Posted: Tuesday March 15, 2011 1:52PM ; Updated: Tuesday March 15, 2011 6:39PM
Britt Robson
Britt Robson>NBA POWER RANKINGS

Bulls threaten Lakers' top spot

Story Highlights

Center Andrew Bynum is nearing his peak condition for the No. 1-ranked Lakers

Derrick Rose's Bulls, now ranked No. 2, share the top spot in the East with Boston

The Heat, especially Chris Bosh, have bounced back to drop the Lakers and Spurs

The Heat rebounded from a wretched five-game slump. Dallas, Boston and Orlando lost at least two games apiece. The surging Thunder activated center Kendrick Perkins. And the Nuggets continued to win without Carmelo Anthony.

Those are just some of the highlights from an eventful week as we move into the final month of the regular season. As the players who switched teams during the trading deadline begin to settle in, and coaches start regarding injuries in the context of playoff readiness, the "pre-postseason" is upon us in earnest.

Here is how the teams shake out in this week's Power Rankings.

(All stats and records are through March 14.)

NBA Power Rankings
1Los Angeles Lakers
Last Week: 1
Who knows if this is all part of coach Phil Jackson's master plan for his fourth three-peat. But center Andrew Bynum -- whose time in the playoffs comprises about one-eighth of his total career minutes, an unusually high ratio for a five-year veteran -- is approaching peak conditioning and is fully comfortable again facing NBA-level competition while logging just 1,157 minutes this season. He's prepped and yet fresh for the postseason. The Lakers have a league-low four road games remaining as they battle Dallas for the second seed in the West and home-court advantage in the conference semifinals. Losing the season series to Miami was last week's only blemish -- and if the two teams happen to meet in the playoffs, it will mean the Lakers have made their fourth straight Finals.
 
2Chicago Bulls
Last Week: 4
If there were such a thing as "10th man of the year," Kurt Thomas would be the unanimous winner. Undersized at 6-9 and the second-oldest NBA player at 38 (Shaquille O'Neal turned 39 last week), Thomas doesn't play unless a frontcourt starter is hurt. He hadn't logged a minute since Feb. 23 before he was called on to start against Atlanta on Friday after Carlos Boozer sprained his ankle. After 16 days off, he merely pulled down 13 rebounds and blocked two shots in 35 minutes while teaming with Joakim Noah to hold Al Horford and Josh Smith to a combined 7-of-21 shooting in Chicago's 94-76 victory. And the next night, with Boozer out against Utah, Thomas was a game-best plus-12 while grabbing nine rebounds, blocking two shots and registering three steals in another 18-point win, 118-100. The Bulls improved to 24-7 in Thomas' starts, with either Noah or Boozer missing in each of those games. Not a bad return on Chicago's one-year, $1.8 million investment.
 
3San Antonio Spurs
Last Week: 2
After a loss to the Lakers on March 6, coach Gregg Popovich strategically altered his starting lineup for the first time this season, pulling second-year pro DeJuan Blair in favor of 36-year-old Antonio McDyess at center. McDyess has been the slightly better defender this season and the Spurs have been yielding more than five additional points per game since the All-Star break. But as with every contender, the more salient question is how San Antonio can reckon with the Lakers' length. And now that the Heat have demonstrated they can utilize superior athleticism to collapse the vaunted spacing that keys San Antonio's three-point offense, there are more chinks in the armor of what has become perhaps the least-respected 54-13 team in NBA history.
 
4Dallas Mavericks
Last Week: 3
The specter of playoff failure that shrouds the Mavs regardless of their regular-season excellence came into sharper relief after the Lakers' Bynum and Pau Gasol outmuscled Tyson Chandler and Dirk Nowitzki in Dallas' 96-91 home loss Saturday. Though Nowitzki finished with a very respectable 25 points, 10 rebounds and six assists, only one of his 19 shot attempts was within 10 feet. Chandler was 1-of-3 from that distance. Meanwhile, the Lakers shot 18-for-23 at the rim, including 9-of-10 by Bynum and Gasol. The Lakers' superior physicality was enough to overcome a superb game from Dallas' Shawn Marion (knifing in for seven offensive rebounds) and a poor one from Kobe Bryant (6-of-20 shooting and a twisted ankle late in the third quarter). That's a sobering thought for a team whose offensive and defensive leaders are both 7-footers.
 
5Boston Celtics
Last Week: 5
All the trades, injuries and free-agent signings have disrupted the Celtics' machine-like efficiency at both ends of the court. Their catalyst, Rajon Rondo, isn't playing with his usual swagger, with fewer sleight-of-hand ball fakes and sneak-in steals after opponents have grabbed the rebound, and more indecision on his shot selection. New center Nenad Krstic, working to prove he's not subpar on defense and just a mid-range shooter on offense, is showing hard out to the perimeter on pick-and-rolls and successfully going up in traffic to score in the paint. Coach Doc Rivers might want to play him in crunch time over Glen Davis, who simply lacked the size to defend center Brook Lopez in Monday's loss to New Jersey. It was the Celtics' third defeat in four games, dropping them into a tie with Chicago for the top seed in the East. The stakes are high: The No. 1 position is important not only for home-court advantage -- the Bulls have lost only four games at home and the Celtics six -- but also because losing it would set up a tougher first-round matchup.
 
6Oklahoma City Thunder
Last Week: 8
Perkins seemed to fit right in Monday during his Oklahoma City debut and first game action in three weeks, though the hapless Wizards offered so little resistance that it was difficult to judge. In any case, the Thunder have been peaking without him. After languishing near the bottom of the league in three-point accuracy for much of the season, they've shot 38.8 percent from distance while going 6-1 over the last seven games. Led by Daequan Cook and Kevin Durant, the Thunder have nailed at least a half-dozen treys in 13 straight games. As expected, James Harden has provided more lineup flexibility and scoring punch than the departed Jeff Green, and Serge Ibaka is flourishing as the new starting power forward. Being able to bring in Nazr Mohammed and Nick Collison to spell Perkins and Ibaka gives OKC quality defensive depth in the frontcourt for the first time since the franchise relocated from Seattle in 2008.
 
7Miami Heat
Last Week: 9
Miami Heat (46-21)
All season, Chris Bosh has been denigrated as the Zeppo Marx of Miami's Big Three, unequal to the company he kept. He's also been belittled as a player with more mouth than muscle, whose skill set was a poor match for the role the team needed him to fill. So when Bosh complained about the way he was being used at the nadir of Miami's five-game losing streak, it looked like another footnote to the Heat's litany of dysfunction, to be tucked somewhere between "crying in the locker room" and "the world is getting what it wanted." But then Bosh got what he wanted -- more opportunities closer to the basket -- and delivered the goods, providing a much-needed dimension to Miami's offense. Maybe it catalyzed the Heat's resurgence -- with Monday's 30-point pasting of San Antonio the latest example -- or maybe it was more coincidental. Either way, Miami's No. 3 option reminded his teammates and the public that he is a multiple-year All-Star whose needs and talents shouldn't be ignored or discounted. And that is a very good turn of events for the Heat with the playoffs a month away.
 
8Orlando Magic
Last Week: 7
The Magic have become a wild-card team: It wouldn't be a tremendous shock to see them make it to the Finals or get eliminated in the first round. That's because their margin of error is so thin. Dwight Howard is the NBA's most reliable defensive presence -- but the drop-off is steep if he gets in foul trouble. Jameer Nelson and Hedo Turkoglu are both cool, experienced floor generals familiar with the offense -- but can they maximize those talents without impinging on each other? Jason Richardson and Ryan Anderson can be lights-out three-point shooters -- but they also can have difficulty establishing a rhythm or getting enough touches on the perimeter. Then there are coach Stan Van Gundy's emotional reactions, Howard's foul shooting, Gilbert Arenas ...
 
9Denver Nuggets
Last Week: 12
The 'Melo-free Nuggets may as well be called the Denver Globetrotters the way they are moving the ball with purpose, pizazz and trust. They toyed with the defensive-minded Hornets in Monday's 114-103 victory in New Orleans. Thirty-three of the Nuggets' 40 field goals were the most desirable types of shot -- 17 three-pointers, eight dunks and eight layups -- as they converted 53.3 percent from the field and 58.6 percent from deep. Both members of their dual-point backcourt, Ty Lawson and Raymond Felton, had double-digit assist totals. Up front, Kenyon Martin and Chris Andersen are healthy and playing their best collective ball since helping Denver reach the conference finals in 2009. The Nuggets, 8-2 since the Anthony trade, are deep enough not to notice that two key rotation players, Arron Afflalo and Danilo Gallinari, are out with injuries.
 
10Memphis Grizzlies
Last Week: 6
Zach Randolph continues to strengthen his credentials as the most valuable pending free agent. The burly power forward has improved on his All-Star season of a year ago, averaging 20.3 points and 12.7 rebounds. Rudy Gay's shoulder injury has put a greater burden on Randolph to deliver on offense, and his shooting percentage, scoring and assist rates are all up since Gay was sidelined a month ago (though his rebounding rate has dropped). But regardless of Gay's availability, Randolph compels an automatic double team when he's in the low post, and the Grizzlies wouldn't be hanging on to the final playoff spot in the West without him. But with substantial financial commitments already made to Gay and point guard Mike Conley, and a contract extension due for center Marc Gasol after this or next season, the Grizzlies might not have the will or the resources to sign a 10-year veteran who will turn 30 in July.
 
11Portland Trail Blazers
Last Week: 10
Back in October, third-year small forward Nicolas Batum seemed like an ideal candidate to have a breakout season. Batum had shown the potential to be a defensive stopper in his first two seasons, and last year he had improved his shooting to 51.9 percent from the field and 40.9 percent from three-point range during an injury-shortened season. But for most of this season, when another depleted Portland team could have really benefited from his continued development, Batum regressed to his rookie shooting percentages. (His per-minute rebounding and assist numbers are also down from last season.) Now, however, there are signs he may be rediscovering his shooting stroke, which would be a huge plus for a deliberate half-court team that occasionally struggles to score. After making just 41.6 percent while averaging 38.6 minutes in February, Batum is shooting 51.7 percent in seven games in March, his playing time cut to 26.9 minutes because of Gerald Wallace's arrival.
 
12Philadelphia 76ers
Last Week: 11
The Sixers continue to lose heartbreakers, the latest being Monday's defeat at Utah in which they rallied from a 21-point deficit before falling in overtime. They are most effective when they go small, with a front line of 6-9 Elton Brand, 6-8 Thaddeus Young and 6-6 Andre Iguodala, but that invites opposing big men like Utah's Al Jefferson to bring the beef in the form of 30 points, 17 rebounds and a career-high six assists. But 7-footer Spencer Hawes hasn't demonstrated he can defend low-post scorers, and coach Doug Collins lacks the confidence to go with 6-11 Marreese Speights. Bottom line: Philly would have been much better off hanging on to veteran shot-blocker Samuel Dalembert rather than dealing him to Sacramento last summer for Hawes and fading veteran Andres Nocioni.
 
13New Orleans Hornets
Last Week: 16
Loyal readers know that I'm a pretty reliable scold on the need for Chris Paul to shoot more frequently. Returning from a two-game absence caused by a concussion, he totaled 37 shots against Sacramento and Denver, his highest two-game total of the season. The result was merely a 1-1 split, but given that Paul made more than half of those shots while also recording 25 assists against only four turnovers, he's proved that he can both enable his teammates and go for his own on offense. He's already third behind Steve Nash and Rondo in assist percentage for his team; now he needs to take more than 11.5 shots per game for a club that ranks 22nd in offensive efficiency and is in a tight race for a playoff spot with just 13 games to play.
 
14Atlanta Hawks
Last Week: 17
Coach Larry Drew's decision to start Jeff Teague at the point and bump Kirk Hinrich and Joe Johnson to shooting guard and small forward, respectively, against Portland on Saturday finally stirred the Hawks from their three-game funk on offense and broke a four-game losing streak. Teague was too fast for Andre Miller, but he transformed the game with three steals and eight points in the final 30 seconds of the first period when Miller and the other Portland starters were on the bench. The backup guard, a major disappointment this season, finished with 24 points, five steals and three blocks in the 91-82 victory. It was sweet elixir for a team that hadn't scored more than 87 in the previous three games, due in part to injuries that limited and then sidelined center Al Horford, and in part to an ongoing shooting slump from Johnson, who has his lowest scoring average and true shooting percentage since arriving in Atlanta six years ago.
 
15New York Knicks
Last Week: 13
The Knicks continue to underwhelm, following up an impressive win at Memphis with a blowout loss at Dallas and an inexplicably listless home defeat to a Pacers team that had lost six in a row. All three teams shot better than 51 percent, furthering a season-long pattern of slow or incomplete defensive rotations that allow opponents to get open looks as long as they emphasize ball movement. The Knicks have been outscored in the paint by an average of 15.6 points over the last five games. During that same span, New York is allowing opponents to shoot 39 percent from three-point range, slightly above its season mark of 37.4 percent, fifth worst in the NBA. In other words, if the truism that playoff success depends on staunch defense and the ability to pound the ball inside in the half-court offense, the Knicks have a long way to go before the postseason.
 
16Houston Rockets
Last Week: 14
One of the Rockets' unsung virtues is their NBA-best assist-to-turnover ratio. Of the 14 players who have logged at least 100 minutes for Houston this season, only one, power forward Jordan Hill, has committed more turnovers than assists, a claim no other team can make. Part of it is coach Rick Adelman's renowned ability to structure offenses that foster the passing skills of his big men. Some of it is the penchant of general manager and stat geek Daryl Morey to stockpile offensively efficient players. And some of it comes from the absence of a dominant floor general such as Rondo or Jason Kidd, making assists more of a collective enterprise. As the Rockets have gone 7-3 over their last 10 games, seven players have averaged better than two assists.
 
17Phoenix Suns
Last Week: 15
Phoenix Suns (33-32)
Watching the upgrade at both ends of the court when Marcin Gortat subbed in for Robin Lopez against Dwight Howard and the Magic on Sunday reinforced how important the acquisition of Gortat has been to Phoenix's playoff hopes. In the last 10 games, the "Polish Hammer" has led the Suns in rebounding, blocks and field-goal percentage and ranks second in scoring. He's also provided much stiffer resistance in the paint against physical centers like Howard. But it will all be for naught unless Nash can recover from what's being described as "pelvic instability." Nash finally sat out the last two games, both Phoenix losses, after shooting just 37 percent (and 19 percent from three-point range) and averaging 9.2 points over the previous nine.
 
18Utah Jazz
Last Week: 18
Utah Jazz (35-33)
New coach Ty Corbin looks overmatched as he struggles to tamp down his exasperation at the lack of execution, especially on defense. New point guard Devin Harris lacks the creative versatility of Deron Williams in half-court sets. Utah's offense is beginning to resemble New Jersey's when Harris was there, with a preponderance of short and mid-range jumpers for the anchor big man (with Al Jefferson in the Brook Lopez role) and Harris otherwise mostly trying to break down opponents off the dribble. It's been a precipitous fall, no doubt -- it would be a huge surprise if Utah rallied to make the playoffs -- but the treasure of Derrick Favors and draft picks is still hopeful consolation.
 
19Golden State Warriors
Last Week: 19
You might think halting Kevin Love's double-double streak and turning in their best defensive performance of the season in a 100-77 rout of Minnesota on Sunday would galvanize the Warriors. Nope, it just gave them permission to yield their most points since their season opener, as they lost 129-119 at Sacramento on Monday in a game that wasn't as close as the score indicates. The Kings' offense, ranked 25th in efficiency, rolled up 66 points in the paint. Center Andris Biedrins' confidence continues to plummet toward crisis level: He had no points or rebounds and four fouls in 15 minutes, while his Kings counterpart, Dalembert, finished with a career-high 27 points and 16 rebounds. But Biedrins obviously isn't the only culprit. When a team gives up back-to-back point totals of 77 and 129, its collective level of dedication and desire is shamefully low.
 
20Los Angeles Clippers
Last Week: 21
The Clippers finished 3-2 on a road trip that clearly exhausted Blake Griffin. The Rookie of the Year lock finished with fewer than 10 rebounds in four straight outings, lost game-long jousting matches in the paint to Kris Humphries of New Jersey and Randolph of Memphis, and, on Monday against the Grizzlies, looked like a shell of the powerhouse who dominated all comers in January. His field-goal percentage, scoring and rebounds are all down significantly in March, but fortunately, reinforcements have arrived. Point guard Mo Williams is shooting too much (14.5 attempts per game as a Clipper) but making 43.2 percent of his three-pointers while taking the onus off Griffin in half-court sets. Chris Kaman's productivity has pushed starting center DeAndre Jordan to become more aggressive on offense. Kaman has also energized backup point guard Eric Bledsoe, who is settling into a good rhythm with the 7-footer off the bench. If and when Eric Gordon returns from his latest wrist injury, the Clippers could spoil the playoff hopes and seedings of a few opponents down the stretch.
 
21Charlotte Bobcats
Last Week: 22
It wasn't a stretch to imagine that, after the Bobcats appeared to wave the white flag on their season by dealing Wallace and Mohammed without getting much proven help in return, Stephen Jackson would start acting up in angry protest. But the 32-year-old swingman has held himself and his team together, saying all the right things about focusing on the job of leading the Bobcats into the playoffs and not worrying about the future. He helped boost Charlotte's postseason hopes Saturday, scoring 18 fourth-quarter points as the Bobcats beat Wallace and the Blazers to snap a six-game losing streak (the last three while Jackson was out with a hamstring injury). Jackson followed it up with a 15-5-5 effort in Sunday's victory against Toronto. Perhaps most significant, after getting his 14th technical foul of the season on Feb. 25, the first game after Wallace was traded, Jackson has avoided moving closer to the 16-technical threshold that would get him suspended for a game.
 
22Milwaukee Bucks
Last Week: 23
Two weeks after I wrote them off, the Bucks are improbably still in the East playoff chase thanks to their recent three-game winning streak and slumps by Charlotte and Indiana. But you didn't have to watch Milwaukee's 56-point output against the Celtics on Sunday to know this team is too deeply flawed to merit a postseason berth. It hurts to watch Andrew Bogut stumble around on offense after his strong play last season at that end (though the lingering effects of last April's injury haven't similarly affected his rebounding and shot-blocking). And it has become increasingly obvious that the Bucks are better when Keyon Dooling is on the court in place of Brandon Jennings, but Dooling is a 30-year-old journeyman and Jennings is the 21-year-old face of the franchise -- albeit one who shoots below 40 percent and has a declining assist rate from last season's mediocre total.
 
23Indiana Pacers
Last Week: 20
The Pacers showed every sign of quitting on the season with lazy, selfish performances on the road in Minnesota and Toronto to run their losing streak to six. Still, interim coach Frank Vogel refused to call out the players, who mysteriously reversed course with a determined effort in a shocking win over the Knicks on Sunday. One factor may have been the insertion of energy guy Dahntay Jones to guard his old Denver teammate Carmelo Anthony. Jones replaced leading scorer Danny Granger, who was out sick but hadn't played well lately anyway, shooting 32 percent and committing more turnovers than assists in his last seven games. Another bright spot is Tyler Hansbrough, who has four straight 20-point games, mostly a result of increased playing time (more than 36 minutes per game during his streak) and the luxury of playing against lousy defenses in New York and Toronto. The Pacers are deeper and more talented than both Milwaukee and Charlotte. But they won't make the playoffs without more energy and better leadership from Granger and inconsistent center Roy Hibbert.
 
24New Jersey Nets
Last Week: 25
Humphries' emergence is a key factor in the Nets' first five-game winning streak in more than four years. His' signature game so far came when he pulled down 20 rebounds and hit all eight of his shots against Griffin and the Clippers on Friday, and his 16-and-15 line in Monday's win against Kevin Garnett and the Celtics wasn't too shabby, either. Humphries' shooting percentage (53.4) is significantly better and his usage rate (17.1 percent) is lower than at any point in his career -- he's learned the value of limiting his role. Though he's not a quality defender, his active body down low frees up the short and mid-range jumpers for Brook Lopez while compensating for Lopez's lack of production on the boards. Only Lopez and new point guard Deron Williams are more valuable to the team.
 
25Detroit Pistons
Last Week: 24
Hoops nonsense continues to reign for the Pistons, as coach John Kuester trotted out a starting lineup in Denver on Saturday that included Rip Hamilton, Tracy McGrady and Tayshaun Prince. Never mind that the trio reportedly tried to undermine Kuester at various times during the season, or that the coach managed to play 10 guys more than 20 minutes apiece in a 131-101 loss. Heading into the game, Detroit had won just 23 games and had but 16 left. The more Hamilton, McGrady and Prince are on the court, the slower the Pistons will recover and rebuild from their current sorry state of affairs.
 
26Minnesota Timberwolves
Last Week: 29
For many fans and members of the team's marketing department, Love's double-double streak had become a greater priority than whether Minnesota won or lost. That helps explain Love's expressions of ambivalence and relief when the streak ended at 53 on Sunday. Then again, it is easy to understand why those charged with cheerleading for the Wolves want to focus on the nearest shiny object. The team's latest reclamation project, Anthony Randolph, like Darko Milicic and Michael Beasley before him, is exhibiting the art of teasing with talent while displaying the warts -- in Randolph's case, a total lack of court sense -- that made him available in the first place. And in the last two Wolves-Warriors matchups, Jonny Flynn has six points, six rebounds, nine assists and six turnovers, while Stephen Curry -- whom Minnesota overlooked in the 2009 draft in order to take Flynn -- has 57 points, 20 rebounds, eight assists and three turnovers.
 
27Toronto Raptors
Last Week: 27
Reggie Evans, returning after sitting out 46 games with a broken foot, didn't miss a beat re-establishing himself as the game's second-best rebounder behind Love. Evans grabbed 44 rebounds in his first three games back, including 18 on offense. In the first quarter of Sunday's loss to the Bobcats, Evans consistently outhustled the more skilled but less competitive Tyrus Thomas, who likewise had recently returned from a long injury-related layoff. Unfortunately, there's precious little room for Evans in the frontcourt, where rookie Ed Davis has begun to flourish and the Raptors are financially committed to former No. 1 pick Andrea Bargnani and 23-year-old Amir Johnson. Evans received big minutes last week in part because Bargnani (flu) and Johnson (sprained ankle) missed time.
 
28Sacramento Kings
Last Week: 28
Second-year shooting guard Marcus Thornton exploded for a career-high 42 points Monday against the Warriors. He has quickly become a fan favorite by averaging 22.2 points and shooting 44.7 percent from three-point range in the 10 games since he was acquired from New Orleans. But the Kings are 2-8 in that span because they have allowed an average of 111.6 points. Shoddy defense is the reason Thornton couldn't get regular playing time for the Hornets under coach Monty Williams. And while it is an extremely small sample size, the Kings are yielding about eight more points per 100 possessions when Thornton is on the court compared to when he sits. That differential is similar to his negative impact on the defense in New Orleans. With Tyreke Evans possibly returning from a foot injury in about 10 days, there is talk of a three-guard lineup with Evans, Thornton and Beno Udrih. Thornton will have to improve his defense to make it work.
 
29Cleveland Cavaliers
Last Week: 26
The gritty play that has presented Cleveland as an attractive underdog these past couple of months began to wane over the last week or so. The Cavaliers averaged fewer than 83 points while getting thumped by double digits in their last four games. Semih Erden, Daniel Gibson and Luke Harangody (injuries) and Baron Davis (bereavement absence) missed all or part of those four losses, and of course the Cavs were already playing without Antawn Jamison and Anderson Varejao. In Sunday's 95-75 loss to the Thunder, five first- or second-year players logged at least 16 minutes: Harangody, Manny Harris, Christian Eyenga and starting forwards Alonzo Gee and Samardo Samuels.
 
30Washington Wizards
Last Week: 30
Coach Flip Saunders isn't doing John Wall any favors by turning him loose to become a one-man team. Wall is shooting just 39.2 percent while jacking up more than 16 shots per game in March. Yes, he's very quick in transition, but too often all that means is that he's trying to dribble through one or two opponents instead of all five on his way to the rim. Because Wall is no threat from three-point territory (he's 29-for-97 for the season, 29.9 percent), defenses are wise to his penetration-heavy shot selection, which is why, along with all the failed field-goal attempts, he's averaging more than four turnovers per game since the All-Star break. After Hinrich's departure, there is nobody on the roster to mentor the 20-year-old point guard. Hopefully, assistant coach Sam Cassell is developing a solid relationship with the No. 1 pick.

 
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