Pre All-Star Break Power Rankings 1-10

Posted: 02/10/2014 by levcohen in Basketball

The All-Star break starts on Friday, and All-Star weekend looks like it’s going to be super fun. More on that later in the week, but for now I’ll do a pre-break power rankings, starting with a new #1:

Splitting this into two posts this time, because I’m going into a little more depth. 1-10 this time, 11-30 next.

—-THE ELITES—-

1. Oklahoma City Thunder, 41-12 (2): Last time I did these rankings, the Thunder were 31-10. Since then, it’s been more of the same, shocking loss to the Magic aside. The formula to success is simple and effective. Kevin Durant provides his uber-efficient 30+ points (he scored at least 30 in thirteen straight games, becoming the third player ever to do that- Tracy McGrady and Kobe Bryant were the first two), and recently he has also been distributing the ball even better than usual, with a career high 5.5 assists per game this year (up from 2.7 three years ago, 3.5 two years ago, and 4.6 last year), including 8.6 assists per game in his five February games. But Durant also has help, and it comes from a variety of players who don’t mind being secondary players. Serge Ibaka and Reggie Jackson, both having breakout seasons, are the two obvious ones, as they are providing a combined 28.8 points per game, with Ibaka providing rim protection and Jackson vastly improving his shot and slashing ability. One reason that Durant has been able to score so much and so effectively is that he has shooters to spread the floor. While the team shot the ball better from three last season, they still have a lot of players who are threats to score from distance and spread the floor. So yeah, it’s pretty simple, and they are cruising. The imminent return of Russell Westbrook would muddle things, and it will probably take a while to install Westbrook into this new style of play. Will Durant continue to be as aggressive when Westbrook gets back? Will Jackson keep getting big playing time? One thing is for sure: the Thunder need Russell Westbrook if they want to go far in the playoffs and eventually win it all. Right now, I’d place them as the favorite to win it all, just because Durant can’t be stopped when he is playing at this level. If Westbrook can share the ball a little more when he comes back while staying electric, this team will be the hands-down favorite. The Thunder have definitely given themselves some breathing room, so they can afford to experiment a little bit when Westbrook comes back after the All-Star break.

2. Indiana Pacers, 39-11 (1): The Pacers have one thing in common with the Thunder: they shockingly lost to the Orlando Magic, who hold a 16-37 record. The Pacers lost heart-breakingly as Paul George missed a makeable twenty footer in the dying seconds of the game. Blip aside, though, the Pacers are still a great team. They have lost just two home games this season by a combined 13 points. They have two All-stars, and many people think a third, Lance Stephenson, should also be on the team (I am not one of those people). Stephenson has had a shocking season. Before last year’s playoffs, few people knew who he was. He was probably one of the lowest-profile starters of last season, as he averaged 8.8 points, 3.9 rebounds, and 2.9 assists in 29.2 minutes per game. After his playoff emergence last season (and he didn’t really emerge: besides his rebound and minutes uptick, his numbers were in line with his regular season stats), Lance has had the kid gloves taken off. He is controlling the ball more, becoming the de facto point guard for the Pacers (George Hill, who is down 1.2 assists this year, had a season best game when Stephenson missed a game). His minutes are up, and he’s averaging 14.2 points, 7.3 rebounds, and 5.2 assists while shooting over 50% from the field. Stephenson, to go along with Paul George, is probably one of the main reasons that the Pacers are better this year. George and Stephenson have been great, but I’ve been a little disappointed with the Pacers second all-star, Roy Hibbert. Hibbert is a tremendous defensive player, and was probably the Pacers’ most important player during the seven game series with the Heat last year. In last season’s playoffs, Hibbert averaged 17 points, 9.9 rebounds, and 1.9 blocks per game. I thought we had seen a new Hibbert, but now he’s back down to last year’s numbers: 11.9 points and 7.7 rebounds. Now, his minutes are also down, and maybe the Pacers are saving Hibbert until the playoffs. But I really thought that the center from Georgetown would turn into a dominant force for a whole season, and I was wrong, or at least have been so far.

The bottom line is that the Pacers don’t need a dominant Roy Hibbert to cruise through the regular season, especially in this weak Eastern Conference. It is, and has been, a two team race in the East between the Pacers and Heat. Who’s going to win the Eastern Conference Finals? Your guess is as good as mine, but right now I’m leaning towards the Pacers, just because I think Hibbert can be that impact player in the playoffs.

3. Miami Heat, 35-14 (4): Take anything the Heat do for the rest of the regular season with a grain of salt. The #1 seed seems out of reach, as the younger Pacers continue to win. But I don’t think that worries the Heat, who have won on the road in the playoffs before. I don’t think that LeBron’s “lack of effort” worries Pat Riley and the Heat either, because I simply believe that the accusations are untrue. What should worry Miami is LeBron seeming more tired this year than he has been in years past. There is no question that LeBron James has played worse defensively than he has in recent years. Last year, I felt that James should have been the Defensive Player of the Year. This year, he’s been a bit slow at defending pick and rolls, and has gotten beaten by a few quick players. That’s not due to a lack of effort; it’s due to fatigue. With the Heat 9.5 games ahead of the #3 seed, I wouldn’t be surprised if LeBron rests a bit more in the final part of the season. He has missed just one game all season, and is playing more than 37 minutes per game. Given that he has played 100+ games of NBA basketball in each of the last three years to go along with a smattering of USA basketball, it’s easy to see why he’s tired, and that he has played more than any other player has over the past few years. James is an amazing physical specimen, but he’s not invincible, and he should sit more with the Heat basically hibernating until the playoffs.

If the Heat want to beat the Pacers in a playoff series, they need Dwyane Wade at full strength. Last season, they got away with a less-than-full-strength Wade simply because the Pacers weren’t good enough to beat them. Now, though, Indiana has closed the talent and mental gap between the teams, and seem ready to defeat the two time defending champs. Wade has missed 13 games this season, but when he’s been playing he has been the same old Dwyane Wade. Wade is shooting a career best 55% from the field, and is at a fine 18.7 points per game, down 2.5 from last season. Wade has degenerate knees, so his knees won’t ever be 100%, but they just need to hold up for two playoff series (against the Pacers, and in the NBA Finals. He can rest some in the first and second rounds).

–SECOND TIER CONTENDERS–

4. Los Angeles Clippers, 36-18 (6): It’s hard to talk about anything but the absolute shellacking that the Clippers but on the 76ers last night. The 76ers are a terrible team, but still. The Clippers were up 46-15 after the first quarter and by as many as 56 points in the third quarter en route to a 123-78 win. It was an incredible display, and it wasn’t something that the Clippers would have been able to do last year. This team is much better than they were last year, and I think they have to be considered the second best team in the West right now. Consider that in the 18 games that Chris Paul missed, the Clippers went 12-6. That’s right: without their best player, and the third most important player in the NBA, they had the same winning percentage that they have with Paul. That’s amazing, and a lot of the praise has to go to the maligned Blake Griffin. Griffin has averaged 27.5 points per game since 2014 started, and has also improved at shooting free throws (60% in his first three seasons, 70% this season) and defending. He doesn’t block a lot of shots, but he is a great pick and roll defender and a good rebounder. You can thank Doc Rivers for Griffin’s improvement. DeAndre Jordan is also having a breakout season, as he leads the NBA in field goal percentage (65.6%) and rebounds per game (14.1). Jamal Crawford and Darren Collison picked up the backcourt scoring when Paul went down, averaging a combined 34.8 points per game in January. Keep in mind that the Clippers have been so good while J.J. Redick, their best shooter and fourth leading scorer, has missed nearly half the season. When Redick comes back, this team will be a force to be reckoned with. Heck, they were already a force to be reckoned with while their best player and best shooter were out of the lineup. Imagine what they can do with a full lineup. Actually, maybe you don’t need to imagine: just look at what happened last night against the 76ers. This team is the best bet to usurp the Thunder as the best in the West.

5. Houston Rockets, 34-17 (8): The Rockets, while playing somewhat under the radar, actually have the same winning percentage as the Clippers do. And that’s with one of their best players, Omer Asik, either injured or unhappy all season. I’ve been saying this all year, but you have to think that Houston will trade Asik before the imminent trade deadline. Who can they get for the center? I think they’ll probably ask for a combination of a stretch-four (Thaddeus Young, Paul Milsap mode) and a draft pick. Those two guys are definite possibilities, and they’d both be huge helps to an already good team. Terrence Jones, who fills that stretch-four position, is having a breakout year in his second season, and he would be a great sixth man. One thing this team does need to address is their lack of depth at the swing man position. James Harden is averaging 38.5 minutes per game (second in the NBA) and Chandler Parsons is at 37.9 (fourth). They also have missed a combined 13 games, and don’t really have any legitimate backups. If Harden or Parsons gets dinged up in the playoffs, the Rockets will be in trouble, which is another reason to move Asik for some help. The Rockets have won 13 of their 17 games in 2014, with the three headed monster of Harden, Parsons, and Dwight Howard proving key. Howard has quietly had a very consistent, good season. He hasn’t missed a game, and while he isn’t the player he was in his prime, he has definitely been better than he was last season in Los Angeles.

Howard, Parsons, and Harden are a big-3 who offensively can challenge any trio in the NBA. The problem is that they all have problems defensively. Harden’s defensive effort has been questioned, Howard is too slow to defend faster big men on the fastbreak, and Parsons can’t defend the super explosive small forwards. That’s probably why the Rockets have allowed more points per game than any of their top-5 in the West brethren. So after reviewing all of those stats, it looks like this is what the Rockets should target in an Asik trade: A young wing player who can stretch the court by shooting well and can also defend well. Those players aren’t necessarily that hard to find, as Thabo Sefolosha of the Thunder is one lower-profile guy who can fill that mold. In Asik, the Rockets have a huge trade asset, and they’ll need to turn him into some productive players if they want to go far in the playoffs. I’m ranking them third in the West because I think they will get someone good for Asik who will vault them into the elite class in the West. Even if they don’t trade Asik, they do have the same winning percentage as the Clippers, who I just talked up.

6. San Antonio Spurs, 37-14 (3): Given that I already wrote about the Spurs, I’m not going to go into as much depth here. Some things have changed since I wrote about them, though. They have lost three of their last seven, and although one of those games was against Houston, the other two broke the trend that they had stayed true to throughout the season: underperforming against the best teams, and overperforming against everybody else. They lost to the Bulls and Nets, both mediocre in the East, and that has soured my view on them even more. The Spurs also lost Manu Ginobili to injury for at least a few weeks. It’s sad, but it was also almost inevitable, as Ginobili is an aging player who takes such a beating given his slim physique and his slashing style of play. Ginobili is just the latest Spurs injury. Three of their five starters (Tiago Splitter, Danny Green, Kawhi Leonard) have missed large portions of the season, and, although Green just returned, the other two are still out. Given that the star players aren’t young, the injuries to the supporting players are even more damaging. The Spurs need those guys back. The good news: this team still has the second best record in the West, and Tim Duncan looks as good as ever, with a double-double average, a 22.1 PER, and more than two blocks all in fewer than 30 minutes per game. Duncan’s per-36 minutes are as good as ever, which is amazing for the 16 year veteran who has started 1225 games which is 9th most of all time behind Kareem Abdul-Jabaar (1560), Karl Malone (1471), Robert Parish (approx 1360), Jason Kidd (1350), Kevin Garnett (1329), Reggie Miller (1304), John Stockton (1300), and Gary Payton (1233). It’s likely that Duncan will end up in the top-6 of all time, and with two more years after this could end up in the top-3 (of course, Garnett is also still playing).

Middle of the West —

7. Portland Trailblazers, 36-15 (5): For the first time, the Trailblazers are in the third tier. They have been trending that way for a while, so the fact that they are still third in the West is a testament to their amazing start. Here’s what the Trailblazers really are: they are a fantastic offensive team who can put on an offensive show against any team. They also allow the 4th most points per game in the NBA. LaMarcus Aldridge, Damian Lillard, and Wes Matthews are all great offensive players, but none of them are great defensive players. This is the contender that could use Omer Asik, although I don’t know whether the Rockets would trade Asik to a contender. Adding Asik would be adding a rim protector and allowing Aldridge to slack off defensively and focus on his offense. In all likelihood, this won’t be the Trailblazers year to make a run deep into the playoffs. They’ll be matched up against a good team in the first round, will likely push that team deep, and could win a series. But I don’t think they’d stand much of a chance against the Clippers or Thunder, so I think next year is the more realistic title-challenging season for this young team.

8. Phoenix Suns, 30-20 (10): The Suns are back on track now after winning seven of their past 10, and they continue to surprise most NBA fans. Amazingly, they continue to excel- they’ve recently won two games against the Pacers- without their point guard and most talented player, Eric Bledsoe. Bledsoe, who was originally pegged to be out 4-6 weeks with a knee injury, has hit the four week mark since playing, and is getting better. In his absence, Goran Dragic has picked it up, and he’s now averaging an efficient 20 points per game, including 23 points per game since 2014 started. This team is in it for the long haul, in large part because of surprising contributions from guys like Gerald Green (14 points per game, on his 7th NBA team in his 8th season), Channing Frye (12 points per game, missed last season with an enlarged heart), Miles Plumlee (started every game after playing 55 minutes TOTAL in his rookie year, shooting 24%, and scoring 13 points), and the Morris twins (13.9 points per game between them last year, 22.6 this year). And remember, they traded one of their only established starters, Marcin Gortat, right before the season started. This team was supposed to be tanking. Instead, they are a contender.

9. Golden State Warriors, 30-21 (7): I’m shocked that the Warriors haven’t been playing well. They are all healthy, and they have one of the more talented teams in the league. But something is off. Harrison Barnes is struggling, and they aren’t playing well as a team. Stephen Curry is still amazing, David Lee is good, and Andrew Bogut looks revitalized. It might just be that these guys aren’t the right fits for each other, or it might be a slump. They are still 2.5 games ahead of the Grizzlies for a playoff spot, but they haven’t been playing well. I still think they will make the playoffs, and I think they’ll be a scary team when they get there. But right now, I’m not that impressed.

10. Dallas Mavericks, 31-21 (9): Ho-hum for the 31-21 Mavericks, who are in the midst of a five game winning streak that included the big win over the Memphis Grizzlies. I really don’t know how they are doing it. Dirk Nowitzki is still his amazing self, and Monta Ellis has been revitalized on a new team, but besides that, all they have is role players. I think that, if anybody falls out of the playoffs, it will be the Mavericks, simply because they have Dirk, Monta, and not much else. But they are continuing to play well, and at this point it would be foolish to pick them to miss the playoffs. I don’t think they’ll have a big playoff impact, but they are definitely playing well right now.

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