Cavaliers and Wizards Bringing Back the Spirit of ’76; Hawks Can’t Recapture the Magic; And the Week 4 NBA Power Rankings

The Eastern Conference standings are upside down. The Washington Wizards lead the East, while the Cleveland Cavaliers lurk a game back in fourth place. What in the name of the bicentennial is going on here? No, seriously, it’s been a long time since Washington and Cleveland breathed the rarified air atop the Eastern Conference. A very long time. The last time it happened, the NBA still had a rival league with which to contend.

Meanwhile, the shine has come off last year’s playoff darlings, the Atlanta Hawks. Trae Young and the gang have the NBA’s second-longest losing streak and are much closer to the basement in the East than even the play-in group. Meanwhile, the Golden State Warriors have revived the good old days of, you know, three years ago, and the Los Angeles Clippers are figuring some things out. And as the early season results in the NBA Power Rankings are prone to do, there’s a whole lot of shakin’ going on. Precisely one team occupies the same spot this week that they held seven days ago.

The Wizards and Cavaliers at the top of the NBA East? Seriously?

Cleveland Cavaliers legend Bingo Smith (7) helped them past the Washington Bullets in the 1976 NBA Playoffs, the only time both teams finished in the top four in the Eastern Conference
Cleveland Cavaliers legend Bingo Smith (7) helped them past the Washington Bullets in the 1976 NBA Playoffs, the only time both teams finished in the top four in the Eastern Conference. | Focus on Sport/Getty Images

The Wizards have spent more than 40 years bouncing back and forth between mediocre and ghastly. The last time they got past the first round of the playoffs was 2017. Washington hasn’t been to the conference finals under its current identity; the franchise’s last run deep into the playoffs reached the NBA Finals in 1979. They were still the Bullets back in the day.

As for the Cavaliers? LeBron James still wore the wine and gold when Cleveland last made the postseason. It’s been since 1998 that the Cavs went to the playoffs without James wearing the No. 23 jersey for them.

The Wizards and Cavaliers together in the East’s upper echelon? It happened once, 46 years ago.

It was 1975–76. Cleveland, entering its sixth NBA season, still hadn’t made the playoffs. Washington was coming off an embarrassing NBA Finals sweep at the hands of the underdog Warriors. The Cavs won the Central Division title, a game ahead of the Bullets, and they met in a compelling conference semifinal series.

Cleveland won the series when Dick Snyder banked in a floater (not a typical move in that era) to send the Cavs to the Eastern Conference Finals. While they’ve met in the playoffs four times since, each was in the first round.

While we’re a long way from the Cavs and Wiz finishing in the top half of the East, it’s worth mentioning that it’s been a while since they did.

The Clippers and Mavericks are figuring some things out

The Dallas Mavericks won two of three last week and shot up the NBA Power Rankings eight spots, the most significant upward move of the week. Dallas’ numbers still make little sense, but it’s figuring out how to win, which is the point of the whole exercise. The Mavs are 8–4, tied with the Denver Nuggets and the Clippers for third in the Western Conference, even though their statistical profile says they are a sub-.500 team.

Meanwhile, the Clippers have won seven straight since their 1–4 start. Reggie Jackson is heating up, and their winning streak matched those of the Warriors and Phoenix Suns for the longest active runs in the NBA. LA is up six spots and has climbed into the top five of the rankings for the first time. All this with Kawhi Leonard a spectator.

Nate McMillan’s interim magic has worn out in Atlanta

The Atlanta Hawks took the NBA by storm last season. After firing coach Lloyd Pierce, interim coach Nate McMillan led them to a blazing 27–11 finish that propelled them into the fifth seed in the Eastern Conference playoffs. From there, they blew out the New York Knicks in five games and stunned the Philadelphia 76ers on the road in Game 7 to reach the Eastern Conference Finals for the first time since 2015.

Hawks management did what it was essentially forced to do and gave the job to McMillan long-term. And just like that, the magic was gone. Atlanta is 4–9, has lost six straight, and fell seven spots in the NBA power rankings.

That matches the tumbles of the Toronto Raptors and Sacramento Kings. Whenever you’re in the company of the Kings, it’s a bad sign because that’s a team that hasn’t been able to figure anything out for 15 years and counting.

The NBA Power Rankings after Week 4

Two new teams have broken into the top five of the NBA Power Rankings. Besides the Clippers, the Chicago Bulls are back after another enormous fourth-quarter performance in a win over the Brooklyn Nets. Falling out of the elite group were the Portland Trail Blazers (still performing better than their 6–7 record as they play the role of the anti-Mavericks) and the COVID- and drama-riddled Philadelphia 76ers, who have lost four in a row.

Here are the NBA Power Rankings in full:

Playing for ping-pong balls:
30. Orlando Magic (3–10, 28th last week)
29. Detroit Pistons (3–9, 30th)
28. New Orleans Pelicans (2–12, 27th)
27. Houston Rockets (1–11, 26th)
26. Oklahoma City Thunder (5–6, 29th)

Looking for lottery luck:
25. Los Angeles Lakers (7–6, 22nd)
24. Minnesota Timberwolves (4–8, 21st)
23. Memphis Grizzlies (6–7, 24th)
22. Atlanta Hawks (4–9, 15th)
21. Sacramento Kings (5–8, 14th)

Livin’ on a play-in:
20. Milwaukee Bucks (6–7, 23rd)
19. Charlotte Hornets (7–7, 20th)
18. San Antonio Spurs (4–8, 16th)
17. Dallas Mavericks (8–4, 25th)
16. Indiana Pacers (6–8, 19th)

Bottom of the bracket:
15. Toronto Raptors (7–7, 8th)
14. Cleveland Cavaliers (9–5, 18th)
13. Boston Celtics (6–7, 17th)
12. Brooklyn Nets (9–4, 13th)
11. New York Knicks (7–6, 6th)

Sneaky contenders:
10. Philadelphia 76ers (8–6, 4th)
9. Denver Nuggets (8–4, 12th)
8. Phoenix Suns (8–3, 10th)
7. Portland Trail Blazers (6–7, 5th)
6. Washington Wizards (9–3, 9th)

The top five:
5. Los Angeles Clippers (8–4, 11th)
4. Chicago Bulls (8–4, 7th)
3. Miami Heat (8–5, 1st)
2. Utah Jazz (8–5, 2nd)
1. Golden State Warriors (11–1, 3rd)

NBA Statistics courtesy of Basketball Reference and Cleaning the Glass.

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