In the NBA, let the battle for the Eastern Conference begin.
With Kevin Durant back after a nearly two-month absence due to a hamstring injury, the Brooklyn Nets are back in one piece – just in time for Wednesday night’s epic game against the Philadelphia 76ers (7 ET on ESPN).
In the West, the battle for first place is heating up, despite the recent troubles of the defending champion Los Angeles Lakers. You don’t have to watch, but Devin Booker, Chris Paul and the Phoenix Suns have won 11 of their last 13 games, including a decision in overtime last week against the NBA’s best Utah Jazz. The LA Clippers are also on a five-game winning streak en route to a three-game road trip.
Our panel looks at all 30 NBA teams heading into Week 17.
Message: During the regular season, our panel (Tim Bontemps, Nick Friedell, Andrew Lopez, Tim McMahon, Dave McMahon, Royce Young and ESPN’s Om Youngmisuk) reviews the 30 teams from top to bottom, assessing which ones are currently playing their best basketball and which ones are most likely to contend for the title.
Previous reviews: Week 1, week 2, week 3, week 4, week 5, week 6, week 7, week 8, week 9, week 10, week 11, week 12, week 13, week 14, week 15, week 16
1. Utah Jazz
2020-21 Record: 40-13
Previous ranking: 1
Donovan Mitchell is the first Utah player since Karl Malone to score at least 35 points in three consecutive games, according to ESPN Stats & Information. The Jazz’s victories this week over the Trail Blazers and the Kings, which extended its home win streak to 24 games, were the first games this season in which Utah won with Mitchell hitting at least 25 shots from the floor. Previously, the Jazz were 0-5 in these types of games. — McMahon.
This week: WAS, OKAY, IND, LAL…
2. Phoenix Suns
2020-21 Record: 37-15
Previous Ranking: 4
With Saturday’s win over the Wizards, Phoenix has won 37 times this season. Thanks to a 72-game schedule, this is the first time since 2013-14, when the team went 48-34, that a winning season has been achieved for the Suns. However, Phoenix was eliminated from the playoffs this season despite winning 48 games. This year’s version of the Suns probably won’t have that problem. The Suns remain in second place in the Western Conference standings. — Lopez.
This week: HO, MIA, SACK, SASS
3. Brooklyn Nets
2020-21 Record: 36-17
Previous ranking: 2
Kevin Durant is back, and he certainly hasn’t gotten rusty. He hit a perfect 5-for-5 in his return Wednesday against the Pelicans. The potential problem for the Nets is not so much that Durant is working backwards, but that they will have to adjust all the offensive weapons around him when he returns. Therefore, Kyrie Irving doesn’t really benefit from making multiple reps. — Young
This week: @MIN, @PHI, CHA, @MIA
4. Philadelphia 76ers
2020-21 Record: 36-17
Previous ranking: 3
There is perhaps no more important game in this regular season than the Nets-Sixers game in Philadelphia on Wednesday night. The top two teams in the East have split the first two games, meaning the winner will play the playoff game on Wednesday. But this is an important week for Philadelphia, which also plays Dallas on Monday and hosts the Clippers on Friday. — Bontemps
This week: @DAL, BRK, LAC
5. LA Clippers
2020-21 Record: 37-18Prior ranking: 6
The Clippers beat Portland, Phoenix, Houston and Detroit last week, but still suffered a defeat when Patrick Beverley broke the fourth metacarpal in his left hand. Although the Clippers have kept pace with the Suns behind Utah in the West, their injuries continue to hinder their ability to build chemistry and cohesion. Beverley will be out for at least three weeks, and Reggie Jackson and Rajon Rondo are the playmakers who will continue until he’s back. Serge Ibaka (back) will not participate with the team in the three road races this week. -Youngomisuk
This week: @IND, @DET, @PHI, MIN
6. Denver Nuggets
2020-21 Record: 34-19Previous: 7
The Nuggets finally survived a loss in the Aaron Gordon era. Denver won its first seven games with Gordon on the floor before losing 105-87 to the Celtics. However, the Nuggets are on a roll and have won 17 of their last 21 games. One of the concerns is the health of Jamal Murray. Murray had to remain sidelined his last four matches due to a sore knee. Denver, however, wants a healthy Murray on the line. At 34-19, the Nuggets are on the heels of the Clippers in their quest to finish in the top three in the West. -Youngomisuk
This week: @GSW, MIA, @HOU
7. Milwaukee Bucks
2020-21 Record: 33-20
Previous ranking: 5
While Milwaukee has to worry about trailing Philadelphia and Brooklyn by three games – meaning the Bucks will likely have to beat them both to reach the NBA Finals for the first time in nearly 50 years – the biggest concern is the health of Giannis Antetokounmpo, who missed the last few games with knee pain. It’s understandable that the Bucks are cautious about their superstar, but everyone in Milwaukee will probably feel better when he’s back on the field. — Bontemps
This week: @MIN, @ATL, MEM
8. Los Angeles Lakers
2020-21 Record: 33-20
Previous ranking: 8
Easy on defense and confident on offense, Lakers coach Frank Vogel said after Los Angeles’ 25-point win at Brooklyn without LeBron James and Anthony Davis. That was the formula. With the big two Lakers finally on the verge of a comeback, hopefully the Purple and Gold can find a way to stay upright and avoid the dreaded matchup scenario to begin their comeback. — McManaman.
This week: @NYK, @CHA, BOS, UTA
9. Dallas Mavericks
2020-21 Record: 29-23Previous ranking: 10
Yes, we try to play together and help each other, Kristaps Porzingis said when asked about the uncomfortable lack of interaction on the pitch between him and Luka Doncic. We want to win. At the end of the day, we all want to win, that’s all. The question of whether the franchise’s cornerstones are friendly isn’t really an issue for the Mavs, given that Dallas has won 15 of its last 20 games and scored 123.4 points per 100 possessions with a pair on the floor during that span. A more urgent problem: Dallas is dead last in the league in terms of defense (127.2). — McMahon.
This week: FI, @MEM, NYK, BAG
10. Portland Trail Blazers
2020-21 Record: 31-22
Previous ranking: 9
With the team out for two months, Damian Lillard could take over. In six games in April, Lillard averaged just 20.1 points with 38.3 percent shooting – and the Blazers are 2-4 with wins over Detroit and OKC. They’re finally healthy, and newcomer Norman Powell plays well. Everything points to them scoring, but they go like Lillard, and until he finds his second wind, the Blazers won’t either. — Young
This week: FOREST, @SAS, @CHA
11. Miami Heat
2020-21 Record: 28-25Previous ranking: 11
Miami is back on track with six wins in seven games. As always, Jimmy Butler and Bam Adebayo set the tone for a Heat team looking to move up in the Eastern standings. They won by 41 points and 14 rebounds on Thursday and 42 points and seven rebounds on Sunday. The bad news for the Heat is that rookie defenseman Victor Oladipo injured his right knee in Thursday’s win over the Lakers, and his status remains uncertain going forward. — Friedell.
This week: @PHO, @DEN, @MIN, BRK
12. Atlanta Hawks
2020-21 Record: 29-25Previous ranking: 13
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Will Nate McMillan be loved in the NBA Coach of the Year voting? Since McMillan’s death on the 2nd. March took over, the Hawks have a 15-5 record, fourth best in the league. Only the Nuggets, Suns and Nets had better stats in that time frame. Atlanta has been struggling with injuries all season, but without Trey Young, Danilo Gallinari, Tony Snell and John Collins, the Hawks managed to get a big win against Charlotte on Sunday. Bogdan Bogdanovic scored a record 32 points and made the eighth three-pointers of his career. — Lopez.
This week: @TOR, MIL, IND
13. Boston Celtics
2020-21 Record: 28-26
Previous assessment : 15
It remains a strange and excruciating season for the Celtics, who remain stuck at the bottom of the Eastern Conference playoffs. But after Sunday’s big win in Denver over the Nuggets, Boston has won five of its last six games and has a chance to turn its season around with games in Portland on Tuesday and in Los Angeles against the Lakers on Thursday. — Bontemps
This week: @POR, @LAL, GSW
14. Charlotte Hornets
2020-21 Record: 27-25Previous ranking: 16
Charlotte hasn’t been idle even without LaMelo Ball and Gordon Hayward, thanks in part to the recent play of Miles Bridges. The Michigan State graduate averaged 17 points and 6.2 rebounds in 33.2 minutes per game in April. The Hornets’ resilience will be put to the test Friday against the Nets. — Friedell.
This week: LAL, CLE, @BRK, POR
15. Memphis Grizzlies
2020-21 Record: 26-25Previous ranking: 17
Center Jonas Valanciunas has been the Grizzlies’ best player since the All-Star break, leading the team in scoring (18.5 points per game), rebounding (14.6 per game), field goal percentage (60.9%) and plus-minus (plus-78 overall) during that span. His performance of 34 points and 22 rebound in Sunday’s loss against the Pacers was only his second performance of 30 points and 20 rebound in the NBA this season. According to ESPN Stats & Information, Valanciunas is, along with Zach Randolph, the only player in franchise history to stand 30-20 multiple times in his career. — McMahon.
This week: CHI, DAL, @CHI, @MIL
16. New York Knicks
2020-21 Record: 27-27Previous ranking: 14
The Knicks continue to struggle. Despite a tough schedule, they continue to fight for a playoff spot and picked up two more wins this weekend thanks to the heroics of RJ Barrett. At .500, it would take a long time for the Knicks to lose their position, at least for the tournament. That in itself would be a sign of great progress in coach Tom Thibodeau’s first season at the helm. — Bontemps
This week: LAL, @NOP, @DAL, NOP
17. San Antonio Spurs
2020-21 Record: 25-26
Previous Rating: 12
Despite a five-game losing streak Sunday in Dallas, the Spurs fell for the first time since going 3-4 last week. January below 0.500 points. San Antonio was amazingly consistent from 1997-98 to 2018-19, when they made the playoffs 22 times in a row. According to ESPN’s examination of statistics and data, San Antonio has spent a total of 65 days under .500 in those 22 seasons. Over the last two seasons combined, San Antonio has been under .500 for 147 days. — Lopez.
This week: @ORL, @TOR, POR, @PHO
18. Indiana Pacers
2020-21 Record: 25-27Prior ranking: 18
T.J. McConnell had 19 points and 15 assists in Wednesday’s win over the Timberwolves. According to the Elias Sports Bureau, McConnell is the first player since he started in the 1970-71 season to have multiple games with 15 points and 15 assists off the bench in a season. (He did the same on March 19.) McConnell also leads the NBA with 83 steals; if he leads the league this season, he’ll be the first player since Nate McMillan in 1993-94 to do so as a player coming primarily off the bench. — Lopez.
This week: MORE, @HOU, @UTA, @ATL
19. New Orleans Pelicans
2020-21 Record: 24-29
Previous Classification : 20
Zion Williamson is becoming even more of an offensive force. Williamson is averaging 32.9 points in his last seven games, the best average of his career. He scored at least 37 points in four of those games, and 16 points in the game against the Nets. According to ESPN Stats & Information, Williamson made his eighth 30-point game of the season on Sunday without scoring a single shot from beyond the arc. That’s more than the rest of the league (7) combined this season. — Lopez.
This week: BAG, NYK, @WAS, @NYK
20. Golden State Warriors
2020-21 Record: 25-28
Previous classification : 19
With James Wiseman likely out for the season with a torn meniscus in his right knee, as reported by ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski on Sunday, the Warriors are left to change after another injury ends the season. The up-and-down play that has defined their season continues, as evidenced by a nice win against the Bucks on Tuesday and a late setback against the Wizards on Friday. Stephen Curry is just 18 points away from Wilt Chamberlain becoming the top scorer of all time in club history. Curry averaged 36.8 points and 7.2 rebounds per game during his first five games in April. — Friedell.
This week: DEN, @OKC, @CLE, @BOS
21. Chicago Bulls
2020-21 Record: 22-30Previous ranking : 21
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Since acquiring Nikola Vucevic, the Bulls still don’t look good, just 3-6 since the All-Star center arrived in Chicago just before the trade deadline. The bright spot for the Bulls continues to be the offense of Zach LaVine: In Friday’s loss against the Hawks, he was averaging 27.8 points, 6.4 assists and 6.0 rebounds per game in six games in April. — Friedell.
This week: @MEM, ORL, MEM, CLE
22. Sacramento Kings
2020-21 Record: 22-31
Previous Classification : 22
The Kings’ losing streak was extended to six games Saturday in Utah. And it’s not just a loss, it’s a loss. Five of the six defeats were by more than 10 points and the average margin of defeat was 12.3 points, even with the one point loss against Milwaukee. That slump led to Sacramento being eliminated three times in the finals and quickly falling apart. — McManaman.
This week: @NOP, WHAT, @PHO, @DAL
23. Toronto Raptors
2020-21 Record: 21-33
Previous ranking: 23
The Raptors were 17-17 at the end of February and seemed to be improving after a rough start. Since then, the Raptors have lost 16 of their last 20 games – including another disappointing loss against the Knicks on Sunday night – and are behind the Bulls in the East heading into Game 10. It’s a season the Raptors would like to forget when it’s over. — Bontemps
This week: ATL, SAS, EAGLE, OKK
24. Washington Wizards
2020-21 Record: 19-33
Previous ranking: 25
The Wizards are finally back in action with back-to-back wins over Orlando and Golden State. But then they lost to the Suns by 28 points. Bradley Beal (back) is listed as a likely starter for the next game after missing the Suns and the team just recalled Daniel Gafford. The Wizards have had six tough games against Utah and Sacramento this week. -Youngomisuk
This week: @UTA, @SAC, NOP, DET
25. Cleveland Cavaliers
2020-21 Record: 19-34
Previous ranking: 26
It was an eventful week for the Cavs. That’s it: Darius Garland scored 37 points (14-of-22), seven assists and two steals in the win over San Antonio. The bad: Garland and Collin Sexton both missed playing time due to injuries to the Pelicans, while New Orleans’ Zion Williamson and Brandon Ingram combined for 65 points. It’s a look back at how far former Cleveland general manager David Griffin has come in rebuilding the Pelicans from where they are today. Ugly: Cleveland allowed Toronto – playing without Pascal Siakam, Kyle Lowry and Fred VanVleet – to score 87 points in the first half and lose by 20. — McManaman.
This week: @CHA, GSW, @CHI
26. Oklahoma City Thunder
2020-21 Record: 20-33
Previous ranking: 24
While the Thunder finally have their development strategy in order (i.e. lose games), they have had to deal with a series of injuries that have reduced their roster. But it also gave their young players a chance to learn and grow, especially newcomers Theo Maledon and Alex Pokusevski. According to ESPN Stats & Information, against the Hornets they became the first pair of teammates, both teenagers, to score at least 25 points per game in NBA history. — Young
This week: @UTA, GSW, @DET, @TOR
27. Detroit Pistons
2020-21 Record: 16-38
Previous ranking: 28
You may have seen this week that Maurice Harkless of Sacramento cried for Vince Carter against Isaiah Stewart. What you may not have noticed is Stewart’s record in this game: 16 points with 8-for-10 shooting, 13 rebounds and four assists in the win, which turned out to be one of the young rookie’s best performances of his career, despite the poster. — McManaman.
This week: LAC, OKC, @WAS
28. Orlando Magic
2020-21 Record: 17-36
Previous ranking: 27
Orlando is in the midst of a five-game losing streak, culminating in a 37-point victory over the Bucks on Sunday. The only good news for the Magic is that rookie Cole Anthony is finally back after a two-month absence with a rib injury. The bad news is that the rust is obvious: He has struck out 13 times in 42 at-bats in three games since returning. — Friedell.
This week: SAS, @CHI, @TOR, HOU
29. Minnesota Timber Wolves
2020-21 Record: 14-40Previous ranking: 30
It was an important week for the Wolves. Glen Taylor finally agreed to sell the team, new owners Mark Lohr and Alex Rodriguez struck a deal to buy the team, and D’Angelo Russell returned after disappearing for over a month. Russell played in four games this week, and he played well in all four, and the Wolves looked like a much more competent team. They beat the Kings, played very tight against the Pacers and Celtics, and beat the Bulls on Sunday with 27 points from Russell in the 26th minute. Just a minute. Russell and Karl-Anthony Towns played just eight games together before being ruled out in late February with a sprained knee. All explanations for the Wolves’ disappointing season started with that number, and with Russell’s return they showed the promise the front office had hoped for when they acquired him last year. — Young
This week: BRK, MIL, MIA, @LAC
30. Houston Rockets
2020-21 Record: 14-39
Previous ranking: 29
The Rockets have scored at least 118 points in seven of their last eight games. The exception was Houston’s only win of the period, when the Rockets held the Mavericks to 93 points. In particular, the linemen of the Christian Wood-Kelly Olynyk combination have struggled to get stops, allowing 121.9 points per 100 possessions. — McMahon.
This week: @PHO, IND, DEN, @ORL