NBA Power Rankings: Spurs Lead The Way, Hawks Are Fools' Gold

The Spurs remain atop our NBA Power Rankings. What do they and the other contenders need to work on to prepare for the playoffs?

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NBA Power Rankings: What Spurs, Other Contenders Need To Improve

The NBA season enters its post-deadline stretch run, where a few teams will get hot, a few will fall back and the playoff picture will come into focus. Avoiding injury and finding consistency are the keys here, and the Spurs, who just lost their starting point guard for up to a month, might be in trouble.

We look at what the top 15 teams in the league need to show the rest of the season.

1. San Antonio Spurs (49-10, Previous: #1) -- From here on out, the Spurs need to survive Tony Parker's (hopefully brief) rehab from a strained calf; the chasers in the West will be watching intently, hoping Parker's injury does to the Spurs what Dirk Nowitzki's injury did to the Mavericks. That's unlikely, given the presence of Manu Ginobili and San Antonio's fairly remarkable backcourt depth. But stay tuned.

2. Miami Heat (43-17, Prev: #2) -- The Heat probably need to knock off an elite team for confidence's sake. They'll have opportunities galore, with a trip to San Antonio scheduled for Friday (on the back-end of a back-to-back, of course) and a Sunday showdown with the Bulls.

3. Boston Celtics (43-15, Prev: #3) -- Boston need to prove to itself its defense can survive heavy minutes for Nenad Krstic. The Celtics were at the top of table in defense during Kendrick Perkins' absence, rolling with heavy doses of a Kevin Garnett-Glen Davis frontcourt and Shaquille O'Neal when available. But Krstic might be a minus on defense, and Boston will have to work to protect him for explosions like what Al Jefferson did on Monday.

4. Dallas Mavericks (43-16, Prev: #7) -- The Mavericks really might have the pieces to go all the way. The stretch run is all about remaining solid, and beating teams they are supposed to beat. Dallas' margin of victory should steadily increase.

5. Los Angeles Lakers (42-19, Prev: #4) -- Pau Gasol needs to prove that the Black Swan version of himself is real, and not a phantom that will revert to onlooker when Kobe Bryant grabs the reins. Sunday's win in Oklahoma City was not a good start; Pau deferred to Kobe, who was shooting terribly, all game.

6. Chicago Bulls (41-17, Prev: #5) --  The Bulls need to prove they can survive their relative lack of three-point shooting, especially in the starting line-up. Derrick Rose keeps defenses true with a solid mid-range extended jumper, but the lack of a legit, regular three-point option in Tom Thibodeau's most trusted line-ups could be an issue against great defensive teams.

7. Orlando Magic (38-22, Prev: #6) -- The Magic need a productive bench, and while that doesn't necessarily depend on Gilbert Arenas, a consistent Gil would certainly help.

8. Denver Nuggets (35-26, Prev: #9) --  George Karl wants to push for home court. I think a playoff berth is more reachable. Finding the right balance with Ty Lawson and Raymond Felton, and Danilo Gallinari, Wilson Chandler, Arron Afflalo and J.R. Smith will be a huge key.

9. Oklahoma City Thunder (36-22, Prev: #10) -- The Thunder have plenty of games without Kendrick Perkins; that will be a strain on the team. In the meantime, Serge Ibaka showing that he can be as good as a regular starter as he was off the bench would be a nice gain.

10. New Orleans Hornets (35-26, Prev: #8) -- The Hornets need to show that they can score more than 30 in a quarter once in a while.

11. Memphis Grizzlies (33-28, Prev: #11) --  The Grizzlies have done OK without Rudy Gay so far. But can they improve their defensive rebounding enough to spook a Western power in the first round?

12. Philadelphia 76ers (30-29, Prev: #12) -- It looks like we may just have one East playoff team with a losing record, as the Sixers are actually making a run at the Knicks for No. 6. The Philly frontcourt is a question mark: can they get more out of Spencer Hawes? Will Elton Brand hold up all season?

13. Houston Rockets (30-31, Prev: #13) -- The Rockets are crawling back into the playoff race, but the loss of Shane Battier won't help a porous defense. Kyle Lowry needs to prove that he's worthy of the starting point guard spot, and that he can fit with Kevin Martin.

14. Portland Trail Blazers (33-26, Prev: #15) -- Four starters -- Gerald Wallace, Brandon Roy, Nicolas Batum and Wes Matthews -- for two spots. Nate McMillan's job might be on the line (fair or not), and balancing his teeming rotation will be the biggest challenge from here on out.

15. New York Knicks (30-27, Prev: #16) -- God bless Knicks fans for getting so excited about one close win. Now beat the Cavs, OK?


NBA Power Rankings: Hawks Are Fools' Gold, But Suns' Defense Might Be Serious

The bottom half of our NBA Power Rankings are filled with teams that have either promised to keep fighting to tough-to-grab playoff spots, teams that have given up all hope and are building for next year, or, in the case of the Hawks, are just a lot worse than their record shows.

We look at what the bottom 15 teams in the league should be pushing for as the season winds down.

16. Atlanta Hawks (36-24, Prev: #14) -- Will defensive improvement with Kirk Hinrich replacing Mike Bibby be sustainable? Atlanta has the tools to be an elite defensive team. But they have to do it every night.

17. Phoenix Suns (31-27, Prev: #19) -- Speaking of defensive improvement, the Suns are up to No. 24 after pulling up the rear early this season. Can it get any better? Phoenix is in position to make the playoffs with a solid run to end the season; the defense has to be passable, at least, to get it done.

18. Indiana Pacers (26-32, Prev: #18) -- The Pacers have lost some steam, and it's up to Frank Vogel to reignite Roy Hibbert and Paul George, who really are the tipping weights that are the difference between Indiana being a mediocre team and an OK team.

19. Utah Jazz (32-29, Prev: #17) -- I don't think the Jazz had much faith in their ability to make the playoffs with a banged-up Deron Williams; hence the lack of reluctance to trade him for lots of hope. But Utah is in danger of ending up below .500, in the lottery and hanging out with the Warriors in the win-loss column. Not a great turn of events.

20. Milwaukee Bucks (22-36, Prev: #20) -- The playoffs seem out-of-reach, so getting Brandon Jennings back on track -- his three-point shooting has dropped off, and he simply hasn't progressed from his excellent rookie season -- would be a nice finish.

21. Charlotte Bobcats (26-33, Prev: #23) -- The Gerald Wallace trade is understandable from a financial standpoint ... but what a crushing blow to the team and the fans. You can't fault Charlotte for realizing a rebuild was necessarily. But with so many bad contracts on the books, Wallace was the least of Michael Jordan's worries.

22. Golden State Warriors (26-32, Prev: #22) -- If there's one player the Warriors absolutely need to play better in time for next year, it's Andris Biedrins. But let's be more realistic. David Lee. If he plays like the Lee of his Knicks' day, the Warriors' rebounding will improve enough to let Monta Ellis and Stephen Curry do some real damage.

23. Los Angeles Clippers (21-40, Prev: #21) -- Eric Gordon is the linchpin to success for the Clips, and he'll be back this week. Getting to 30 wins seems like a reasonable and worthwhile goal.

24. Detroit Pistons (22-39, Prev: #24) -- Hopefully you've finished laughing at Joe Dumars' absurd "playoff run" comments. The Pistons remain stuck in neutral until Tom Gores completes his purchase of the team, which will hopefully come before the draft in June. The Pistons need help in that draft, badly.

25. Sacramento Kings (15-43, Prev: #25) -- The focus isn't exactly on the court in Sacramento, nor should it be. Marcus Thornton has had a great start with the Kings; he could be a vital piece of the future, if he continues to thrive with freedom he never received under Monty Williams.

26. Minnesota Timberwolves (14-46, Prev: #26) -- Will Kevin Love finish the season on a 68-game double-double streak? Will anyone remember that Kurt Rambis was benching him the first couple weeks of the season?

27. Toronto Raptors (16-44, Prev: #27) -- The Raptors should be figuring out which players are vital and which are expendable, and the team should try like heck to elevate the roles of the vital. That means DeMar DeRozan and Ed Davis, in my book.

28. New Jersey Nets (17-43, Prev: #29) -- Deron Williams' impact on attendance in Newark next season will be interesting to watch. It's been bad this year, but Brook Lopez isn't exactly a draw. If it gets a lot better, Newark could find itself back in favor as a potential NBA city down the line.

29. Washington Wizards (15-44, Prev: #28) -- Is there really anything to figure out with Andray Blatche? He's an unfocused, sloppy player who thinks he's a champion and plays accordingly. I'd play Trevor Booker and Kevin Seraphin over Baltche as often as possible.

30. Cleveland Cavaliers (11-48, Prev: #30) -- Now that Antawn Jamison is effectively done for the season, Cleveland's grip on a 25 percent for the No. 1 pick seems assured. The Cavs will be rooting against the Clippers too, as an unprotected first that could end up in the top three thanks to the lottery is nothing to sneeze at.

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