1. Golden State Warriors (62-13)
The Warriors are winning at a rate that puts them up there with the best squads in league history, and the question of whether they’re title favorites need to be answered with a clear “yes” by now. The real ask is whether you’d take them or the field to win the Finals.
2. Atlanta Hawks (56-19)
The Hawks have been laggard for weeks, but that all seems to be part of coach Mike Budenholzer’s plan. They’re a napping giant, resting their bones, and they’re still the team to beat in the East.
3. Cleveland Cavaliers (49-27)
LeBron James and Co. look better with every day, and only Atlanta appears good enough to beat them in the East. A seven-game series between the two might see Cleveland take the super-talented pieces of their game to an unbeatable stratosphere, though.
4. Houston Rockets (52-24)
James Harden’s MVP campaign is the spearhead at the center of the Rockets’ surprising season. And with Dwight Howard back as the defense’s final line, they seem like the team to meet Golden State in the conference finals.
5. San Antonio Spurs (49-26)
A rejuvenated San Antonio squad is the biggest remaining threat to the Warriors’ throne. The defending champs have regained form behind the amazing play of Kawhi Leonard and Tony Parker, and it should surprise no one if they shock the world in the playoffs.
6. Los Angeles Clippers (50-26)
Chris Paul is having one of the least noticed MVP-worthy seasons within recent memory, and the Clippers’ starting five remains one of basketball’s very best units. They’ve still got glaring holes all over their bench, though.
7. Memphis Grizzlies (51-24)
After looking the part of a championship fighter for much of the season, the Grizzlies have underwhelmed since the All-Star break — they essentially been a .500 team. Memphis hopefuls are praying that the postseason will ratchet their intensity back up.
8. Portland Trail Blazers (48-26)
The Blazers have won a surprising amount of games with Wesley Matthews out for the year. But the numbers (and the eye test) have turned out terrible results for their defense without Wes, and their Western Conference peers will know just how to attack them in the postseason — on the perimeter.
9. Chicago Bulls (45-30)
The Bulls continue to struggle through identity issues and fall short of the ideal dream their hyper-talented roster offers. But if they reach their ceiling in the playoffs, watch out.
10. Toronto Raptors (45-30)
The Raptors might be on the verge of an overhaul, if they experience another first-round exit this spring. General manager Masai Ujiri isn’t one to sit on his hands with a middling collection of talent.
11. Dallas Mavericks (46-30)
Rajon Rondo is starting to look like his scrappy, creative old self as the postseason approaches, and that’s great news for the Mavericks. Now if only they could get Monta Ellis in the right mood…
12. Washington Wizards (42-33)
John Wall is one of the best point guards in the game, but it’s hard to see him overcoming his coach’s strange, nostalgic court vision and a mediocre, aging supporting cast to push Washington deep into the second season.
13. Oklahoma City Thunder (42-33)
How far can Russell Westbrook’s insanity take the Thunder? Without Kevin Durant and Serge Ibaka… probably not very far, especially seeing as they’re likely to draw the Warriors in the first round. But it’s still impossible not to get drunk on Westbrook’s inspired play.
14. New Orleans Pelicans (40-34)
Anthony Davis has had as good of a season as any 22-year-old ever has. Maybe next year, he’ll have the coach and supporting cast to help him take New Orleans Pelicans to the postseason.
15. Utah Jazz (34-41)
The Jazz have had arguably the NBA’s best defense since the All-Star break, and things are looking way, way up for them as soon as next season.
16. Milwaukee Bucks (37-38)
Time will tell whether the Bucks made the right moves at the trade deadline, reshuffling the deck of their youth. For now, though, they’ve lowered their ceiling demonstrably.
17. Miami Heat (34-41)
Goran Dragic hasn’t been the shot in the arm to the Heat’s offense that they were hoping for, but they’ve still got enough firepower to make things interesting in a likely first round matchup with LeBron and the Cavs.
18. Phoenix Suns (38-38)
The future is dubious for the Suns, who’ve had a tragic, tough-to-stomach season by losing Dragic and an unheard-of number of games decided in the waning seconds.
19. Brooklyn Nets (34-40)
The Nets are a team about nothing, with management more concerned with saving lost money than making playoff noise, and no visible plan for team-building success in place.
20. Boston Celtics (34-41)
The Celtics are the friskiest, most fun candidate for the East’s eighth and final playoff spot. Of all the cores fighting to get blown out by the Hawks, the one with a progressing Marcus Smart is the most compelling.
21. Charlotte Hornets (32-42)
The Hornets, like the Nets, are stuck with a bunch of questionable investments, and look to have no way out of them anytime soon. Optimism isn’t easy, here.
22. Indiana Pacers (32-43)
Paul George’s return looks less and less likely every day, and there’s really no reason for it as Indiana falls further and further away from postseason contention.
23. Orlando Magic (22-53)
Elfrid Payton and Victor Oladipo have established themselves as perhaps the most exciting young backcourt in the NBA. Now the Magic need to solidify the future with the right coaching hire this summer.
24. Sacramento Kings (26-48)
DeMarcus Cousins is one of the most intriguing talents in the game, and he deserves a consistent culture to grow in. Hopefully George Karl can finally provide that for him next season.
25. Detroit Pistons (29-46)
Stan Van Gundy has tinkered with his roster a ton this season, which has resulted in a lot of inconsistent play. But he’s shown an encouraging knack for player development.
26. Denver Nuggets (28-47)
The Nuggets, like the Magic, need to nail their coaching hire to get fans excited again. A lot is resting on what they do during this offseason.
27. Minnesota Timberwolves (16-59)
The Timberwolves are right where any young team should be: at the bottom of the standings, ready to add another potent piece to their already terrific farm of talent through the draft. The future looks real fun up north.
28. Philadelphia 76ers (18-58)
Nerlens Noel isn’t getting enough attention in the Rookie of the Year race. He’s been on a tear that puts him among the very best rim protectors of the game, but the constant moral outrage over the Sixers’ tanking endeavor has covered it up.
29. Los Angeles Lakers (20-54)
What’s new, here? Nothing. The Lakers are terrible, and the only way out seems to be another big-name signing in free agency. Does L.A. still have enough glamorous appeal to pull one off?
30. New York Knicks (14-61)
The Knicks are awful, and Phil Jackson has his work cut out for him to prove he’s the man to shift their sorry trend. If New York still sucks in 2015-16, will his legend start to diminish?
— John Wilmes