NBA Power Rankings: How Ja Morant's return could shake up the stretch run in the West

The Memphis Grizzlies are hopeful to get Ja Morant back on the floor Wednesday against the Houston Rockets. Morant's recent eight-game suspension shook some of the momentum the Grizzlies were riding to a potential top seed in the West prior to March 4.

But with its star point guard returning to practice, Memphis is still in striking distance to make a run at claiming home-court advantage in the Western Conference playoffs, especially with the top-seeded Denver Nuggets losing five of their last seven games.

At one point, the Nuggets held a seven-game lead for the top spot in the West and Nikola Jokic looked like a lock to win a third consecutive MVP award. Now both the No. 1 seed and Jokic's stake for MVP are up for grabs with Philadelphia 76ers star Joel Embiid emerging as a frontrunner.

Memphis is already riding a three-game win streak to pull within 3.5 games of the top spot in the West. Morant could help the Grizzlies close that gap in the final three weeks.

Just below the Grizzlies in third place are the Sacramento Kings, who spent quite a bit of time in second place during Morant's suspension. The Kings will need to either gain one game on the Grizzlies in the final three weeks to get back into second place, or gain five games on Denver if Memphis keeps winning.

Note: Throughout the regular season, our panel (Kendra Andrews, Tim Bontemps, Jamal Collier, Nick Friedell, Andrew Lopez, Tim MacMahon, Dave McMenamin and Ohm Youngmisuk) is ranking all 30 teams from top to bottom, taking stock of which teams are playing the best basketball and which teams are looking most like title contenders.

Previous rankings: 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 | Week 17 | Week 18 | Week 19 | Week 20 | Week 21

1. Milwaukee Bucks
2022-23 record: 51-20
Previous ranking: 1

Milwaukee has given itself a nice cushion in the race for the top seed in the East, up three games in the loss column on Boston and Philadelphia with 11 games remaining. The Bucks will travel to Denver this weekend for a matchup against the top seed in the West: the Nuggets. -- Collier

2. Philadelphia 76ers
2022-23 record: 48-23
Previous ranking: 3

While Philly's eight-game winning streak ended Monday in double overtime against the Bulls, the 76ers still have the league's hottest player in Joel Embiid as they embark on a trip West with four games in six days -- one that ends with Embiid facing Nikola Jokic in Denver Monday night in an MVP showdown. -- Bontemps

3. Boston Celtics
2022-23 record: 50-23
Previous ranking: 2

For all of the talk about Boston's post-All-Star break struggles, there's been one rather obvious reason for their issues (beyond injuries): Jayson Tatum's shooting struggles. Even after a big game in Sacramento Tuesday night, Tatum is shooting 29.1% from 3-point range on just under 10 attempts per game since the break. If he can get going, Boston's offense -- and overall play -- should improve in a hurry. -- Bontemps

4. Denver Nuggets
2022-23 record: 48-24
Previous ranking: 4

The Nuggets have hit a skid for the first time this season, losing five of their last seven games. Their bench remains the glaring issue, but they are also struggling to get consistent performances from some of their starters not named Nikola Jokic. -- Andrews

5. Cleveland Cavaliers
2022-23 record: 46-28
Previous ranking: 5

In what could be a first-round playoff preview if the Cavs can catch the Sixers or the Nets can catch the Knicks, No. 4 Cleveland beat No. 6 Brooklyn at Barclays on Tuesday, with Donovan Mitchell (31 points) outdueling Mikal Bridges (18 points) to get the road win, which had been hard to come by for the Cavs this season. -- McMenamin

6. Sacramento Kings
2022-23 record: 43-29
Previous ranking: 6

The Kings have the 26th-ranked defense since the All-Star break, but they also have the best record since then. That's thanks to their league-leading offense, which has been the tale of their entire season. But taking baby steps on the defensive end is paramount as they gear up for their first playoff appearance since 2006. -- Andrews

7. Memphis Grizzlies
2022-23 record: 44-27
Previous ranking: 7

Memphis went 6-3 in the nine games missed by Ja Morant, in large part due to Tyus Jones' phenomenal job of filling in as the starting point guard. Jones averaged 16.3 points and 8.2 assists while shooting 50.9% from the floor and 40% from 3-point range during the stretch that Memphis' All-Star was sidelined. -- MacMahon

8. Phoenix Suns
2022-23 record: 38-33
Previous ranking: 8

Earlier this month, Devin Booker scored 44 points in 28 minutes and the Suns blitzed the Thunder by 31 points. On Sunday, Booker scored 46 against OKC, but the Thunder won, 124-120, handing Phoenix its fourth loss in its last five games without Kevin Durant. -- McMenamin

9. New York Knicks
2022-23 record: 42-31
Previous ranking: 9

The next eight days will help determine where New York winds up in the standings. With two games against seventh-place Miami sandwiched around games in Orlando and at home against Houston, the Knicks could either likely lock up fifth with three or four wins, or put themselves in danger of falling backward with a couple losses to the Heat. -- Bontemps

10. LA Clippers
2022-23 record: 38-35
Previous ranking: 12

The Clippers dropped a tough loss to the Thunder on Tuesday but have a far more pressing concern: Paul George's health. The All-Star wing appeared to bang his right knee with Lu Dort's before landing awkwardly. Any serious injury to George will be a severe blow just as the Clippers and George were playing some of their best basketball. -- Youngmisuk

11. Golden State Warriors
2022-23 record: 37-36
Previous ranking: 10

The Warriors got an elusive road win on Monday. Sure, it was against the West-worst Rockets, but it was one the Warriors desperately needed. Now can Golden State do it again through their final four road games of the season? -- Andrews

12. Miami Heat
2022-23 record: 39-34
Previous ranking: 13

Miami has won three of its past four and has a showdown with the Knicks coming up Wednesday night. As usual for the Heat, it's Jimmy Butler who is setting the tone, averaging 26 points, 6.7 rebounds and 5 assists during 11 games in March. -- Friedell

13. Brooklyn Nets
2022-23 record: 39-33
Previous ranking: 11

Brooklyn has dropped four straight and appears to be sliding into the play-in tournament picture during the final weeks of the season. The chemistry the group showed in the initial weeks after dealing Kyrie Irving and Kevin Durant has faded and the Nets' defense has faltered against stronger competition -- notably throughout the majority of losses to the Nuggets and Cavaliers in recent days. After a torrid start to his Nets career, Mikal Bridges has struggled from beyond the arc -- going 8-for-33 over his last four games. -- Friedell

14. Dallas Mavericks
2022-23 record: 36-36
Previous ranking: 14

The Mavs lost in Memphis on Monday night despite leading by 16 points in the second half. Protecting leads has been a big problem for Dallas all season. They've blown a second-half lead of at least 16 points four times this season, which matches the franchise's most such losses in any season over the past 25 years, according to ESPN Stats & Information research. -- MacMahon

15. Oklahoma City Thunder
2022-23 record: 36-36
Previous ranking: 17

Shai Gilgeous-Alexander had 40 points in Sunday's 124-120 victory over the Suns that kept the Thunder in the thick of the West playoff race. Gilgeous-Alexander was 12-of-24 from the field and 16-of-19 from the free throw line. He did not attempt a 3-pointer. The only other player this season with a 40-point game without a 3-point attempt is DeMar DeRozan. Gilgeous-Alexander became the first player in Thunder/Seattle SuperSonics history to accomplish the feat since Vin Baker in 1998. -- Lopez

16. Minnesota Timberwolves
2022-23 record: 36-37
Previous ranking: 15

Karl Anthony-Towns is nearing his return from injury, which should be considered fantastic news for Minnesota, which has dropped to ninth in the West. But judging from how they started the season, it's unclear how everything will mesh once he returns. -- Andrews

17. Atlanta Hawks
2022-23 record: 36-36
Previous ranking: 18

The Hawks moved to 36-36 with a win over the Detroit Pistons on Tuesday night, keeping alive a streak that's been going since Jan. 21. On that date, they lost to the Charlotte Hornets to fall to 24-23. They've been the definition of average ever since. Tuesday's win was the 26th consecutive game the Hawks have been within just one game of .500. According to the Elias Sports Bureau, that surpasses the 2014-15 New Orleans Pelicans (25 straight) for the longest streak of staying within one game of .500 in a season in NBA history. -- Lopez

18. Los Angeles Lakers
2022-23 record: 35-37
Previous ranking: 16

With Mo Bamba sidelined with a high ankle sprain, the Lakers worked out free agent centers Tristan Thompson and Tony Bradley on Monday, according to coach Darvin Ham. But it doesn't sound like they'll be adding a big to back up Anthony Davis anytime soon. "No imminent plans," Ham said Tuesday. "Just kicking the tires." -- McMenamin

19. Toronto Raptors
2022-23 record: 35-37
Previous ranking: 21

The Raptors have roared back up the standings in recent days and now sit a game behind the eighth-place Hawks. Three straight home games against teams in the bottom five spots in the East (Indiana, Washington and Detroit) give Toronto an opportunity to keep moving up the East ladder this week. -- Bontemps

20. Utah Jazz
2022-23 record: 35-36
Previous ranking: 20

A pair of rookies starred during the Jazz's 4-1 streak over the past two weeks. Shooting guard Ochai Agbaji averaged 16.2 points on .500/.447/.889 shooting splits, highlighted by his career-best 27-point performance in Monday's win over the Kings. Center Walker Kessler averaged 11.8 points, 11.4 rebounds and 3.0 blocks while missing a total of only seven field goal attempts in the past five games. -- MacMahon

21. Chicago Bulls
2022-23 record: 34-37
Previous ranking: 22

The Bulls are 8-4 since the All-Star break -- the fifth best record in the NBA during that span -- which has given them a 2.5-game lead on their spot in the play-in tournament. Zach LaVine is averaging 29.9 points on 54% shooting, including 45% from 3 since the break. -- Collier

22. New Orleans Pelicans
2022-23 record: 35-37
Previous ranking: 19

After a team meeting last week, the Pelicans put an emphasis on featuring center Jonas Valanciunas. In the three games since, Valanciunas has played some of his best individual basketball of the season, averaging 20.6 points and 14.7 rebounds per game on 63.1% shooting. The team has also leaned on Brandon Ingram with Zion Williamson out. On Tuesday, Ingram had 32 points against the Spurs, marking his 41st 30-point game as a Pelican. That broke a tie with David West for the second most in franchise history, trailing only Anthony Davis (128). -- Lopez

23. Washington Wizards
2022-23 record: 32-40
Previous ranking: 23

Washington lost its third straight game in Orlando despite 30 points from Kristaps Porzingis. Washington has just four wins in 14 games since the All-Star break. While they are just 2.5 games out of the 10th spot, Washington has tough contests against Denver, Boston, New York, Milwaukee, Atlanta and Miami in its final 10 games. -- Youngmisuk

24. Indiana Pacers
2022-23 record: 32-40
Previous ranking: 25

After missing four games with a right ankle injury, Pacers rookie Bennedict Mathurin started and put up 18 points in his return against Charlotte this week. However, the Pacers dropped a second straight game, putting them 2.5 games behind the final play-in spot. -- Collier

25. Portland Trail Blazers
2022-23 record: 31-40
Previous ranking: 24

Damian Lillard could barely hide the disappointment after the Blazers lost to the Clippers on Sunday, bringing their free fall to six straight losses. The Blazers have just three wins since the All-Star break. "We've pretty much fallen out of the race for 10th," Lillard said. "I love to play, love the competition and haven't been ready to give that up. But it does come a point in time when do you stop putting your competitive nature out front." -- Youngmisuk

26. Orlando Magic
2022-23 record: 30-43
Previous ranking: 26

Markelle Fultz scored a career high 28 points in Saturday's win over the Clippers and is averaging 17.6 points this month. Fultz is gaining confidence and has become the consistent offensive threat the Magic were hoping for when they acquired the former No. 1 overall pick from the 76ers. -- Friedell

27. Charlotte Hornets
2022-23 record: 23-50
Previous ranking: 27

Charlotte picked up a comeback win over the Pacers on Monday night as Kelly Oubre Jr. went off for 28 points. The veteran swingman continues to provide a lift for the struggling franchise, averaging 24.1 points and 5.7 rebounds this month. -- Friedell

28. Houston Rockets
2022-23 record: 18-54
Previous ranking: 29

March has been by far the best month of No. 3 overall pick Jabari Smith Jr.'s rookie season. Smith is putting up the best numbers of any month in several statistical categories, including scoring (15.5 points per game), rebounding (7.5), field goal percentage (.496) and 3-point percentage (.396). His progress has been a major reason the Rockets have been competitive in March, going 5-6 so far. -- MacMahon

29. San Antonio Spurs
2022-23 record: 19-52
Previous ranking: 28

On Friday night, the Spurs led by as many as 29 before allowing the Grizzlies to come back and claim an overtime victory. Two days later, the Spurs found themselves trailing by as many as 24 points before storming back for a 126-118 win over the Hawks. According to the Elias Sports Bureau, the Spurs are the fifth team in the past 25 seasons to lose a game after leading by 20+ and win after trailing by 20+ in consecutive games. The 24-point comeback was also the team's second largest comeback win under coach Gregg Popovich. -- Lopez

30. Detroit Pistons
2022-23 record: 16-56
Previous ranking: 30

James Wiseman only posted three double-doubles in 60 games during his career with the Warriors, but he's already put up five in 15 games since joining the Pistons at the trade deadline. -- Collier