NBA Power Rankings, Week 23: LeBron James adds another milestone as the Lakers continue to falter

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Monday, March 21, 2022

While the Los Angeles Lakers are in the middle of a disappointing NBA season, LeBron James continues to be the lone bright spot. James passed Karl Malone on Saturday night, moving into the No. 2 spot on the all-time scoring list. Though James racked up another individual milestone, his team fell to the Eastern Conference's 11th-rankedWashington Wizards. The Lakers are running out of time to climb the Western Conference standings. At No. 10, they are five games back of the No. 8 LA Clippers and seem destined for the play-in tournament.

Elsewhere in the West, the Golden State Warriors were supposed to be complete again with Draymond Green's return from a two-month absence, but they lost Stephen Curry for at least two weeks when he sprained a ligament in his foot on Wednesday in a loss to the Boston Celtics. The Phoenix Suns are nine games ahead of the No. 2 Memphis Grizzlies, but the Warriors are trying to stay afloat at No. 3, just two games ahead of the Utah Jazz and a surging Donovan Mitchell.

The Minnesota Timberwolves, meanwhile, are making a late-season push out of the play-in tournament, led by Karl-Anthony Towns. Towns dropped 60 points last week against the San Antonio Spurs -- the most in the NBA this season -- with 32 coming in the third quarter.

And Kyrie Irving followed in Towns' footsteps on Tuesday with 60 points of his own, a career high and a franchise record for the Brooklyn Nets. However, the Nets still find themselves headed for the play-in tournament at No. 8 in the East, just one game ahead of the Charlotte Hornets.

Our experts break down where all 30 teams stand as the playoffs loom large.

Note:Throughout the regular season, our panel (Tim Bontemps, Jamal Collier, Nick Friedell, Andrew Lopez, Tim MacMahon, Dave McMenamin 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.

1. Phoenix Suns

2021-22 record: 58-14

Previous ranking: 1

Suns coach Monty Williams had high praise for Mikal Bridges on Sunday night, comparing him to former NBA Defensive Player of the Year winners Michael Cooper and Ron Artest for his ability to guard top players on the perimeter and down low.

"He should be Defensive Player of the Year, No. 1," Williams said. "He doesn't duck a matchup. He plays every night. He guards everyone. He plays 50 minutes. He still produces on offense. I don't get into the iron man thing, but he loves to play, he loves to work and he's a winner."-- Lopez

2.Miami Heat

2021-22 record: 47-24

Previous ranking: 2

Miami has won three of its past four and has a showdown with the Sixers on Monday night. Tyler Herro had 26 points in 28 minutes in Saturday's win as he continues his torrid pace. He is averaging 25.9 points a game over nine contests in March -- shooting 51.3% for the month after shooting 52.8% from the field in February.-- Friedell

3.Memphis Grizzlies

2021-22 record: 49-23

Previous ranking: 3

Desmond Bane has bounced back after slumping last month. He is averaging 20.4 points with a 62.5 true shooting percentage in March as compared to 14.7 points with a 48.9 true shooting percentage in February. Bane has emerged as the Grizzlies' No. 2 scoring threat behind All-Star point guard Ja Morant, who missed a couple of games this past week due to back and knee soreness. -- MacMahon

4.Milwaukee Bucks

2021-22 record: 44-27

Previous ranking: 5

The case for Giannis Antetokounmpo to win his third Most Valuable Player Award is growing. Milwaukee is tied for second in the conference, while Antetokounmpo is a contender for Defensive Player of the Year and competing for the scoring title (29.8 points per game) with Joel Embiid (30.0 PPG) and LeBron James (30.0 PPG).-- Collier

5.Boston Celtics

2021-22 record: 44-28

Previous ranking: 7

Boston remains an absolute juggernaut after routing Denver on Sunday night. The Celtics are now 21-4 since Jan. 23, have the league's best defense by nearly five points per 100 possessions and are outscoring teams by 16 points per 100 possessions over that stretch.-- Bontemps

6.Philadelphia 76ers

2021-22 record: 43-27

Previous ranking: 6

It was an up-and-down week for Philly, with wins over Dallas and Cleveland sandwiched between losses to Denver and Toronto. It is a make-or-miss league sometimes, but when Philly is making 3s, they look like world-beaters. When they don't? Their offense grinds to a halt.-- Bontemps

7.Golden State Warriors

2021-22 record: 47-24

Previous ranking: 4

Stephen Curry is out for at least the next two weeks with a foot injury. Draymond Green is just coming back from a disk issue, and Klay Thompson is still trying to find his rhythm after being out 2 years. James Wiseman is dealing with knee swelling in another setback during his rehab, and his return this season remains unclear. The only good news for the Warriors is that Jordan Poole is in the midst of one of his best stretches of the season; Sunday's contest marked the ninth time in as many games he has scored at least 20 points.-- Friedell

8.Dallas Mavericks

2021-22 record:43-28

Previous ranking: 8

The Mavs ran out of gas at the end of a five-game road trip, suffering double-digit losses in a back-to-back against Philadelphia and Charlotte after winning the first three games. Spencer Dinwiddie hit game-winning 3s in Boston and Brooklyn. He joined Chicago's DeMar DeRozan as the only players to hit last-minute winners in consecutive games this season. -- MacMahon

9.Utah Jazz

2021-22 record: 45-26

Previous ranking: 9

Donovan Mitchell sat out Friday's rout of the Clippers due to a calf contusion, but he managed to maintain his hot hand. Mitchell scored 37 points in Wednesday's win over the Bulls and 36 in a victory over the Knicks on Sunday as the Madison Square Garden crowd greeted him with enthusiastic cheers. Mitchell made 16 3s in the two triumphs, the most in a two-game span in Jazz history.-- MacMahon

10.Denver Nuggets

2021-22 record: 42-30

Previous ranking: 11

As good as the Nuggets played last month and in early March, they now find themselves tied with Minnesota for No. 7 in the West, set for a play-in game with the Clippers with 10 games remaining. After Sunday's 20-point loss to Boston, Bones Hyland told reporters that DeMarcus Cousins spoke to the team to let everyone know their play is unacceptable right now. Knowing how the Nuggets have been in the past under Michael Malone, expect them to respond.-- Youngmisuk

11.Chicago Bulls

2021-22 record: 41-29

Previous ranking: 10

The good news for the backsliding Bulls -- who were winless on a three-game road trip and have lost of eight of their past 10 games -- is that more help is on the way. Forward Patrick Williams will return Monday after tearing ligaments in his wrist in the fifth game of the season. He'll come off the bench, and the Bulls are likely to ease their second-year forward back into action, but Williams' presence could help lift Chicago's defense, which has fallen to 20th in the NBA in defensive rating.-- Collier

12.Minnesota Timberwolves

2021-22 record: 42-30

Previous ranking: 15

Minnesota is rolling, having won four in a row and 10 of their last 11 games. They are threatening to grab one of the top six seeds in the Western Conference and avoid the play-in tournament. The Timberwolves sit half a game behind the Nuggets for the No.6 seed and 1.5 games behind the Mavericks. They have a pair of crucial games this week against the Mavs in Dallas on Monday and at home on Friday.-- Collier

13. Brooklyn Nets

2021-22 record: 37-34

Previous ranking: 12

Brooklyn has no idea if or whenBen Simmons is going to play as he continues to rehab his back injury. The Nets have no idea when the New York City vaccination mandate will get rolled back, which would allow Kyrie Irving to play in home games. What they do know is that they have Kevin Durant -- and with him on the floor they'll always have a chance. Durant is averaging 30 points a game since returning from an MCL sprain on March 3.-- Friedell

14.Cleveland Cavaliers

2021-22 record: 41-30

Previous ranking: 13

The Cavs are back on an upswing, winners of three of their past four, just in time for LeBron James and the Lakers to come to town on Monday. James' career average of 29.1 points versus his former franchise is his highest against any team in the league.-- McMenamin

15.Toronto Raptors

2021-22 record: 40-31

Previous ranking: 14

Friday's last-second loss to the Lakers aside, Toronto is back to flying along again, winning six of seven with Fred VanVleet in and out of the lineup and OG Anunoby not playing at all. The Raptors have a team full of long, rangy players led by rookie Scottie Barnes, and they are looking like a tough first-round opponent in the East.-- Bontemps

16. Charlotte Hornets

2021-22 record: 36-35

Previous ranking: 18

Charlotte's season could come down to Gordon Hayward's availability down the stretch. The forward said last week that he will begin taking contact this week and that his status will be determined from there. Charlotte is 26-22 when Hayward plays and 10-13 when he doesn't. -- Bontemps

17. LA Clippers

2021-22 record: 36-37

Previous ranking: 16

The Clippers are pretty much locked into the eighth spot with the Timberwolves hot on Denver's tail for the sixth spot and the Lakers continuing to falter beneath the Clippers. But Ty Lue's team isn't playing its best right now. In fact, far from it. The Clippers were blown out in Utah and have lost six of their past eight, their only wins coming over the Wizards and Pistons. The good news is the Clippers have the most practice time they've had all season, so Lue will try to get them back to playing scrappy ball heading into the play-in. -- Youngmisuk

18.Atlanta Hawks

2021-22 record: 35-36

Previous ranking: 17

The Hawks are comfortably in the No. 10 spot in the Eastern Conference play-in race but continue to jockey for position with Brooklyn (two games ahead at No. 8) and Charlotte (one game ahead at No. 9). The Hawks lost to the Hornets last week to tie the season series. To continue to climb, Atlanta will lean on Trae Young, who had his 27th 20-point, 10-assist game Sunday night. That sets a team record for most in a single season, breaking the record he set himself in 2019-20. -- Lopez

19.New Orleans Pelicans

2021-22 record: 30-41

Previous ranking: 20

The Pelicans, who slid into the No. 9 spot in the Western Conference standings on Sunday night, are 7-6 since inserting Jaxson Hayes into the starting lineup at power forward. Since Feb. 17, the Pelicans have a +10.2 net rating with Jonas Valanciunas and Hayes on the floor over 216 minutes. In his past five games, Hayes is averaging 15.6 points and seven rebounds per game while shooting 7-of-12 from deep.-- Lopez

20. Los Angeles Lakers

2021-22 record: 30-41

Previous ranking: 19

The Lakers followed up perhaps their most inspiring team win in Toronto on Friday -- featuring Russell Westbrook's miracle steal and game-tying 3 sequence forcing overtime, where they pulled away -- with the most impressive individual accomplishment by any player on their roster this season on Saturday when LeBron James passed Karl Malone for No. 2 on the all-time scoring list in Washington. But the Wizards got the win and L.A. is currently in the final play-in spot at No. 10 in the West with 11 games left to play. -- McMenamin

21.Washington Wizards

2021-22 record: 30-40

Previous ranking: 21

The Wizards' play-in hopes took a severe blow when they lost six straight games, four coming on a West Coast swing. But the Wizards managed to spoil LeBron James' milestone night Saturday when he passed Karl Malone on the all-time scoring list, erasing a 16-point deficit to beat the Lakers. While the win ultimately might not matter much, the Wizards got an important glimpse at Kristaps Porzingis' potential, as he scored 16 of his 27 points in the fourth. He looked like The Unicorn they acquired at the trade deadline.-- Youngmisuk

22.New York Knicks

2021-22 record: 30-41

Previous ranking: 22

While New York's season has gone sideways, at least the play of RJ Barrett over the past couple of months is something to take forward into the offseason. Since Jan. 1, Barrett is averaging nearly 24 points per game and shooting 37.8% from 3-point range. If he can keep that up over a full season next year, the Knicks will be quite pleased.-- Bontemps

23.San Antonio Spurs

2021-22 record: 28-44

Previous ranking: 23

Spurs forward Keldon Johnson has been playing the best basketball of his young career since the All-Star break. He has had his first three 30-point games since the Spurs returned to play -- 32 points against the Wizards on Feb. 25, 33 points against the Hornets on March 5 and a career-high 34 points last Monday against the Timberwolves. And while he didn't hit the 30-point plateau Sunday, he did get the game-winning putback to defeat the Warriors.-- Lopez

24.Portland Trail Blazers

2021-22 record: 26-44

Previous ranking: 24

The Blazers' slide continues, as they lost for the 10th time in 11 games on Sunday to Indiana. Portland's only win since the All-Star break was over Washington, but at least the Blazers are getting a good look at what Josh Hart can do. Hart is averaging 28.6 points in his past five games. -- Youngmisuk

25.Indiana Pacers

2021-22 record: 25-47

Previous ranking: 26

The news that T.J. Warren will officially miss the rest of the 2021-22 season marked a disappointing end to another injury-riddled season. Following a breakout performance in the bubble in 2020, Warren was limited to four games in the 2020-21 season with stress fractures in his left foot. He has not played since Dec. 29, 2020. He will become an unrestricted free agent this summer.-- Collier

26.Sacramento Kings

2021-22 record: 25-48

Previous ranking: 25

Kings rookie Davion Mitchell had himself a game in Sunday's 127-124 overtime loss to Phoenix. With De'Aaron Fox sidelined by a hand injury, Mitchell -- known for his defense -- went off offensively, notching career highs in both points (28) and assists (nine), and giving the Suns all they could handle.-- McMenamin

27.Detroit Pistons

2021-22 record: 19-52

Previous ranking: 27

In 12 games since joining the Pistons, Marvin Bagley III is averaging 13.6 points and 6.9 rebounds on 53% shooting. He's playing around the rim more frequently and made a few spot starts for Detroit last week with Jerami Grant out of the lineup.-- Collier

28.Oklahoma City Thunder

2021-22 record: 20-51

Previous ranking: 28

Power forward Darius Bazley has shown intriguing signs of development as a scorer recently. Bazley has averaged 21.0 points on 53.5% shooting over the last six games, including a career-high 29-point night and a pair of 25-point performances. Bazley, 21, a long-armed, explosive player with versatile defensive potential, is eligible for an extension of his rookie contract this summer. -- MacMahon

29.Orlando Magic

2021-22 record: 19-53

Previous ranking: 29

Wendell Carter Jr.had another big game in Sunday's win over the Thunder, racking up 30 points and 16 rebounds. Over the last two months, he is averaging over 18 points and 11 rebounds a game.Jonathan Isaac, meanwhile, has been ruled out for the season as he continues to rehab a knee injury. He hasn't played since August 2020. -- Friedell

30.Houston Rockets

2021-22 record: 17-54

Previous ranking: 30

Houston has won only two of its past 20 games, giving the Rockets the league's worst record, which would guarantee a top-five pick. The growth of Jalen Green, the No. 2 overall pick in last summer's draft, has been a silver lining, as he has averaged 18.2 points on .472/.375/.732 shooting splits during that span. But the Rockets' defense (NBA-worst 116.5 points allowed per 100 possessions) is awful, even by tanking standards.-- MacMahon

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