NBA Power Rankings: The Celtics and Grizzlies are Using Defense to Dominate the League

Ryan Kirksey shares his NBA power rankings with a focus on the Celtics and Grizzlies using solid defense to dominate the league.
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NBA Power Rankings: The Celtics and Grizzlies are Using Defense to Dominate the League

NBA expert Ryan Kirksey steps in to take a look at how the NBA is shaping up and give us his monthly NBA Power Rankings. He starts at the bottom, with his bottom-tier teams, and ends by grouping his top 10 in an elite group of their own.

Largest Riser: Boston Celtics (+7)

Largest Faller: Cleveland Cavaliers (-7)

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NBA Power Rankings - Bottom Tier

  • 30. Houston Rockets (17-51)
  • 29. Orlando Magic (18-52)
  • 28. Detroit Pistons (18-51)
  • 27. Oklahoma City Thunder (20-48)
  • 26. Indiana Pacers (23-47)
  • 25. Sacramento Kings (25-45)
  • 24. Portland Trail Blazers (26-41)
  • 23. San Antonio Spurs (26-43)
  • 22. Washington Wizards (29-38)
  • 21. New York Knicks (28-40)

While they are not officially eliminated, the Sacramento Kings look like they will miss the playoffs for the 16th consecutive season. To put that in context, Mike Bibby, Peja Stojakovic, and Bonzi Wells were on that team. Every NBA team except Minnesota has made the playoffs at least TWICE since the last time Sacramento was there. They seem to be in the midst of another identity crisis rebuild again, shipping off young and talented Tyrese Haliburton to build around De'Aaron Fox and Domantas Sabonis. But they aren't ever bad enough to score a franchise-changing lottery pick. It's a team seemingly stuck in purgatory forever.

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On the other end of the historical success spectrum, we have the San Antonio Spurs. They will likely miss the playoffs for the third year in a row, which is essentially the equivalent of their Haley's comet. When they are eliminated, it will be their first three-year stretch since they entered the NBA in 1977. In fact, before this three-year absence, the Spurs missed the playoffs only four times since 1977 (1984, 1987, 1989, 1997). Two of those years, of course, ended with the Spurs drafting franchise-altering players like Tim Duncan and David Robinson. They are on the right track with Dejounte Murray. Can they get an impact player to pair with him? If so, the Spurs are likely to start another playoff streak very soon.

NBA Power Rankings - Middle Tier

  • 20. Los Angeles Lakers (29-39)
  • 19. New Orleans Pelicans (28-41)
  • 18. Atlanta Hawks (34-34)
  • 17. Charlotte Hornets (34-35)
  • 16. Los Angeles Clippers (36-35)
  • 15. Toronto Raptors (38-30)
  • 14. Brooklyn Nets (36-33)
  • 13. Minnesota Timberwolves (40-30)
  • 12. Cleveland Cavaliers (39-29)
  • 11. Denver Nuggets (41-28)

Just how bad is it right now for the Lakers? In their last 15 games, their offensive rating is 26th in the league and their defensive rating is 20th. They rank 29th in rebound rate, 25th in turnover rate, and their 11 losses trail only Houston and Oklahoma City in that span. At 10 games under .500, they are clinging to their playoff hopes as the ninth seed in the West, two and a half games ahead of the Trail Blazers. At this point, they are going to have to fight their way through the Pelicans, Clippers or red-hot Timberwolves just for a chance to be lambs at the slaughter against the Suns or Warriors. With his total of -1.0 offensive Win Shares on the season, Russell Westbrook ranks as the sixth-worst player in the league on that side of the ball.

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Speaking of the Timberwolves, they are the talk of the NBA after Karl Anthony-Towns' 60-point explosion this week which helped Minnesota get to an 8-2 record in their last 10 games. No other team has more wins in that span and they are now challenging the seventh-seed Nuggets for an outright locked-in playoff spot. How are they doing it? Over the last 10 games, the Timberwolves have the second-best offensive rating AND defensive rating in that span. Their Net Rating of 12.5 is more than five points better than any other team in that stretch. With three capable scorers, this is a team that could become dangerous in the playoffs.

NBA Power Rankings - Elite Tier

  • 10. Chicago Bulls (41-27)
  • 9. Dallas Mavericks (42-26)
  • 8. Utah Jazz (42-26)
  • 7. Boston Celtics (41-28)
  • 6. Philadelphia 76ers (41-26)
  • 5. Milwaukee Bucks (43-26)
  • 4. Golden State Warriors (47-22)
  • 3. Miami Heat (46-24)
  • 2. Memphis Grizzlies (48-22)
  • 1. Phoenix Suns (55-14)

What has driven the success of the Celtics over the past six weeks? Primarily, it has been lockdown defense every single night. According to's advanced lineup metrics, the Celtics' lineup of Smart-Brown-Tatum-Horford-Williams has the best defensive rating of any five-man rotation with at least 150 minutes together. That's more than 45 lineup combinations. And their net rating is second-best among those lineups as well. In the month of February, the Celtics blew the league away with their defensive metrics and the are now just a half-game out of homecourt in the first round.

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Can the upstart Grizzlies hold off a fully-healthy Warriors for the second seed in the West and homecourt in a potential second-round matchup? Much like the Celtics, if they do it will be because of their defense. Memphis ranks seventh on the season in defensive rating, and first overall in rebound rate. They also have the stone-cold lock for most improved player in Ja Morant. His odds to win that award are now up to -1200 and he is still lurking in the top-five of the MVP conversation as well. The reason for Morant's success is his improvement in going to the basket. Morant is now third in the NBA in drives to the basket per game at almost 21 per night. That's an improvement of almost three drives per game more than last season.

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Proudest husband and dad you will ever find. When I'm not with my wife and two kids I split my time working in higher ed, grinding DFS and season-long, collecting silver age comics, studying behavioral economics, and drinking coffee. I once played Pat Connaughton in an actual NBA DFS lineup for money. Astros, Rockets, and Texans for life.


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