NBA Power Rankings: Bucks stay on top, 76ers rise and every team has a big question

Four weeks from now we’ll have just finished the first weekend of the NBA playoffs. What’s the one big question that can be answered about each team between now and then?

For Donovan Mitchell and the Utah Jazz, the question is whether, with one of the easiest remaining schedules in the NBA, they can finagle their way into perfect playoff seeding – i.e., avoid the Golden State Warriors as long as possible.

For DeMar DeRozan and the San Antonio Spurs, the question is almost existential: Who is this team, anyway? They’re total opposites whether at home or on the road. They’re an awful defensive team headed by one of the greatest defensive coaches of all time.

For the Indiana Pacers, the question is whether they can keep bucking the odds as they have all season, riding the hot hand of Bojan Bogdonovic all the way to the three-seed — which would really mess up the playoff plans of the Philadelphia 76ers and the Boston Celtics.

It’s the dog days of the season right now. Plenty of teams are checked out and tanking. Plenty more are jockeying for playoff seeding. Those teams are all looking ahead to April. But we can still learn a lot from this final month.

Biggest Movers


The Big Question: How much of the Bucks’ success this season has been because of Malcolm Brogdon? Brogdon has a minor plantar fascia tear in his foot and will miss the next six to eight weeks — meaning he’s unlikely to return until after the first round of the playoffs. Brogdon has made himself some money this season, averaging 15.6 points per game with remarkable shooting numbers. (He’s likely to become the eighth player in NBA history to shoot better than 40 percent from 3, 50 percent from the field and 90 percent from the free throw line.) The Bucks are one of the deepest teams in the NBA; how much will Brogdon’s absence affect them, and can he be 100 percent for when the games really matter? 52-18


The Big Question: Can this team fully morph into the elite defensive unit that you’d expect from this personnel? Well guess what: The transformation has already begun. Over the past 15 games — right around the time they acquired Marc Gasol — the Raptors have ranked fourth in the NBA in defensive efficiency. 49-21


The Big Question: Will the Boogie Cousins experiment start working and be viable come the playoffs? The Warriors are nearly five points per 100 possessions better when Boogie is on the bench compared to when he’s on the floor. That’s not good. 47-21


The Big Question: Can their big three stay healthy? It is no coincidence that the Rockets have gone 11-2 since Clint Capela returned from injury after the All-Star Break. If the Rockets are healthy, they are the top — and perhaps the only — team that can contend with the Warriors in the West. 44-26


The Big Question: Will the lack of depth hurt? Since the Tobias Harris trade in February, the 76ers’ defense has been much improved (fifth in defensive efficiency since the trade while the team ranked 12th before the trade). But they simply have zero depth. Only two teams since the trade deadline have had less bench scoring than the 76ers. That may sound bad — but the teams with less bench scoring are the Warriors and the Rockets. 2 45-25


The Big Question: How will one of the youngest rosters in the NBA cope with the pressure of being a team with expectations on their shoulders? It’s entirely possible that the Nuggets get the No. 1 seed out West. The only players in their rotation who’ve seen significant playoff time are Paul Millsap and Mason Plumlee. How much will that hurt? 1 46-22

Trail Blazers

The Big Question: Will the Enes Kanter trade come back to bite the Blazers? Because of his poor defense, Kanter has the worst on-off differential on the team. In Kanter’s 11 games with the Blazers, they have been outscored by 11.3 points per 100 possessions when he’s on the floor, and when he’s off the floor, they outscore opponents by 14.6 points per 100 possessions. Since the trade, this team is nearly 25 points per 100 possessions better with Kanter on the bench. Why not less Kanter and more Zach Collins? 1 42-27


The Big Question: Will this team morph into the dominating group we expected coming into the year, or does this group simply not fit together as a unit? With all of the hand-wringing about the Celtics’ as such a huge disappointment, we tend to forget that the Celtics still have the third-best net rating in the NBA, behind only the Bucks and the Warriors. 43-27


The Big Question: Can Paul George get his MVP swagger back? In seven games since returning from injury, George hasn’t been at that level: 25.1 points per game and shooting 32.8 percent from 3. With PG13 playing at MVP levels, the Thunder could be a real problem in the West. At the All-Star break, OKC seemed like it was starting to separate itself from the pack in the middle of the West, but since then they have only gone 5-8. 42-28


The Spurs are one of the hottest teams in the NBA — eight wins in a row after going 1-7 on the Rodeo Road Trip. The Big Question: Who are these Spurs, anyway? And can they show any competence on the road? Only the Dallas Mavericks have a larger difference in home-road winning percentage than the Spurs. They have won 80 percent of their home games, and only 37 percent of their road games. 2 41-29


The Big Question: Can the Jazz get the perfect playoff seeding? You don’t want to be the No. 8 seed in the West because that means you likely have to face the Warriors in the first round. But you also don’t want to be the No. 5 seed in the West, because that means you likely have to face the Warriors in the second round. The sweet spot for the Jazz is the 6-7 range; this team can make the Western Conference Finals with a couple of breaks. 1 40-29


The Clippers have gone 11-5 since trading away Tobias Harris. That’s absolutely incredible. But they’re probably not going to pull off an upset in the first round of the playoffs. The Big Question: Who on this team establishes itself as valuable pieces that the Clippers will toss money toward in the future? Only three Clippers on their current roster are signed beyond next season. Montrezl Harrell is on one of the best value contracts in the NBA, with one more year remaining on a two-year, $12 million deal; the Clippers should try to extend him. Who else? Ivica Zubac feels like a candidate. 1 41-30


The Big Question: Can the Pacers beat the odds and get the three-seed in the East — and really throw off what we expect to be a clear East playoff picture? Their remaining schedule is among the NBA’s toughest, and the Sixers’ remaining schedule is among the NBA’s easiest, so it’s not likely. But a Celtics-Sixers first-round matchup would leave one of those teams with a long and depressing offseason. 2 44-26


The Pistons are one of the hottest teams in the NBA, having won 14 of their last 18 games after beating the Raptors on Sunday. The Big Question: Can Reggie Jackson keep up his elevated level of play from the past month? In that 18-game stretch, Jackson has averaged 17.2 points, 4.1 assists and is shooting 43.9 percent from 3. A Pistons team with this version of Jackson — he’s always been streaky — is an intriguing No. 6 seed in the East. 36-33


The Big Question: Is D’Angelo Russell worth a massive contract extension this offseason? He’ll be a restricted free agent this offseason, and Russell is killing it, averaging 20.2 points and 6.7 assists. But is he worth investing that much money into for a team that has lofty free-agent aspirations — and already a couple of modestly priced backcourt players in Caris LeVert and Spencer Dinwiddie? 36-36


The Big Question: Does the duo of Marvin Bagley and Harry Giles make Willie Cauley-Stein expendable? Or can their development at least give the Kings pause at matching an offer for Cauley-Stein in restricted free agency? During the second half of the season, Bagley and to a lesser extent Giles have shown why they were once the most highly regarded recruits in the country. Does it really make sense for the Kings to spend significantly to keep Cauley-Stein if a big offer sheet comes in? 34-35


Want to hear something surprising? Over the past 15 games, the Magic have the second-best net rating in the NBA, at 7.4. The Big Question: Which Jonathan Isaac is the real Jonathan Isaac — the one that averaged 8.4 points per game and shot 26.3 percent from 3 in the first four months of the season, or the one that since Feb. 7 has keyed the Magic’s turnaround, averaging 13.1 points and shooting 44.4 percent from 3? If it’s the latter version, then the Magic are a team on the rise. 33-38


The Big Question: Can Dwyane Wade go out on top? The Heat currently have the eight-seed in the East, one game up on the Magic. Wade’s career simply must end with him having a heroic game or two in the playoffs. It must. If you’re a Bucks or a Raptors fan, you don’t want a first-round date with a tough, physical Heat team that’ll have the added emotions of Wade walking off into the sunset. 3 33-36


The Big Question: Can Andrew Wiggins become a positive player? Forget the contract; it’s already signed, and it’s going to be one of the worst contracts in the NBA for years to come. What the Timberwolves need is for Wiggins to become a guy they can rely on to make 3s, to get to the basket, to avoid so many long 2s, and to play aggressively on both ends. It’s worrisome that Wiggins has regressed since having a breakout 2016-17 season (23.6 points per game on 35.6 3-point shooting). An Andrew Wiggins who adds strength and becomes better shooting 3s is a valuable player. But you hear it around the NBA all the time: Does he want it, or is he already satisfied? 1 32-38


The Big Question: Can the Hornets make the playoffs and use that as evidence that Kemba Walker should stay, or will they miss the playoffs for the third year in a row and provoke him to leave? It’s a damn shame that a player as accomplished as Walker has played a total of two playoff series in his eight-year career. Perhaps the best thing that could happen — for him and for the Hornets — is for Walker to walk, and for the Hornets to be forced to rebuild. 1 31-38


The Big Question: Is Bradley Beal a superstar that a winning team can be built on? Since John Wall’s season-ending injury, Beal has been electric, averaging 28.9 points and 6.6 assists. The Wizards have gone 17-18 in that stretching — better than when Wall was in the lineup. 3 30-40


I’m not sure there could be a better metaphor for a team’s season than the way the Pelicans lost to the Suns on Saturday night: Josh Jackson hit a 3 and tied the game up with 2 seconds left in overtime, then the Pelicans called a timeout they didn’t have, which gave Devin Booker two free throws to win it. This team can’t get out of their own way. All their drama this season was self-inflicted — mainly from failing to get a competent core around their superstar, Anthony Davis. The Big Question: Will the Pelicans come to regret not taking the Lakers’ offer? My guess is no — because they’ll get a better offer in the offseason, and because the injuries to Lonzo Ball and Brandon Ingram have decreased their value. 2 30-42


The disaster continues with Sunday’s loss to the Knicks, the worst team in the NBA. The Big Question: Can this team just get along? The Lakers are certain to be massively retooled this offseason around LeBron. Whether that’s trading part (or all) of the talented young pieces to get Anthony Davis, or jettisoning the odd bunch of one-year contracts in favor of more LeBron-friendly pieces, or firing the head coach, things will look different in Los Angeles next season. You just want the pieces who will be here — presumably LeBron and the youngsters — to find some chemistry on court and off. 1 31-39


The Big Question: Will the Grizzlies learn how to properly tank? The Grizzlies have lost five of their past nine games. Guys, what are you doing? This draft is incredibly shallow. You get outside the top five and the likelihood of getting a future star dips dramatically. Right now, the Grizzlies have the sixth-worst record in the league. 1 28-42


The Big Question: Will Kristaps Porzingis make progress behind the scenes and work toward becoming the player he was pre-injury? Some of the best news of the Mavericks’ season came this week, when it was reported that Porzingis participated in his first full 5-on-5 practice 13 months after tearing his ACL. If Porzingis is the player he was pre-injury, then the Mavericks might have the best young duo in the NBA in Porzingis and Luka Doncic. 2 28-41


The Big Question: Will Trae Young really make a run at Luka Doncic for the rookie of the year award? Here are Young’s numbers over the past 23 games: 23.6 points, 8.7 assists, 42.4 percent 3-point shooting. 24-47


The Suns have gone 6-4 since ending their 17-game losing streak on Feb. 25. They’ve done it with a defense that suddenly looks competent, ranking 16th in the NBA during that stretch. The Big Question: Has this young team really turned a corner on defense, or is this a blip on the radar? 1 17-54


The Big Question: Can they get Zion? They won the lottery the year after LeBron left for the first time, and selected Kyrie Irving. Maybe it’s the way of the universe that they end up with Zion Williamson this time. 1 17-53


The Big Question: Will Otto Porter Jr. continue the best run of his career? That’s what the past month has been for Porter since he was traded from Washington. He’s averaged 18.1 points per game as a Bull (compared to 12.6 this season for the Wizards), and he’s shooting 50 percent from three as a Bull (compared to 36.9 percent this season for the Wizards). The Bulls have some really nice young pieces going forward. 2 19-52


The Big Question: Who is a bigger part of the Knicks’ future: Emmanuel Mudiay or Dennis Smith Jr.? Scott Perry took a flier on Mudiay, and it’s worked out great. He took a much bigger risk on Smith, shipping off franchise cornerstone Kristaps Porzingis. 14-56
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