What happened to the most predictable (and allegedly boring) regular season in NBA history?
As they so often do.
The Cleveland Cavaliers lost Kevin Love indefinitely. The Golden State Warriors lost Kevin Durant indefinitely. The San Antonio Spurs just lost Kawhi Leonard and LaMarcus Aldridge, although it's believed to be short term in Leonard's case while it's not yet clear with Aldridge.
The Spurs have retained the top spot in ESPN.com's weekly NBA Power Rankings on this Rankings Monday largely because they've played too well in 2017 to be downgraded by the Committee (of One) until we know more about Aldridge's scary bout with arrhythmia. But the increasing health-related uncertainty plaguing the teams that have contested the past two NBA Finals, as well as their foremost challengers from South Texas, has spawned hope in cities such as Houston, Boston and the nation's capital that another Warriors-Cavaliers showdown for the title isn't the foregone conclusion so many of us have believed for months.
The Houston Rockets and Washington Wizards have capitalized on the sudden instability at the top to make the most notable jumps they've made all season. Houston is up to No. 2 and Washington has risen to a surprising No. 3, while the Cavs (No. 4) and especially the Warriors (No. 5) have tumbled to hard-to-believe depths. The Warriors, though, believe their uncharacteristic struggles are tied to their recent rough schedule as much as anything. We'll soon see how right they are, with this week presenting much friendlier home dates against Philadelphia, Orlando and Milwaukee after Golden State played 17 of its previous 24 games on the road.
Don't forget to tune into the overnight SportsCenter that airs Tuesday at 1 a.m. ET for our weekly video feature that accompanies these rankings. Profuse thanks, as always, go to ESPN Stats & Information and the Elias Sports Bureau -- with ESPN research ace Micah Adams running the point -- for all the background data they supply to assist the Committee's efforts to arrange things here properly.
Did you see how the Spurs clinched their 18th 50-win season in a row to extend a streak that began when Kawhi Leonard was just 7 years old? Without the just-resting Leonard and LaMarcus Aldridge, San Antonio rallied from 28 points down to beat Sacramento and clinch its biggest comeback (regular season or postseason) in nearly 1,900 games under Gregg Popovich, whose run of consecutive 50-win campaigns is now five longer than Pat Riley's 13 in a row and 10 longer than Phil Jackson's or Red Auerbach's best runs (eight in a row). Leonard (concussion) and Aldridge (heart arrhythmia) have since left the lineup in worrying fashion, but it's not really shaky health prompting ESPN's Basketball Power Index to give the Spurs just a 32 percent chance of overtaking Golden State for the West's No. 1 seed. It's the schedule. Although San Antonio can seize the top spot in the conference as early as Monday night with a home win over Atlanta, Golden State has the more favorable ride for the rest of the regular season, with 11 of its 16 remaining games at home and just seven of those against .500-or-better teams. The Spurs play 10 of their remaining 17 games against .500-or-better teams. Of course, according to the trusty BPI, Golden State had 98 percent odds to finish with the No. 1 seed coming out of the All-Star break and has seen those odds reduced to 68 percent by the stubborn Spurs in less than a month.
The Rockets, even after Sunday night's win over Cleveland, are a mere 15-16 this season against teams sporting .500-or-better records. They're also just 15-12 since that 31-9 start that got folks so excited about Houston's prospects in the first place. Do such #wellactually factoids make you in any way hesitant to say that James Harden & Co. are poised to capitalize on the potential health-related vulnerabilities that have cropped up in Golden State and San Antonio? Or are you more impressed by the fact that the Rockets emerged from what ESPN's Basketball Power Index pinpointed as their most difficult six-game stretch of the season with a 4-2 mark thanks to the win over the Cavs? Houston ranks as one of just three teams all season that can claim wins over San Antonio, Golden State and Cleveland. Yet it sounds as though Harden himself has been hoping for more from the West's No. 3 seed than we've seen of late, telling local reporters Sunday night: "We've proven [ourselves], but it's been a while. Tonight was a big game for us."
Consider Scotty Brooks firmly in the heart of the NBA's Coach of the Year race. How could anyone argue after the Wizards won the first four games of a five-game swing through the Western Conference to climb to No. 2 in the East and give themselves a shot at a perfect trip if they can win Monday night in Minneapolis? After starting 1-7 this season in the second night of back-to-back sets, Washington has suddenly won its last five games in that situation, thanks to wins in Denver on Wednesday night and Portland on Saturday night. The road win over the Blazers was especially memorable because the Wiz overcame a 21-point halftime deficit; teams were 0-54 leaguewide this season when trailing by 21 or more at intermission. It was the biggest such comeback for the Wiz since the Committee's senior year of high school -- when they railed from 22 down at the half in Milwaukee in January 1987. The rally presumably clinched Eastern Conference Player of the Week honors for the ridiculously hot John Wall (who torched the Blazers for 39). The Wiz, folks, are 25-8 in 2017.
At 10-9 overall when Kevin Love doesn't play and 6-6 since his latest injury, I think we're safe in declaring that the Cavs miss him. The month of March, in fact, has quickly taken on a January feel for LeBron James and his pals, with Cleveland at 2-5 since leaving a fun February behind and losing newcomer Andrew Bogut in the cruelest of fashions. The Cavs, furthermore, rank 29th in the league in defensive efficiency this month and are bizarrely just 2-4 in the last six games to feature a LeBron triple-double. It was a 1-4 mark in such games until the Cavs prevailed Saturday night in Orlando, giving James his career-high-tying ninth triple-double of the season and first lifetime at the Amway Ceter, which is the 20th NBA building to witness one from The King. (Russell Westbrook, for the record, has recorded triple-doubles in 19 different arenas; Oscar Robertson holds the league record with 31). No stat in Cleveland, mind you, stands out at the minute more than the Cavs' status as the league's No. 22 team for the season in defensive efficiency. The last NBA team to win it all after finishing outside the regular season top 10 in DE was the 2001 Los Angeles Lakers, who featured a reserve guard named Tyronn Lue.
Let's clear something up as Stephen Curry prepares to celebrate his 29th birthday Tuesday: Curry was shooting 40.7 percent from 3-point range this season when Kevin Durant went down with a knee sprain. That's obviously short of the elite standard we've come to expect from Curry, but it's also a stretch to suggest this has been some sort of long-term cold spell. Curry's 18-for-76 shooting on 3s in his last seven games, resulting in an unsightly success rate of 27.7 percent, is the chief culprit in fueling the perception that the two-time reigning MVP has lost his way -- with Durant essentially missing six of those games. The Warriors, though, have clearly suffered without No. 35 more than they ever imagined. After joining Michael Jordan's Bulls as the only two teams in league history to win 50 games in back-to-back seasons before getting to game No. 60, Golden State has gone 2-5 and failed to reach 90 points three times, starting with the game in Washington in which it lost KD. The Warriors are also shooting less than 35 percent from deep as a team on the road for the season, which is going to be a costly problem in the playoffs if it persists.
Knowing that you're the only team that can claim to be undefeated at Oracle Arena since the start of last season is nice. Of far greater significance to the Celtics, however, is the fact that they'll enjoy what by all accounts ranks as the league's weakest schedule from here to the regular-season finish line after winning their Golden State date for the second successive spring, which should provide an opportunity to undo some of the damage caused by their 2-5 record so far this season against Toronto and Washington in the race for the East's No. 2 seed. The combined winning percentage of Boston's 16 remaining opponents entering Sunday's afternoon rout of Chicago was a mere .435. The Celts won't leave the Eastern time zone for the rest of the season and will travel fewer than 3,000 miles between now and the playoffs. The average NBA team, according to research done by our own Micah Adams, will travel nearly 9,000 miles during the season's final month.
It's probably still somewhat difficult for longtime NBA watchers to process that the Jazz -- who stand as the franchise Gregg Popovich sought to model the Spurs after when he took over as San Antonio's coach early in the 1996-97 season -- just surpassed 40 wins for the first time since the 2012-13 season. Utah has won seven of its last 10 games overall and boasts a record of 11-2 when Quin Snyder has the luxury of starting George Hill, Rodney Hood and Derrick Favors alongside All-Star guard Gordon Hayward and Defensive Player of the Year candidate Rudy Gobert. Snyder, though, didn't have that luxury once last week, as injuries continued to force him to juggle lineups. The knee ailment that has bothered Favors all season, as well as Hill's persistent toe woes, continue to be issues in the SLC.
It's playoff preview time Monday night in Salt Lake City, when the fourth-seeded Jazz play host to the fifth-seeded Clippers. The Clips are an underwhelming 5-5 since the All-Star break, but you can rest assured they have Utah's attention after winning (yikes) 17 of the teams' last 18 regular-season meetings, including two comfortable victories this season and nine in a row as the visiting team. When these teams met a month ago on Utah's floor, L.A. posted an 88-72 triumph despite the fact that Chris Paul wasn't available to play, with Gordon Hayward and George Hill combining to shoot 4-for-23 from the field. Clippers center DeAndre Jordan is up to nine 20-rebound games this season, in case you've lost count, to move three ahead of Detroit's Andre Drummond and Miami's Hassan Whiteside for the league lead. Here's an area where the Clips could stand to improve: They're only 1-16 this season when trailing at any point in the fourth quarter; only 1-29 Brooklyn is worse in that situation.
The Raptors are as aware as anyone that finishing third in the East would be so much more beneficial to their long-term playoff prospects than finishing fourth. That dream, though, might be slipping away, given that both Washington and Boston sit 3 1/2 games ahead of Toronto with only 16 games left on the schedule for the Raps to make up ground. The priority for Canada's team at this point, as it awaits the return of Kyle Lowry, has to be holding onto the No. 4 seed to ensure home-court advantage for its likely first-round showdown with Atlanta. Failure to hang on there would thus mean surrendering home-court advantage to the Hawks in Round 1 and having to face Cleveland one round earlier than last season. Not the sort of spring they were hoping for north of the border ... especially since the summer to follow figures to be so expensive and complicated thanks to the free agency that looms for both Lowry and newly acquired Serge Ibaka.
What ranks as the bigger shocker at this point? Is it Miami's 21-5 record since Jan. 17? Or is it the fact that the hottest team in the East still hasn't cracked the conference's top eight? As well as the Heat have played since Martin Luther King Day -- including two wins each over Cleveland and Houston -- one suspects they would have found a way topple Indiana on the road Sunday night had Goran Dragic been able to play. Dragic, of course, presumably can't see out of his right eye in the wake of an elbow from Toronto's Cory Joseph; check out this gruesome pic of The Dragon from longtime Heat beat writer Ira Winderman. The Heat have been a 3-point machine over these past 25 games, with Dion Waiters playing the ball of his life, but it remains to be seen how much damage was done by losing three times this season to their neighbors from Orlando.
With 32 triple-doubles in 66 games, Russell Westbrook is on pace for 40 for the season, which would fall just one shy of Oscar Robertson's all-time record. Westbrook also has a 70 percent chance of averaging a triple-double for the entire season, according to the latest projections from ESPN Insider's tireless Kevin Pelton, with the Thunder up to 26-6 (.813) when Westbrook triple-doubles and 11-23 (.324) when he doesn't. After last week's triple-double against the Spurs, Chicago and Charlotte stand as the last two teams left on the league map that have prevented Westbrook from reaching triple-double territory. Best of all, though, Oklahoma City has moved past slumping Memphis for the West's No. 6 and would presumably prefer facing Houston and James Harden in Round 1 than San Antonio or Golden State, no matter how vulnerable the West's top two teams look as we speak.
Milwaukee (six straight wins) and Washington (five) are in the midst of the the league's longest active win streaks, so Atlanta's comparatively modest three-gamer isn't likely to attract much attention. But it was a big week nonetheless for Hawks point guard Dennis Schroder, who finally gave us something to talk about besides his late return from the All-Star break ... or that missed bus in Orlando ... or the recent on-court beefing with Dwight Howard. Schroder followed up a 31-point outburst in a too-close-for-comfort home win over the Nets with 26 points, six boards and five assists in a handy home win two nights later over Toronto. Atlanta is 9-1 this season when the mercurial Schroder has scored 25 points or more.
Maybe the mere one-game gap that separates sixth-seeded Indiana and seventh-seeded Detroit in the East is wider than it appears. The Pacers last week completed a four-game season sweep of the Pistons to make it six wins in a row over their division rivals and improve to a gaudy 26-7 in the teams' last 33 meetings. Yet it'll realistically take a few road wins to bring the Pacers any lasting comfort, because they continue to sport the worst away record (11-22) among the 16 teams leaguewide that awoke Monday morning in a playoff spot. Two nights before its latest Detroit demolition, Indy suffered a 12-point defeat at struggling Charlotte in which it earned only three trips to the free-throw line all night, good for a new franchise low in the team's 41-year NBA history.
If Tobias Harris starts one more game this season -- which seems likely given that Stan Van Gundy couldn't resist putting him back in the starting lineup Saturday night in a home rout of the Knicks -- he'll be officially out of the Sixth Man Award race. To remain mathematically alive for the award, Harris would have to play in all of the Pistons' 16 remaining games and appear in a reserve in them all because he has already made 40 starts. The Pistons, for the record, are 15-11 when Harris comes off the bench and score nearly 10 more points per game, compared to their 18-21 mark when he starts. Detroit's defense has stiffened significantly since Feb. 1, sparking a 12-6 surge from that date, but getting to 95 points appears to be the true magical benchmark for Van Gundy's squad. The Pistons are 33-14 this season when they score 95 points or more compared to 0-19 when they fall short.
When the Bucks lost Jabari Parker just as Khris Middleton was coming back to the lineup, they were greeted with widespread sympathy, since it essentially meant that they would be going an entire season without their three best players sharing any court time. Now that Milwaukee is off to a 6-1 start in March, sympathy is a memory ... except for poor Jabari. You don't draw firm conclusions from wholly unexpected six-game winning streaks, but Bucks devotees have to be wondering if Parker (who turns 22 on Wednesday) really fits with this team as well they'd hoped. By essentially swapping Parker for a two-way force in Middleton, Milwaukee is starting to look as sneaky dangerous as it did in Jason Kidd's first season on bench. Especially since Giannis Antetokounmpo is two or three times the player he was then. Let's stop here, though, before we get too far ahead of ourselves. Let's check back in after the Bucks' crucial six-game road trip that opens Monday night in Memphis. If they're still in playoff position after that ...
Props to the Blazers. They recovered from the biggest halftime lead they've ever squandered at home, as well as a controversial finish against the Wiz that inevitably infuriated them, to pull out a win in Phoenix to start a crucial five-game road trip. Did beating the Suns get Saturday night's events completely out of Portland's system? We'll have a better idea when we see how the Blazers fare on their remaining stops on this challenging journey, which serves up a New Orleans/San Antonio back-to-back followed by an Atlanta/Miami back-to-back after two off days in between. There is, however, some light at the end of the tunnel for the Blazers in their chase for the West's final playoff berth, with 10 of their final 13 games at home after this trip. More light: Getting a future first-round pick from Denver in addition to Jusuf Nurkic in exchange for Mason Plumlee looks more like a haul every day, with Nurkic sporting a PER of 21.7 as a Blazer.
It was shaping up to be the perfect homestand. Dirk Nowitzki reached the 30,000-point plateau last Tuesday night against the Lakers in unforgettable fashion and only a Saturday night date with the young Suns stood in the way of a 5-0 sweep for the Mavs on this extended run at the American Airlines Center. But Devin Booker's latest buzzer-beater inflicted a costly L for Dallas, which really needed that 5-0 sweep because of the travel-filled scheduled it faces for the rest of the regular season. Eleven of the Mavs' 17 remaining games are roadies, which has to concern Rick Carlisle given the fact his squad hasn't tasted success outside of Big D borders since a Feb. 3 victory at Portland in the Yogi Ferrell Game. All six of Dallas' remaining home games, to compound matters, are against current playoff teams. Nowitzki's moment, however, won't soon be forgotten, especially after he clinched it with the second-fastest burst of 20 points in his career. Those 20 points came in a span of just 13:02 against the Lakers; Elias says Dirk only did that faster (10:49) in a December 2001 game against the Bulls back when he was 23 years old.
The Nuggets survived the two games they were forced to play without an ill Nikola Jokic by managing a split against Sacramento and Washington, then celebrated the return of their franchise player by pounding the surging Celtics by 20 points. With 21 points, 10 rebounds, 7 assists and 4 steals in that comeback game against Boston, Jokic became the first Nugget to hit all of those benchmarks on the same night since Andre Miller during the 2003-04 season. After three games at home this week against the two L.A. clubs and Houston, Denver will be trying to hang onto the West's No. 8 seed in the face of a travel-heavy schedule, with nine road dates among the Nuggets' final 13 games. Amid all the raves Denver castoff Jusuf Nurkic is generating in Portland, meanwhile, Mason Plumlee is averaging 8.8 points, 7.0 rebounds and 3.7 assists for the Nuggets.
The Grizzlies' next win in March, amazingly, will be their first. The grit-grinders are 0-5 this month and have scarcely been competitive of late, losing three home games last week by a combined 46 points to the Nets, Clippers and Hawks. The first of those, of course, caused the biggest ripple, since Brooklyn had arrived in town in a 1-18 tailspin. Memphis has proven vulnerable to anyone and everyone lately, thanks to a team defense that ranks 30th in the league in March in terms of defensive efficiency, dragging the Grizz out of their familiar perch in the top five for the season in DE. There's no real concern yet that these guys will slip all the way down into the crowded race for the West's final playoff berth, but they will be on the road for eight of 11 games after Monday's home date with Milwaukee. Which means that the Grizz -- despite the fact that they join Houston and Chicago on the short list of teams with wins over Golden State, San Antonio and Cleveland -- might have to start getting used to the idea that the seventh seed is their new domain.
Just 11 days ago the Committee (of One) found itself on the United Center floor alongside Dwyane Wade, trying to make sense of Chicago's 94-87 triumph over the Golden State Warriors that had just stretched the Bulls' ridiculous regular-season streak on TNT Thursdays to 19 wins in a row. Maybe that result wasn't as surprising as it sounds, given that the Warriors were starting a game without Kevin Durant for the first time, but the Bulls clearly never should have let us leave town given what's happened since. Make it five losses in a row for Chicago now to fall out of the East's top eight -- five straight games, furthermore, in which the Bulls have failed to score more than 95 points. You have to go back to a similar six-game stretch in March 2004 for the last time Chicago experienced such a run of offensive futility, which occurred as part of a 23-59 season. Who will ever figure out how the Bulls can go 8-3 against Cleveland, Washington, Boston and Toronto -- and throw in victories over Golden State and San Antonio -- and lose all the games they do.
Back-to-back home wins last week over the Clippers and Warriors, whatever the circumstances, kept alive the Wolves' faint playoff hopes. Realistically, though, Wolves diehards are advised to focus on what Karl-Anthony Towns continues to do as opposed to getting too wrapped up in the standings math, since 'Sota still has 3 ½ games to make up and three teams (Denver, Portland and Dallas) to leapfrog with just 17 games left on its schedule. Towns has returned from his All-Star snub with a vengeance, averaging 28.0 points and 15.4 rebounds to spark the Wolves to a 5-3 mark since the break. He recently became the first player to record at least 20 points and 14 boards in seven consecutive games in one season since Charles Barkley in 1989-90 and is averaging 24.2 PPG and 12.3 RPG for the season. The only other player in NBA history to average 24-and-12 as a 21-year-old is Shaquille O'Neal.
What a difference a year makes. During the 2015-16 season, en route to a 48-34 mark, Charlotte was 5-0 in overtime games. This season? The close-game-cursed Hornets are 0-6 when the game strays to OT after Saturday night's home defeat to New Orleans and, worse yet, they have suffered a league-leading 20 losses this season after taking a lead at any point in the fourth quarter. That's four more, in case you're wondering, than the next team in line; Philly has incurred 16 such defeats. The 11th-seeded Hornets, to only add to their frustration, enter the season's final month boasting an average nightly point margin of plus-0.9. The last Eastern Conference team to miss the playoffs with an average scoring margin that robust was Detroit nearly two decades ago (plus-1.6 in 1997-98).
The numbers are impossible to ignore. Since Anthony Davis and DeMarcus Cousins became teammates, New Orleans is minus-22 in the 163 minutes of court time those two have shared, minus-28 in the 101 minutes that Cousins has logged without Davis ... and plus-19 in the 156 minutes that Davis has logged without Cousins. The Pels, in other words, continue to struggle to find a good flow with both of their All-Star big men on the floor and little in the way of proven perimeter shooting around them, which helps explain why they remain on the fringes of playoff contention, five full games out of the West's No. 8 spot with just 16 left on the schedule. Yet we really can't say enough about what The Brow did Saturday night on his 24th birthday; Davis' 46 points and 21 rebounds in an overtime victory in Charlotte -- with zero turnovers -- put him in a rather exclusive club. Shaquille O'Neal (in 1994-95) and Moses Malone (in 1981-82) are the only other players in league history to post a 40/20 game without a single turnover since the NBA began tracking TOs in 1977-78. The Elias Sports Bureau says Davis is also just the fourth player in NBA annals to post a 40/20 game on his birthday, joining Neil Johnston, Elvin Hayes and Shaq.
Quick! Name the five active players who rank as their team's all-time franchise leader in triple-doubles. The first four should be fairly obvious: Oklahoma City's Russell Westbrook (69), Cleveland's LeBron James (42), Houston's James Harden (25) and Toronto's Kyle Lowry (7). The fifth might surprise you; Orlando's much-maligned Elfrid Payton is up to five career triple-doubles in his three pro seasons after he reached the milestone in back-to-back games last week against the Knicks and Bulls. OK, OK. Maybe milestone is the wrong word when the Magic split the two games and sit 19 games under .500. But it's the second time in his career that Payton has managed a triple-double in consecutive games. And Orlando, at this point, is understandably searching for even the smallest victories to savor.
Make it two buzzer-beaters this season for Devin Booker and four for the Suns among their 22 wins. Booker is the only player in the league with multiple daggers at the horn this season; Phoenix has twice as many game-winners at the buzzer as its closest pursuer (Milwaukee has two). The obvious challenge for the Suns, in the midst of their latest youth movement, is getting into that position more often for Booker or Eric Bledsoe (or even Tyler Ulis) to deliver the dagger. Maybe we're being overly demanding, but the Committee would like to see Booker hike his PER over the 15 mark by season's end if possible, since he continues to sit slightly below the league average. The reality, though, is that Booker's shooting percentages (43.1 percent from the field; 37.2 percent from 3-point range) are passable given the offensive load and degree of difficulty he's been forced to shoulder at a mere 20 years old. (Suns-related aside: One of our favorite parts from this week's soon-to-post TrueHoop Conversations podcast with tennis star Andy Murray is how he openly laments not hanging onto Alan Williams in his fantasy league. Williams has posted a points/rebounds double-double in seven of his last nine outings.)
Give it up for Dario Saric. The Sixers' other rookie big man has clearly heard all the talk about the lack of options Rookie of the Year voters possess in the wake of Joel Embiid's early end to the season and is trying to rectify the matter single-handedly. Saric rumbled for a career-best 28 points in Thursday's narrow loss at Portland, then bettered that performance with 29 points in Sunday's two-point triumph over the Lakers at Staples Center. He sank seven 3-pointers in the two games and is averaging an encouraging 19.6 points, 7.3 rebounds and 4.0 assists in March. Let's see what he can do in the 16 games that remain on Philly's schedule to give us a viable alternative.
Saturday marks the third anniversary of Phil Jackson's return to the Knicks as president of basketball operations. Knicks fans are thus advised to brace themselves for a long, painful week of pointed reminders from the Gotham press that spell out (again and again) just how rocky the ride has been. The Knicks are no closer to true contention than they were when Jackson arrived as their latest supposed savior in March 2014. Some would say they're as far away from contention as they've been in the new millennium after surrendering 120 points Sunday night in Brooklyn to fall to the 11-win Nets. With the Zen Master pushing his beloved triangle offense as hard as he ever has in New York, it remains to be seen if Carmelo Anthony's resolve to outlast Phil will hold up through the forthcoming offseason. Yet the real concern now has to be what all this constant losing and tension is doing to Kristaps Porzingis, who spoke of confusion "from top to bottom" after the Brooklyn loss. Props to Porzingis, though, for trying to find the bright side and insisting that he'll ultimately benefit from all the chaos he's seen in his young career to date, saying: "There's a quote, 'If the sea is smooth, you're never going to become a great sailor.'"
With eight straight defeats, good for the league's longest active losing streak, Sacramento has quietly sunk to the depths of the league's sixth-worst record. Yet that's precisely what the Kings should be doing in the wake of the DeMarcus Cousins trade, hard as it must be for owner Vivek Ranadive to stomach in the first year of the long-awaited new Golden 1 Center. The Kings, as we'll keep noting over and over in this comment cyberspace, have to finish in the top 10 in the lottery in May to ensure that they keep their first-round pick in June rather than ship it to Chicago. The first-round pick Sacramento received in the Cousins deal from the Pels, meanwhile, is only top-three protected, which means the Kings are on course for the No. 6 and No. 7 picks in the 2017 NBA draft as we speak. The nightmare scenario for the Kings, of course, would be New Orleans jumping into the draft's top three via the May lottery, enabling the Pelicans to keep the pick. For the moment, though, Sacramento has to be encouraged.
29. Los Angeles Lakers
2016-17 record: 20-46
Previous ranking: 29
No longer are the Lakers winless since the All-Star break. They brought a halt to their 11-game losing streak in the desert and mustered a timely response to Luke Walton's claim that they played "soft" two nights earlier in Dallas by ringing up a 122-110 victory at Phoenix on Thursday night after six consecutive defeats coming out of All-Star Weekend. The Lakers' direction, though, should be rather clear by now. Nick Young has just been moved out of the starting lineup -- replaced by recent NBA D-League callup David Nwaba -- as Walton inevitably prioritizes youth amid a tank job that can't be avoided. Rookie center Ivica Zubac also figures to get more playing time now as the Lakers do everything in their power to enhances their odds for a top-three lottery finish that would enable them to keep their first-round pick in June.
The Nets are the only team in the league with the little "e" next to their name in ESPN's NBA standings, which obviously denotes that they've already been eliminated from postseason consideration. A good month -- by the standards of this incredibly challenging season for Brooklyn's die-hard fans out there -- continued last week with two more wins as well as increased minutes for the back-from-injury Jeremy Lin. Sunday's victory over the Knicks, on "Biggie Night" in honor of Notorious B.I.G., inevitably got most of the headlines. But we owe an overdue hat-tip to Nets center Brook Lopez, who recently became just the second player in club history to crack the 10,000-point plateau. Lopez is up to 10,108 career points, closing in on all-time Nets leader Buck Williams (10,440). (The fact that the Nets don't have a 20,000-point scorer in their long NBA history, mind you, tells just how fleeting success has been for this franchise.)