Updated: April 17, 2013, 3:06 PM ET
Power Rankings: Heat finish No. 1
By Marc Stein
Monday, April 15
The NBA's Eastern Conference hasn't produced a repeat champion since Michael Jordan's Chicago Bulls in the late 1990s.
LeBron James' Miami Heat bring the 11th season of power rankings for your humble committee (of one) to a close as heavy favorites to end that drought.
Oklahoma City and San Antonio can still join the Heat on this season's short list of 60-win teams, depending on what happens in this week's games, but the rising health concerns in Denver and San Antonio and the lack of depth in an East that might produce only two other teams with 50 wins (New York and possibly Indiana) would appear to give Miami every chance to win it all again. The Spurs' April struggles and health woes, in particular, have dropped them to an uncharacteristic sixth in the season's final edition of ESPN.com's weekly rankings. This is after we long had the Spurs pegged as the team out West built best to the beat the Heat, given the ongoing questions that hang over the James Harden-less Oklahoma City Thunder.
The steep drop in pedigree from the No. 8 slot to the teams in the Nos. 9-17 range has been a constant in the rankings all season, allowing the Lakers -- even after Kobe Bryant's catastrophic Achilles tear Friday night -- to jump from No. 15 to No. 11 just by virtue of the fact that L.A. has regained control of its destiny when it comes to making the playoffs. Brooklyn's rise to No. 10, in spite of the Nets' well-chronicled struggles this season to beat teams with winning records, was also made possible by the fact that the league's top eight teams have clearly separated themselves.
The rankings will return in late September, not quite six months from now, but here's one more batch for your Monday lunch, compiled as always with the peerless assistance from ESPN Stats & Information and the Elias Sports Bureau. Click here to rank the teams yourself ... and click here in case you missed our latest Weekend Dime.
Also, check out John Hollinger's daily Power Rankings.
|Remember how LeBron's 2012 was about as storybook as a calendar year could be? 2013 ain't shaping up too badly, either, with the Heat so hot -- on a 35-2 surge -- that they won't worry a bit when they hear how the team with the best record has won it all only once in the past nine seasons.|
|If the Thunder can keep their average margin of victory where it is now, at +9.4, it'll be the sixth-highest figure since the introduction of the 3-point line starting with the 1979-80 season. And the five teams with higher average victory margins, if you pay attention to this stuff, did win it all. |
|Make it 22 in a row at home. And 21-3 in their past 24 games anywhere. And 20-7 against the West's seven other playoff teams. Yet there's only dread in Denver now that Kenneth Faried (ankle) may be playing hurt in the playoffs just like Ty Lawson (heel). With Danilo Gallinari (knee) already gone.|
|Maybe it took 'em longer to get to 50 wins than it should have -- and maybe the Clips have just one 50-win season compared to the Lakers' 27 since they began play as the Buffalo Braves in 1970-71 -- but Chris Paul & Co. have finished with the sort of flourish makes you un-write them off.|
|For all of the justified props Melo's getting en route to the scoring title, alongside the new (and reliable?) J.R. Smith, can't we all agree that getting past Boston and Indy just to get to the East finals -- to see if they can really hang with the Heat -- rides mostly on Tyson Chandler's health?|
|All that planning. All those efforts to try to ensure that the Big Three are healthy come playoff time, and look at 'em now. Amid six straight L's on the road -- unheard of in the Tim Duncan era -- Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili aren't near 100 percent and Stephen Jackson was waived without warning.
|The Clips just halted the Grizzlies' 13-game home winning streak. The same Clips who won a Game 7 in Memphis in the 2012 playoffs after winning a Game 1 in Memphis after falling behind by 27. So, yeah, I feel pretty safe saying that the Griz prefer seeing injury-riddled Denver in Round 1.|
|The idea that slipping to No. 3 in the East is actually a good thing for Indy would be much easier to embrace if we knew the first-round pairings for sure. If it means a matchup with Atlanta, then sure. But a series in the octagon with Chicago is never fun, no matter how banged up the Bulls are.|
|Elaborating on that interesting stat that's being going around: More than 70 percent of the Rockets' minutes this season went to players under 25. That not only leads the league but makes their rise to No. 6 out West, along with James Harden's role in getting 'em there, even more impressive.
|Can't ignore the trusted scout who keeps telling me that the Nets, with a rejuvenated D-Will, are built better for the postseason than the Knicks. The counterargument: If they're built so playoff-tough, why did the Nets go 15-27 against winning teams compared to 32-6 against sub-.500 teams?|
|Don't think they'll be subjected to much Biggest Flop Of All Time talk now that, on top of the 30-ish games Pau Gasol and Steve Nash both missed and Dwight Howard's slow recovery from back surgery, Kobe has just been KO'd. Didn't think they'd need 45 wins to make the playoffs, either.|
|They made the playoffs when few said they would and happily watched Steph Curry torch suggestions that a $44 million contract was too big a risk. Not ready to say they're better than the We Believe team in 2007, or even as entertaining, but Curry alone gets you asking those questions.|
|Memphis might have nothing to play for Wednesday night, so the Jazz can certainly go 2-0 this week and finish with 44 wins. The problem as touched on in the Lakers' comment: Utah needs 45 wins to be sure of a playoff spot ... after it looked a couple months back like 42 might get it done.|
|Correction: Halting Miami's 27-game win streak and then New York's 13-gamer will have to suffice for Da Bulls in 2012-13. As hard as Joakim Noah, Luol Deng and the double-double happy Carlos Boozer try, Chicago just has too many injuries all around the D-Rose saga to be a real playoff factor.|
|Remember when Rajon Rondo announced that the Celts were one of five teams capable of winning it all? They'll surely be a nuisance to the Knicks even without Rondo, but don't forget that the No. 7 seed has upset No. 2 in the first round only five times in 58 tries. And only twice since 1991.|
|You've known them for years as the team that keeps hitting its head on the ceiling of the second round. These Hawks, though, can't even get that far. They've overachieved, frankly, to be as high as they are in what realistically was always going to be a stopgap season before a big summer.|
|The back-to-.500 Mavs can console themselves with the knowledge that they surely would have extended their playoff run to 13 straight seasons if Dirk Nowitzki didn't miss the first 27 games. Except that they really can't with so much riding on a free-agent summer that's just 2½ months away.|
|After two rough seasons and a knee injury that took forever to heal, John Wall returned in January to dish a real hope-generating second half. We repeat: With Wall, Bradley Beal, Nene, Emeka Okafor and Martell Webster, the Wizards looked like the bubble playoff team they were predicted to be.|
|With Kevin Love unexpectedly needing more surgery, this time on his knee, Team Injury Ravaged's season is ending just as it began. NBA.com counterpart John Schuhmann tallied it up and reports that Love, Ricky Rubio and free agent-to-be Nikola Pekovic played all of 13 minutes together.|
|Jim Boylan will be trying to sell his guys on the idea that all the rest Miami's main men have been getting since the end of 27 In A Row will somehow throw off their rhythm. But how many Bucks will be buying when they're in a 3-11 funk ... in a city that last celebrated a playoff series win in 2001.|
|I'll say it again. Even knowing what we know now, with Andrew Bynum playing a total of zero minutes this season and Doug Collins ultimately deciding that he's going to walk and all the uncertainty Philly faces as a result, your committee (of one) still would have rolled the dice on Bynum. |
|Forget the late-season skid. A Blazers rookie was not only healthy enough to run away with the ROY race but also to log more than 3,000 minutes. And Damian Lillard's 181 3-pointers, on top of all his other achievements, eclipsed Steph Curry's rookie record of 166. Promising season in Portland.|
|Our old friend Professor Hollinger said that these Raps would win 33 games. DeMar DeRozan unforgettably blasted him as a "clown" for it. And the Raps, after dreaming of competing for the No. 8 spot in the East, are still one win shy of 33 even after a 5-2 flurry this month that's fooling no one.|
|No amount of Andre Drummond -- not even the midseason arrival of committee fave Jose Calderon -- has made any of this easy to watch. Not after Detroit started 0-8, went 1-13 in March and subjected Lawrence Frank and even Joe Dumars to an April of unfriendly job-security speculation.
|A win against the Clips in what might sadly be the last NBA game ever in Sacramento would put the Kings at 21-20 for the season, for what it's worth, at Sleep Train. Monday night in OKC matters, too, because the Thunder can be the first team in the West to lock in its playoff seed with a W.
|Three straight non-playoff seasons for the first time since the 1980s. So hearing that Goran Dragic has locked up a spot on my All-Lefty first team might not bring Suns fans much comfort. Nor will coming so close to an extra lottery pick that was theirs if the Lakers had only missed the playoffs.
|Did you see enough hope from Anthony Davis and the young Hornets amid all the injuries? Will we see Eric Gordon here come training camp after so much chatter to the contrary? All we can say for sure is that this team will never again be seen in these rankings without a Pelican logo nearby. |
|The Cavs' season will be remembered for the flashes of brilliance from Kyrie Irving. And the countless injuries that derailed Irving, rebound king Anderson Varejao and so many others. And their bizarre habit of losing more games than they won -- going 3-4 -- after leading by 20 points or more.|
|The committee (of one) decided, in the end, that the flashes of promise from Tobias Harris and Moe Harkless, on top of all that rebounding from Nikola Vucevic, were enough to nudge Orlando ahead of Charlotte in the season's final edition of the rankings, despite a 4-18 record since March 1.|
|Charlotte's 7-5 start -- even with the likes of Danny Granger, Dirk Nowitzki, John Wall and Kevin Love missing from some of those W's -- will go down as one of the surprises of the season. Home dates with the Knicks and Cavs are all they have left to surprise us again and finish with 20 wins.|