NBA Power Rankings- Halfway Mark

Posted: 01/21/2014 by levcohen in Basketball

Believe it or not, we are now roughly half way through the NBA season. It’s shocking, as it really feels that the season just started. But here we are, so it’s time for another power rankings.

Last ranking is in parentheses.

—-THE ELITES—-

1. Indiana Pacers, 33-7 (3): It seems pretty clear that when it comes to playoff time, there are going to be four teams that are going to be heavily favored to make the Conference Finals. Indiana and Miami in the East, and Oklahoma City and San Antonio in the West. It seems boring, but it’s probably true. With that being said, it feels right to have those four at the top of the rankings and the Pacers #1. The Pacers have, quite simply, been the best team in basketball this year. They have the best record, they have the best defense, and they easily have the best point differential. They are 21-1 at home, which should encourage them, as they’ll have homecourt advantage throughout the playoffs. If they win at home, they’ll win the title. Their latest streak of five wins has included victories over Golden State and over the Clippers. It’s just ho-hum for Indiana. People were getting ahead of themselves when they said Paul George was as good as LeBron James, but he is a bonafide superstar. The Pacers are one of the few teams with an established lineup. Everyone knows their role. George Hill, for example, shot the ball 11.5 times per game last year. Now, with the emergence of Lance Stephenson, he has willingly shot the ball three times fewer per game. That’s a tough thing for a professional to do, but he did it. If Danny Granger stays happy in his scorer-off-the-bench role, the Pacers should be the favorite to win it all.

2. Oklahoma City Thunder, 31-10 (5): Kevin Durant is absolutely incredible. He has almost single-handedly carried the Thunder to 31 wins, and he just does whatever is needed. You need him to score 50 against the Warriors? He’ll do it. You need him to distribute the ball against the Kings? He’ll do that too. In 10 games in January, he is averaging 36 points, 6 rebounds, 6 assists, and 1.8 steals per game. He’s shooting 51% from the field and taking 13 free throws per game while making them at a 89% rate. It’s just outstanding. Meanwhile, Serge Ibaka has 20+ points in three straight games for the first time in his career. They just need Russell Westbrook to get fully healthy and then they’ll be favored in the West.

3. San Antonio Spurs, 32-9 (4): The Spurs just keep it going. They have a variety of contributors, and are cruising (effectively) towards the playoffs. The only critique would be this: they are 0-5 against other 30 win teams (Indiana, OKC, and Portland). But as long as they keep up their .888 win percentage against everyone else, that’ll be the only critique.

4. Miami Heat, 29-12 (1): Yes, they have struggled of late. Yes, they are only 4 losses away from their total number of losses last season. And yes, Dwyane Wade is missing a quarter of their games. LeBron James has been critiqued for cruising and has admitted that he’s jealous of Kevin Durant. Mario Chalmers and Norris Cole aren’t effective point guards and one might be traded. Ray Allen is over the hill. Chris Bosh doesn’t rebound enough. Shane Battier has been ineffective. Udonis Haslem is averaging 3 points per game. All of this is true, but it doesn’t matter. The Heat would still win in a high-stakes game against any team besides the three ahead them. Even if it were played today. It’s as simple as that, and the Heat are still 29-12, which is the fifth best record in the NBA.

—- If everything goes right—-

5. Portland Trailblazers, 31-10 (6): The Trailblazers are just a good basketball team. They are not quite on the same tier as the top four, but their record is indisputably fantastic. They should have two all-stars, so the “No star power” argument should be discredited. What they need is another big man, and Omer Asik would fit perfectly. Could they trade a rookie lottery pick (C.J. McCollum) and a pick for Asik? If they can, they’ll edge into the first tier.

6. Los Angeles Clippers, 29-14 (7): The Clippers have surprisingly held up well without Chris Paul. They are 7-2 without Paul. The catalyst’s? Blake Griffin and DeAndre Jordan, the much maligned big men. Griffin is averaging 25 points, 9 rebounds, 5 assists, and most importantly 74% free throw shooting in January. Jordan hasn’t had the same free throw success (44% in January), but he’s been a beast, averaging 12 points, 15 rebounds, and more than 3 blocks per game. This team can win a championship if.. everything goes right.

7. Golden State Warriors, 26-17 (2): They’ve come back down to earth a little bit, losing four of their last seven, but they should remain in this second tier. They are still playing well, and their losses came against a then-streaking Nuggets team, a still-streaking Nets team, and two of the elites: Indiana and Oklahoma City. They are legit.

8. Houston Rockets, 28-15 (9): The Rockets have now won seven of their last nine games thanks to terrific play from James Harden, Dwight Howard, and most surprisingly, Terrence Jones. Jones is averaging 17 points and 11 rebounds and January, and he might negate the Rockets most glaring need: a stretch four to pair with Howard. Jones can’t shoot threes, but that’s why Chandler Parsons is playing a jaw-dropping 42 minutes per game this month. Really, the Rockets should still trade Omer Asik for a shooter because Parsons can’t sustain a 42 minute per game pace. But right now, it’s working.

—- Middle of the West—-

9. Dallas Mavericks, 25-18 (10): It’s basically same old, same old for the Mavericks, who continue to play at playoff level. But they are an older team and they’re not leaving themselves much breathing room right now. They are no playoff lock.

10. Phoenix Suns, 23-17 (8): They are going through a little dip right now, but I think it’s just that: a small blip on the radar of the biggest surprise of the 2013-14 season. The Suns miss Eric Bledsoe, and it’s showing in their play. Bledsoe remains out indefinitely, which is bad for the Suns’ playoff hopes, but as long as he returns fairly soon, the Suns will stay in the playoff race.

11. Memphis Grizzlies, 20-20 (16): I said that the Grizzlies needed to go on a winning streak or two, and that’s what they are doing now. Since the return of Marc Gasol they are 3-1, and they are 10-5 since falling a season-low five games under .500. Right now, it looks like the Grizzlies, who are three games out of the playoffs now, will make a continued push. They have experience, so it would be foolish to doubt them. It looks like they are rolling right now, and I bet the top teams in the West would hope to avoid a team that has Mike Conley playing at an allstar level (18 points (a career high by more than three points), 6 assists, 1.5 steals per game) and Zach Randolph quietly averaging a double double. This is a dangerous team, especially with Gasol back. Also, don’t sleep on newly acquired Courtney Lee. Lee has been inserted into the starting lineup with Tony Allen injured and is averaging 15 points per game in his seven game Grizzly career. He also does something that the Grizzlies desperately need: he hits 3s, which has been the achilles heel for years.

12. Minnesota Timberwolves, 19-21 (11): We’re at the end of the “Cut the T-Wolves Some Slack” campaign. Yes, they have a great point differential, but we are at the halfway point and they are below .500. Something has to change. It seems like Ricky Rubio is hurting the team more than he is helping it. He can’t shoot, he can’t get to the line, and the defense can react and double Kevin Love. It’s unfortunate, and this is the last time I’ll cut them any slack. Love, by the way, is slumping in January, with 21 points per game (four down from his average) and 42% from the field (46% on the season). He seems a little bit tired out, and that’s understandable: he carries the offense.

—-Candidates for the #3 Seed—

13. Chicago Bulls, 20-20 (20): Chicago is full of 20 this week, and it’s all thanks to Tom Thibodeau. The coach didn’t care for the Luol Deng trade, so he decided to thwart the organization’s plan to tank. That’s my theory, at least, and with a coach like Thibs, it seems credible. As long as he coaches like this, the Bulls will keep winning (they are 8-2 in their last 10).

14. Toronto Raptors, 20-20 (15): The Raptors continue to play solid basketball, if not at the level they were playing a few weeks ago. Kyle Lowry, the point guard, should be an all-star. He’s averaging 17-4-7 on the season and also shoots 41% from three point range and 81% from the free throw line. That’s an all-star line, and he’s also helped DeMar DeRozan find more open shots. DeRozan is a score-only shooting guard, so he’d better score a lot, and he is; 21 points per game is just what the doctor ordered.

15. Brooklyn Nets, 17-22 (18): Here come the Nets. They are really hitting their stride now, and they should take over the division lead from Toronto soon. Their recent wins have been really impressive. Here’s their last eight games: 95-93 @OKC, 89-82 vs CLE, 91-86 vs ATL, 102-98 vs GSW, 104-95 vs MIA, 96-80 @TOR, 127-110 @ATL, 103-80 @NYK. The only loss was at Toronto. That’s an impressive stretch, and it feels like KG and Paul Pierce are finally clicking with their new teammates. Imagine how they would be playing with Brook Lopez.

16. Atlanta Hawks, 21-19 (14): The Hawks remain in the #3 position despite the loss of their best player, Al Horford. It just seems like they can’t keep playing this well. They just don’t have the talent. It’s Jeff Teague and Paul Millsap and then basically nothing else. It’s crazy that they just knocked off the Heat, and it’s crazy that they are still 21-19.

17. Washington Wizards, 20-20 (17): The Wizards have been playing better recently, and probably have more talent than any of the teams directly above them (with the exception of the Nets). John Wall is a likely all-star, Bradley Beal is a good scorer, and Marcin Gortat has been really good down low. And yet they are still just .500 and have a negative point differential.

—- Stuck —-

18. Denver Nuggets, 20-20 (13): Let me put it frankly: the Nuggets are not going to be a playoff team. Memphis and Minnesota are probably better teams than they are, and neither of them are in the playoffs right now. The roster just isn’t talented enough.

19. New York Knicks, 15-26 (21): And just when we thought they were good again, they lost a stinker to the Nets as the culmination of a painful four game losing streak. I thought that they had turned things around, but maybe not. They really need to start winning now, or they could miss the playoffs. Remember, they don’t have their first round pick next year.

20. Cleveland Cavaliers, 15-26 (26): The Cavaliers are kind of in the same boat as the Knicks. They have a lot of talent, with Kyrie Irving, Luol Deng, Dion Waiters, Tristan Thompson, and Anderson Varejao as the best players. You could do a lot worse, and many teams who are playing better basketball than they are have worse rosters. Maybe they just are destined to be a sad franchise. I really feel bad for Cavaliers fans. The reason for the big bump up is that Deng is fitting in well and they have been slightly better recently.

21. Charlotte Bobcats, 18-25 (19): The Bobcats remain in the playoff mix. They play good defense, and are generally very boring to watch. They need another big piece, which is why they should probably try not to make the playoffs this year.

22. Detroit Pistons, 17-24 (22): They are another team with talent, and they are another under performing team. Something has to change. They can trade Greg Monroe, or they can bench Josh Smith. Heck, I don’t care what they do, as long as it makes some sense. But what they are doing right now isn’t working.

— Tanking–

For the first time, I am fully confident that the bottom eight teams are tanking. They aren’t playing well, and they don’t plan on it. This is just a rough order:

23. Sacramento Kings, 14-25 (23)
24. New Orleans Pelicans, 16-24 (12)

25. Utah Jazz, 14-28 (28)
26. Boston Celtics, 14-28 (24)
27. Los Angeles Lakers, 16-26 (25)
28. Philadelphia 76ers, 13-28 (29)
29. Orlando Magic, 11-30 (27)
30. Milwaukee Bucks, 7-33 (30)

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