jazz: Utah is one of the hottest teams in the league. LaVine is a rising star and will have a chance to go up against another rising star in All-Star Donovan Mitchell. Should be a fun one.

  • May 11 vs. Nets: Chicago will face the Nets — one of the scariest opponents in the league — as it’s looking to fight for a playoff spot. Nothing will be easy.


Bold prediction: Chicago will make the playoffs and finish with a record above .500.

Woodyard

This week: PHI, MIA, TOR

21. Washington Wizards
2020-21 record: 14-20
Previous ranking: 21

Second-half storyline: Can the Wizards maintain this turnaround?

After enduring a 3-12 start that included a COVID-19 outbreak that quarantined half the team, the Wizards went into the All-Star break having won eight of their past 11 games. Washington is now somehow just two games out of the eighth spot. Bradley Beal shows no signs of slowing down as the league’s leading scorer, and Russell Westbrook is looking more like himself with five triple-doubles in his past 10 games. The Wizards are even winning close games. But the second half will be no joke as Washington has to play 38 games after the break with eight sets of back-to-backs.


Games to watch

  • March 21 at Nets: The last time these two teams met, Westbrook scored 41 points and Beal had 37 to help Washington erase a five-point deficit in the final eight seconds and stun the Nets, 149-146.

  • April 23 at Thunder: Yes, Westbrook is two stops removed from his time in Oklahoma City, but he and Scott Brooks return to their old stomping grounds. The Wizards will need a vintage performance from Westbrook against his old team to keep their playoff hopes alive.

  • May 12 at Hawks: This is not only the second of consecutive games at the Hawks but it is also the end of a pivotal five-game road swing that could make or break Washington’s playoff hopes.


Bold prediction: Despite all the turbulence they have endured and a challenging schedule down the stretch, Westbrook and Beal are going to will the Wizards back into the playoffs for the first time since 2017-18.

Youngmisuk

This week: MEM, LAC

22. New Orleans Pelicans
2020-21 record: 15-21
Previous ranking: 23

Second-half storyline: Which players will stick around for the Zion era?

Zion Williamson is going to continue to do Zion-like things, so the rest of the season should be about identifying which players on the current roster will work with him and Brandon Ingram moving forward. That’s where Lonzo Ball comes in. Ball is averaging career highs in points per game, field goal percentage, 3-point percentage and free throw percentage this season as he adjusts to a new role in the half-court offense. Ball is a restricted free agent after the season and could command a hefty salary, while the Pelicans are already set to have Ingram’s max contract, and Eric Bledsoe and Steven Adams on the books. Does Ball fit long term? Or will New Orleans look to deal him prior to the March 25 deadline? They could also roll the dice with offers by other teams this summer because they have the right to match.

Games to watch

  • March 14 vs. Clippers: After beginning the second half against Minnesota and Cleveland, the Pelicans start a daunting eight-game stretch against teams with winning records. This game is the start of that stretch and could say a lot about how the rest will go.

  • March 23 vs. Lakers: This could be the second time former Pelicans star Anthony Davis faces off against Williamson in the Smoothie King Center, if Davis is back healthy for the Lakers by then. It’s also the last game before the trade deadline for New Orleans, which could look to move some players.

  • May 10 vs. Grizzlies: The Pelicans could be fighting for a playoff spot, a play-in tournament berth or long out of the race entirely, but any time Williamson and Memphis star Ja Morant face off, it’s must-see TV.


Bold prediction: The Pelicans will miss out on the playoffs and the play-in tournament. While the offense has been clicking, the Pelicans’ porous and 29th-ranked defense will hold them back.

Lopez

This week: MIN, CLE, LAC

23. Atlanta Hawks
2020-21 record: 16-20
Previous ranking: 22

Second-half storyline: Can McMillan lead a second-half surge?

Atlanta already made a big move by firing coach Lloyd Pierce just two and a half years into his tenure with the team. Now, the second half of the season should be figuring out how the team responds to interim coach Nate McMillan. McMillan told reporters on March 2 that he accepted the job only after Pierce told him he needed to “take this opportunity.” The first two games under McMillan have been a success. The Hawks defeated the Miami Heat by 14 in his first game and then came back from 19 down to defeat the Orlando Magic the following night. With player buy-in, McMillan could get the team back on the right track of a season that started with playoff aspirations.


Games to watch

  • March 20 vs. Lakers: This is the start of an NBA-long eight-game road trip for Atlanta. They’ll depart Atlanta on March 19 and won’t return until after they play the Pelicans on April 2.

  • April 15 vs. Bucks: The Hawks’ first game against a team in the top four in the East in the second half doesn’t come until here.

  • May 6 at Pacers: McMillan gets a chance to travel to the team that let him go in the offseason. The Pacers are one of the teams in the mix for the final playoff spots the Hawks are chasing as well.


Bold prediction: Trae Young‘s shooting touch and his penchant for drawing free throws will give him a chance to break the Hawks’ all-time single-game scoring record of 57, one shared by Hall of Famers Bob Pettit and Dominique Wilkins. — Lopez

This week: @TOR, SAC, CLE

24. Oklahoma City Thunder
2020-21 record: 15-21
Previous ranking: 24

Second-half storyline: Will the Thunder deal at the deadline?

It’s no secret the Thunder have won more games than they probably expected or even intended to at this point. So with the second half of the season ahead and the gap growing between them and the worst records in the league, the Thunder’s chances to land a top-four pick in the upcoming draft are growing slimmer. They appear to be one of the league’s most likely trade deadline dealers, and the opportunity is still there to trim the roster and field a more, ahem, developmentally minded team. George Hill, Al Horford and Mike Muscala should be very available for any interested contender.


Games to watch

  • Sunday vs. Mavericks: It will be one year since the NBA, and really, the world, changed in Oklahoma City. It will be a game played in an empty arena with intense protocols still in place, but it will also be a night of reflection of the night the NBA shut down in 2020.

  • April 3 at Trail Blazers: The Thunder have quite the history with Portland star Damian Lillard and any time OKC and the Blazers match up, something fun happens. In the past few years, it’s been much less fun from the Thunder’s perspective, but a good game is a good game.

  • April 23 vs. Wizards: It’s another return to OKC for Westbrook, and this time, in another new uniform. It won’t carry hardly any of the same energy — because there will be no fans — and he has already been back once before, but for the Thunder, it’s always a special night when a legendary franchise player returns.


Bold prediction: The Thunder will be one of the most active teams at the trade deadline. General manager Sam Presti has been chopping down the roster since last summer, and with another transactional window open, if there are takers, Presti won’t hesitate.

Young

This week: DAL, NYK, MEM

25. Sacramento Kings
2020-21 record: 14-22
Previous ranking: 27

Second-half storyline: How will Marvin Bagley III finish off his third season?

The former No. 2 pick saw his scoring improve from December to January to February, as he has settled into a consistent starting role, but he’s still playing less than 26 minutes per game. Will he earn more playing time and start to deliver on the potential that led the Kings to take him a pick before Luka Doncic in 2018? Or will he continue on his path as a high-level role player, making the Doncic decision all the more damning for the Kings franchise?


Games to watch

  • March 15 at Hornets: Tyrese Haliburton missed the Kings’ first tangle with the Hornets and Rookie of the Year front-runner LaMelo Ball because of a calf injury. Here’s hoping he’s healthy for the next showdown.

  • April 12 at Pelicans: Onto another pair of guards, the Kings’ De’Aaron Fox and the Pelicans’ Lonzo Ball, who entered the league as rookies together a few years back after clashing in their college days. Fox scored 43 points in a five-point loss to New Orleans while Ball was sidelined in January.

  • May 16 vs. Jazz: If Sacramento’s chances come down to needing a win in the regular-season finale to make the playoffs, it will have to go through the red-hot Jazz to get it.


Bold prediction: Buddy Hield will hit 13 3-pointers or more in a game. Klay Thompson holds the all-time record with 14, and only two other players (Zach LaVine and Steph Curry) have ever hit 13. Hield will top his personal best of 11-for-21 from deep.

McMenamin

This week: HOU, @ATL

26. Cleveland Cavaliers
2020-21 record: 14-22
Previous ranking: 25

Second-half storyline: Who are these guys?

Cleveland started the season 3-0, later had a 10-game losing streak that lasted most of the month of February and then won four out of five heading into the break. Sitting 2 1/2 games behind Indiana for the final play-in round spot with 36 games left to play — but holding a better record against conference opponents than four teams above them in the playoff picture, the Pacers included — will the Cavs make a push if Kevin Love returns healthy and provides spacing for Collin Sexton, Darius Garland and Isaac Okoro to keep progressing? Or will it be back to the lottery for the third straight season since LeBron James left?


Games to watch

  • March 26 at Lakers: James had his best night of the season the last time he met his old squad: 46 points on 19-of-26 shooting, 8 rebounds, 6 assists, 2 steals and 2 blocks. We’ll see what he can do for an encore.

  • April 1 vs. 76ers: The Cavs are 2-0 against the Sixers — who entered the All-Star break with the No. 1 record in the Eastern Conference — and will have a chance to complete the season sweep.

  • May 16 at Nets: Cleveland will face the league’s most potent offense in the regular-season finale with potential playoff seeding — or lottery positioning — on the line.


Bold prediction: Jarrett Allen will be the last man standing in the Cavs’ crowded center rotation. With Andre Drummond already pulled from action while Cleveland canvasses the league for a deal, JaVale McGee will also find a new team. The pair’s departures will free up minutes for Allen and potentially stock general manager Koby Altman’s cupboards will some more draft assets.

McMenamin

This week: @NOP, @ATL

27. Orlando Magic
2020-21 record: 13-23
Previous ranking: 26

Second-half storyline: Just how much will the front office shake up this roster?

The Magic have been languishing in basketball mediocrity for several years now — a level that bad luck and injuries have played a major role in this season. They’re not awful, but they also don’t have enough star power to be nationally relevant. So what happens next? Nikola Vucevic has had an All-Star year, Evan Fournier has proven he’s a capable NBA scorer and Aaron Gordon has had some nice moments, but would the Magic consider moving any of the three veterans to change things up as they wait for Jonathan Isaac and Markelle Fultz to get healthy from their respective serious knee injuries?


Games to watch

  • March 26 vs. Blazers: With the trade deadline the day before, it will be intriguing to see how the roster looks when Damian Lillard and the Trail Blazers roll into town.

  • April 16 at Raptors: With the Raptors heading back to Toronto next season, this game could mark the last installment of an interesting Interstate 4 clash between Tampa and Orlando in Florida.

  • April 22 vs. Pelicans: It will be fun to see Stan Van Gundy back barking up and down the sidelines in Orlando. Van Gundy led the Magic to their best moment of the post-Shaq era by guiding the organization to a 2009 Finals appearance.


Bold prediction: After registering double figures in just two games in the first half, rookie Chuma Okeke scores double figures in 10 games in the second half as his game continues to improve under head coach Steve Clifford.

Friedell

This week: @MIA, @SAS, MIA

28. Houston Rockets
2020-21 record: 11-23
Previous ranking: 28

Second-half storyline: What will the Rockets do before the trade deadline?

Any realistic hope of the Rockets sneaking into the playoffs as a pesky underdog ended when Christian Wood sprained his right ankle for the second time. He hasn’t played since then — and the Rockets haven’t won, entering the break with a 13-game losing streak. Wood could be back after the break, but it’s painfully apparent that the Rockets are in the early stages of a rebuilding process, so it makes sense to explore trading veterans such as Victor Oladipo, P.J. Tucker and Eric Gordon for young players and/or draft picks.

Must-see games

  • March 19 vs. Pistons: This could be Wood’s first opportunity to face his former team since the Pistons didn’t make an effort to re-sign him in free agency. Detroit is also one of only two teams with a worse record than the Rockets, who have top-four protection on the first-round swap rights they owe the Thunder.

  • March 21 vs. Thunder: It’s not quite as sexy as Chris Paul and Russell Westbrook matching up after they were swapped for each other. But this game could have significant lottery implications. If the Rockets don’t finish in the top four, it’s almost a certainty they will end up with the Miami Heat’s pick, which the Thunder can swap instead of their own.

  • March 31 at Nets: The Rockets’ management gets to pretend again that it’s just so happy to see James Harden thriving with the Nets.


Bold prediction: There won’t be any 30-somethings in the Rockets’ starting lineup the last week of the season.

MacMahon

This week: @SAC, @UTA, BOS

29. Detroit Pistons
2020-21 record: 10-26
Previous ranking: 29

Second-half storyline: Can the Pistons find silver linings?

The Pistons franchise has hoisted three championship titles over the years, so the folks in Motown understand that they’re far from that level. When Detroit hired Troy Weaver as its new general manager, everyone around the team knew that the Pistons were in for a rebuild. Now that they’ve completed a buyout with six-time All-Star Blake Griffin, the Pistons can move on and continue to develop the young talent on the roster such as Jerami Grant, Saddiq Bey, Josh Jackson and Isaiah Stewart. The theme of the second half is to continue to develop the younger guys as they’re looking for a big reward in the future.


Games to watch

  • March 26 at Nets: The young Pistons face the ultimate test against a fully healthy Brooklyn squad.

  • May 3 vs. Magic: Orlando will start the second-half of the season just three games ahead of Detroit in the standings with lottery positions still in the air.

  • May 11 vs. Timberwolves: The two teams at the bottom of each conference’s standings could being facing off with the worst record in the league at stake.


Bold prediction: The Pistons will not finish with the worst record in the Eastern Conference.

Woodyard

This week: @CHA, @BRK

30. Minnesota Timberwolves
2020-21 record: 7-29
Previous ranking: 30

Second-half storyline: Can they build some actual future momentum?

It has been a messy season for the Wolves, in myriad ways. They were ravaged by injuries and COVID-19 issues early on, then they fired their coach in a questionable manner, and they haven’t really improved in the wake of it. But at their core, they still hold on to the prospect of getting a true look at the duo of Karl-Anthony Towns and D’Angelo Russell that has seen such limited time together. They have young talent in Malik Beasley, Jaden McDaniels and No. 1 overall pick Anthony Edwards. The second half of the season will show if they can all work together.


Games to watch

  • Thursday at Pelicans: Right out of the break, the Wolves need to start building toward something. They’ll have had time off, time to get healthier, time to install some of Chris Finch’s plan. How will this look in action against a fellow young, developing team that is already a few steps ahead?

  • April 29 vs. Warriors: It’s the No. 1 pick (Edwards) against the No. 2 pick (James Wiseman). It also is a game with the looming context of the deadline trade from last season that moved Russell to Minnesota and has a highly valuable protected pick possibly in the Warriors’ possession.

  • May 16 vs. Mavericks: It’s the last game of a difficult campaign that the Wolves probably would very much like to get in the rearview mirror. 1-2-3, Cancun.


Bold prediction: The Wolves go on a small winning streak. Hard as it might be to believe, the Wolves are better than their record. If they can get some luck with good health and see some improvement with their young players, they could win four or five in a row and grab some momentum for next season.

Young

This week: @NOP, POR, POR



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