NBA Power Rankings - Risers and Fallers (3/30/18)
NBA Power Rankings – Risers and Fallers
Welcome to the 19th edition of Risers and Fallers for this season's NBA Power Rankings. Our Power Rankings are developed using players on the active depth chart, which causes fluctuation week-to-week based on injuries and who is in and out of the lineup. To see a full description of how our Power Rankings are created, as well as this week's full list of rankings, please visit NBA Power Rankings - 2/29/18.
Within our rankings every week, there are noticeable risers and fallers throughout. The goal of this article is to identify who has gained or lost the most ground in the Association, whether it be due to injury, roster changes, or just a decline in team performance. Each article will include the top three risers and fallers in the rankings, despite their initial position.
Every team has fewer than 10 games remaining before the postseason begins, yet the one and two seeds in each conference are the only teams locked into a specific position. Eight teams remain battling for six spots in the West while the East essentially has all eight locked in, as the Pistons and Hornets need flawless finishes and collapses from the teams ahead to have a shot at a playoff berth. Meanwhile, there remains a lot of jostling between the teams at the top of our rankings, especially with the injury bug that continues to hit the NBA as we say goodbye to March. Houston, Toronto, and Utah are all safe and sound in our top three this week, but things get interesting after that triumvirate. Philadelphia comes in fourth on the week, but they just lost Joel Embiid for 2-4 weeks with an orbital bone fracture and will need him back 100% if they want to make a run in the playoffs. Cleveland remains in the thick of things in the East but are battling injuries in their own right, as they've yet to have a completely healthy roster since the roster shakeup at the beginning of February. As we move a few spots further down, we see our Risers of the week in Portland and Miami have launched themselves inside the top 10 as we enter the last two weeks of the season. Let's take a look at the Heat and Blazers and what caused them to rise in our rankings this week.
It's still rather surprising to see Portland hold down the three seed out West with perennial powerhouses on their heels, but the Blazers have put together an impressive season. They currently sit 2.5 games up on the fourth place Spurs, and need just a 4-4 record down the stretch to lock up their third 50-win season in the last five years. After years of defense being their Achilles' heel, Portland has maintained a top-10 defensive efficiency rating for nearly the entire season. Each of the last two seasons, Terry Stotts' crew had finished in the bottom 10 in both defensive efficiency and points allowed to opposing teams. This time around, they're sitting on the ninth-ranked defense and have surrendered the fifth-fewest points per game. It certainly helps that they've had a full offseason and in-season campaign with Jusuf Nurkic, who is the clear #3 option on a team that had relied on Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum so heavily over the past couple seasons. Nurkic might be the biggest reason their defense has improved so drastically, as his 4.27 DRPM ranks fourth overall in the NBA and second behind Rudy Gobert among centers. That along with the fact Lillard is a top 10 player in the league in both PER and expected wins added provides hope that the Blazers could make it to the conference finals for the first time since 2000. No series should be easy out West this year, so locking up home court advantage in the first round may give Portland the edge they need (along with their defense) to make a run.
Erik Spoelstra's squad has all but locked up a trip to the postseason after narrowly missing out last year, needing just one win in their remaining six games to lock up a shot at the Larry O'Brien trophy. Their jump this week coincides with the return of Hassan Whiteside after he missed three weeks with a hip injury. Whiteside's return helps bolster Miami's eighth-ranked defense, as his DRPM of 3.75 is sixth in the NBA and fourth among centers. His 1.7 blocks per game ranks eighth in the league while his 11.7 rebounds put him sixth in that category. Those numbers seem even more impressive considering he's averaging just 25.7 minutes per game. Even though Spoelstra tends to sit Whiteside in fourth quarters, he's getting outstanding production from the big man when he's active. In fact, his PER of 24.10 ranks 16th in the NBA and fourth among centers, behind just Karl-Anthony Towns, Clint Capela, and Nikola Jokic. If the standings hold true and Miami ends up with the seventh seed, they'll match up with a depleted Boston team in the first round. That would be best case scenario considering Toronto and Cleveland are the other two likeliest opponents, so it will be interesting to see how Coach Spo and the organization handle their own destiny with just six games remaining.
It's been an unprecedented month of March for a Warriors team we've grown to love (or hate) in their dominant last few seasons. They've gone a putrid 3-7 since March ninth, amassing just two fewer losses in 20 days then they had in the entire 2015-16 regular season. Injuries have hit them hard, as the basketball gods may finally be getting their revenge after they coasted to a championship in the 2015 Finals against a Cavs team without Kevin Love or Kyrie Irving. Along with their poor play of late, their drop this week coincides with Stephen Curry's MCL injury. He was the lone member of the big four included in our rankings last Thursday, then proceeded to injure the MCL Friday night. Luckily for Golden State, Draymond Green and Kevin Durant returned this week, but the loss of Steph and dropping seven of 10 on the court still resulted in the Warriors moving down four spots. Steve Kerr isn't being facetious when he labels Steph as the engine that makes the whole offense run, despite the other talent on the Warriors roster. Here are some offensive numbers comparing the offense with Steph on and off the court:
ON: Mins: 1640, ORtg: 122.8, Pace: 103.1, eFG%: .610
OFF: Mins: 1970, ORtg: 107.6, Pace: 95.5, eFG%: .537
Those numbers represent an enormous stylistic change as well as a decline in performance in a rather large sample size. Their efficiency plummets, and we can assume they're getting much tougher shots given their dip in effective field goal percentage. While those numbers all decrease when a member of the big four is off the court, Curry's is by far the most dramatic, with double the impact of Durant and nearly four times the impact when removing Green or Klay Thompson. The Warriors could certainly be in trouble if Curry is unable to return for the first round of the playoffs given the talent of whoever ends up as the seventh seed.
After spending the majority of the season in our top 10, Washington falls down to #13 as we close in on April. Their 5-9 record since the end of February has caused them to drop from third to sixth in the East, and they're just one game above the Bucks for the eighth spot. Bradley Beal looks like he's running out of gas as the leader of the offense without John Wall, as he's failed to score 20 points in seven of his last 10 games and is just 14-42 (33.3% shooting) in his last three games. It certainly doesn't help that Otto Porter has been banged up with hip and ankle issues over the last few weeks, as he's their best defender and a secondary playmaker with Wall out of the lineup. Markieff Morris may be benefitting the most offensively in Wall's absence, averaging 3.8 more points and 1.9 more assists per game. With Wall likely to return in the next 1-3 games, Washington will need to make a serious push for home court advantage as they've fallen 3.5 games out of the fourth spot with just seven remaining on the schedule. At this point, they may want to shoot for the seventh seed in order to play the Celtics, but it's hard to imagine the Wizards winning more than one series given their current form and absence of playing time with John Wall on the floor in the past two months.