Final Regular Season NBA Power Rankings

Posted: 04/10/2014 by levcohen in Basketball

Yeah, it’s been a long time. With the NCAA tournament finished and baseball now fully underway (I’ll have more baseball posts soon), it’s now time to focus back on the NBA. Most teams have just three or four games left, and all but a few playoff spots are decided, so this is for all intents and purposes an end of season power rankings. And since it’s been a month since my last ranking, there are going to be some major shakeups.

Note: I’m just going to do the teams that are still realistically in the playoff hunt, which is a total of 18 (well, 17 and a half) relevant teams.

— The Elites —

1. San Antonio Spurs, 60-18 (1): When I last wrote about the Spurs, they were 46-16 and coming off a blowout win over the Miami Heat. They were riding a six game win streak. Well, not much has changed since then, and the Spurs have cemented themselves as the best team in the NBA. Their winning streak ended at 19 games with a close loss at Oklahoma City, which they probably don’t mind. On the one hand, it would have been nice to beat OKC, because the Spurs had already lost three times to the Thunder. On the other hand, they did keep it fairly close in Oklahoma City, and the end of their winning streak means they can rest more players and relax heading into the playoffs with their spot as the #1 seed all but clinched. This team is unbelievable. Nobody on their team averages as much as 30 minutes per game, which is unheard of, and they have also been banged up throughout the season. It doesn’t matter, at least in the regular season. The Spurs keep churning out 60 win teams, and where they will really be judged is in the playoffs. Tim Duncan has again been one of the best per-minute players in the NBA, and he is the only one of the Spurs’ top four scorers who has played more than 65 games. The best way to describe this team is as unique, because they don’t rely on their stars to play heavy minutes and lead them to victory. Their biggest star is probably Gregg Popovich, who should win Coach of the Year every single season.

2. Oklahoma City Thunder, 57-21 (6): The Thunder were always going to be fine. They just had a bumpy period when Russell Westbrook returned, and I think that period is over now. This is clearly one of the more dangerous teams in the NBA, and I think it’s the only team the Spurs legitimately do not want to face, Heat included. The bench is still a problem. Without Thabo Sefolosha, who could come back soon, the Thunder have very little defense on the bench. They also are thin when it comes to big men, which is a problem now and will likely become a bigger problem in the playoffs. But when you have Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook, you can get away with a lack of depth. It’s the best 1-2 punch in the league, and if you put those two on a team with a bunch of nobodies, you will have a playoff team. Although they don’t have James Harden, the Thunder have actually managed to put some decent players around those two; Serge Ibaka and Reggie Jackson are in the midst of career years, Caron Butler is averaging 10 points per game since joining the team, and even Derek Fisher is contributing. Their biggest advantage is the fact that they match up so well with the Spurs, as that could well be the Western Conference Finals. In fact, the Thunder will probably be more worried about a possible second round matchup with the Clippers, because the Clippers are the type of team who could cause Oklahoma City some problems. With their athleticism, I think OKC would be favored to win a series against top seeded SAS.

3. Los Angeles Clippers, 55-24 (3): In their close loss against the aforementioned Thunder last night, the Clippers lost any shot at the #2 seed, but also showed grit, determination, and resilience. They went on a 14-0 run in the fourth quarter, cutting a 16 point lead to two in a span of five minutes. Unfortunately, they never ended up taking a lead, as they turned the ball over multiple times and missed some free throws down the stretch. That’s really the issue with this team: free throw shooting. Blake Griffin has improved this year, but he was the one who missed two free throws that would have tied the game with under three minutes to play. DeAndre Jordan is still a terrible free throw shooter, so in a close game, he might have to sit out near the end. That’s a big problem. We also saw the difference between Oklahoma City’s 1-2 punch and LA’s (Chris Paul and Griffin). It goes without saying that both pairs are fantastic, but it was the OKC pair that scored their last 13 points, and it was the OKC pair that always kept the Clippers behind. Whenever a big shot was needed, Westbrook or Durant made it. They outscored Paul and Griffin 13-3 in the last five minutes, and that was the difference in the game.

4. Miami Heat, 53-25 (2): The reason I’m giving the Heat the benefit of the doubt and not the Pacers is that the Heat have been here before. In each of the past three years, there has been some sort of panic when it comes to this team. They go on a losing streak, and suddenly the sky is falling. Believe it or not, the Heat have made the finals all three years, winning two NBA Championships. That’s why I advise you to take their recent play, which hasn’t been great, with a grain of salt. Whether they are the top seed or the second seed, LeBron and Co. will turn it up in the playoffs. I don’t feel sure about Indiana making the conference finals, but I’m very confident that Miami will do so, which is why they will continue to be considered an “elite” team.

— Rest of the West —

5. Houston Rockets, 52-26 (4): The Rockets are just 8-7 since my last post, so they are another team that is struggling a little bit heading into the playoffs. I would be a little bit worried. I think this is the time to give Dwight Howard some major defensive props. The stories of Howard’s demise, especially defensively, have been widespread. He has now been thrown into a group of average defenders, and hasn’t been getting any recognition in the DPOY race. Once the most feared defender in the league, Howard is now underrated. Just look at the games he has missed. Howard has missed 10 of the past 12 games with an ankle injury. The Rockets have allowed at least 100 points in nine of them, against a smattering of good teams and a few bad ones. They are allowing 111 points per game in those 10 games. To put that in perspective, the NBA-worst Sixers are allowing 110 points per game for the season. The Rockets have allowed 103 points per game throughout the season, so they are clearly a much worse defensive team without Howard than they are with him. Houston needs Dwight back in order to be considered any sort of contender. Even with Howard, I’d consider them the fourth best team in the West, but they have the potential to make a run with Dwight and James Harden. Without Howard, they’ll lose in the first round. It’s as simple as that.

6. Golden State Warriors, 48-29 (7): In Stephen Curry we trust. The Warriors have won seven of their last eight games against the non-San Antonio Spurs (they have two losses against San Antonio in their last 10), which includes their last two games, both of which have been blowouts: 102-69 over Sacramento, and 130-102 over Utah. Against those two poor teams, we saw the Warriors at their absolute peak. The Kings shot just 32%, the Warriors made 10 threes, forced 16 turnovers, and outrebounded Sacramento by 13. Seven players, including Marreese Speights, Jermaine O’Neal, Draymond Green, Jordan Crawford, and Harrison Barnes, all scored in double figures. Curry barely had to do anything. Then, against Utah, we saw an incredible offensive performance. The Warriors allowed the Jazz to shoot 45% from the floor and put up 102 points, but that didn’t matter, because Curry was incredible. The point guard scored 31 points, shot 12-18 from the floor, and added 16 assists. Many of those assists went to his backcourt mate, Klay Thompson, who poured in 33 points on 11-20 shooting and hit seven three pointers. As a team, Golden State shot an incredible 17-33 from three point land. When they play like they did against Sacramento and Utah, the Warriors are one of the best teams in the league. I hope they do that more often in the playoffs.

7. Dallas Mavericks, 48-31 (10)
8. Phoenix Suns, 47-31 (11)
9. Memphis Grizzlies, 46-32 (9)
All three of these teams are playing well, but because the West is insane, one of them will miss the playoffs. That means we could, for the first time, see a 49 win team miss the playoffs. Let’s start with Dallas, who are 10-5 since I last wrote. Dirk Nowitzki is making sure this team will make the playoffs. He is averaging 24.4 points per game in April with insane 59% shooting, 58% from three point range (he’s averaging three made threes per game), 7.6 rebounds, and three assists per game. That, my friends, is why the Mavericks will likely be in the playoffs. I really want to see a matchup between San Antonio and Dallas, because that would mean at least four games between Tim Duncan and Dirk Nowitzki. That would be special.
Then there is Phoenix, who are my second favorite team in the NBA. It’s not close, really. This team is so fun to watch and their turnaround has been so amazing that it is hard not to love this team. They were predicted to be the second worst team in the NBA, better than only the Sixers. Instead, they started strong, kept playing well without one of their two best players (Eric Bledsoe) and are 11-4 since the return of Bledsoe, with wins in Portland, Toronto, and Washington, to go along with a home win over Oklahoma City, in that span. Speaking of Oklahoma City, I think Phoenix would have a great shot to beat them should they match up in the first round, which is a possibility. The Suns always get into shootouts with the Thunder, and are 2-1 against OKC. That’s not a fluke. The Thunder have a tough time slowing down their fast pace, and I think a first round matchup between the two would be super fun and could go seven games. If Gregg Popovich doesn’t win Coach of the Year, Jeff Hornaceck will, because of the great job he has done in his first year in Phoenix. It’s also likely that the Most Improved Player will come from Phoenix. There are just so many players who have improved exponentially this season; Goran Dragic, Miles Plumlee, GERALD GREEN, the Morris Twins, Channing Frye… The list goes on and on, which is why Phoenix is currently a playoff team.
They are barely a playoff team, though, because Memphis is also playing well (see, that segue is why I’m the best in the business). After a huge win over the Heat last night, the Grizzlies moved to 31-13 in their last 44 games. That win percentage extended over a full season would see them at the top of the East and third in the West. Wow
The great thing about this race is that it will probably be decided head-to-head. The three teams play round robin in the closing stage of the season (thank you, schedule makers) which means that each one has their fate in their own hands. I honestly have no idea what will happen. Memphis has the easiest remaining schedule, with games against the Lakers and Sixers to go along with those two huge ones. They are also a game behind the Suns, and a game and a half behind the Mavericks. The Suns are playing the best basketball right now, and have a game against Sacramento to close out the season, but they also have to play at San Antonio. The Mavericks also have a game against the Spurs left, and also have one fewer game on the schedule. So the Spurs can basically choose who they want to play in the first round. That’s amazing. Here’s the schedule, to make things clearer:
DAL: vs SAS, vs PHX, @ MEM
PHX: @ SAS, @ DAL, vs MEM, @ SAC
MEM: vs PHI, @ LAL, @ PHX, vs DAL
Wow. The most likely scenario looks like this:
Dallas goes 1-2 to end the season and goes 49-33
Phoenix goes 2-2 to end the season and goes 49-33
Memphis goes 3-1 to end the season and goes 49-33. I don’t know what would happen in the case of a three way tie. All I would know is that one team would go home very unhappy because of some tiebreaker.

10. Portland Trailblazers, 51-28 (8): It looks like the Blazers will go into the playoffs as the fifth seed, but they are the team that everyone wants to play right now. Then again, the same thing was said about the Mavericks three years ago, and those Mavs won the NBA Championship. I doubt Portland does the same, but I won’t be sleeping on them.

— Miami’s Competition in the East —

11. Indiana Pacers, 54-25 (5): Just look at last night’s game. Against the Milwaukee Bucks, all five Indiana Pacer starters were benched in order to give them a rest or clear their heads or something. Then the subs won the game against the worst team in the NBA by two points. Something is weird about that. The Pacers are now 8-12 since moving to 46-17, and 4-8 since edging the Sixers on March 17th. Something is wrong, and I hope the Pacers turn it around.

12. Chicago Bulls, 46-32 (12)
13. Toronto Raptors, 46-32 (13)
Both of these teams are hot right now, and these two teams are in fact the two best in the Eastern Conference right now, believe it or not. I think either one would be favored against Indiana in a playoff series right now, although the Pacers will have one round to figure things out before a possible matchup with one of these two teams. Toronto has won four straight and Chicago six, and although I think everyone now understands that Chicago is a nasty team to play against in the playoffs, I think people are still underestimating the Raptors, who have a chance to go even further than the Bulls because they are a much more dynamic offensive team. The Pacers, who can’t score, would have trouble keeping up with Toronto.

14. Brooklyn Nets, 43-35 (15): This is perhaps the only team in the East that genuinely wants to play the Heat, with the possible exception of the Pacers. The Nets, who feature Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce (both Heat-haters) are 4-0 against Miami this year. It looks as if those two guys have had a huge impact in the locker room, which could play huge dividends come playoff time. This team still has Deron Williams and some good supporting pieces, so I wouldn’t be shocked to see them take a series with the Heat six or seven games. Would they win? I doubt it, but you never know. I really want this year’s playoffs to be full of upsets in the Eastern Conference, because everyone has been saying “Miami-Indiana” all year long. Let’s hope for Chicago-Toronto or Brooklyn-Toronto.

— I don’t think they’ll make an impact in the playoffs—

15. Washington Wizards, 40-38 (13)
16. Charlotte Bobcats, 40-38 (17)
Although the Bobcats just beat the Wizards last night, I’m ranking these two teams in order of who the Heat or Pacers would least like to play. I think that’s the Wizards, because they are a higher variance team than the Bobcats. You know the Bobcats are going to play good to great defense, but you also know that they are going to struggle to score points. Maybe Al Jefferson has a monster game or two, but that’s probably all Charlotte will get offensively. At most, I see them taking Miami or Indiana to six games, even though the top teams are struggling. Washington, on the other hand, has the talent and offensive ability to get hot. They could probably beat Indiana in a playoff series right now. I’d be surprised, but not shocked, because the Wizards have John Wall, who is better than any player on the Pacers right now. Congratulations to the Bobcats for making the playoffs, though, and they have been playing extremely well recently. They are 11-4 since my last post, although their best wins in that time have been home wins against Brooklyn and Portland to go along with that road win in Washington last night.

17. Atlanta Hawks, 35-43 (20): Even though the Hawks have basically admitted that they want to fall out of the playoffs, they are closing in on the eighth seed, simply because they have Paul Millsap and because the Knicks, Cavaliers, and Pistons are utter disgraces. Imagine how boring a first round matchup between the Pacers and Hawks would be. How many people would watch those games? Four? Five? It wouldn’t be pretty, that’s for sure.

— Only because I have to put them here—
18. New York Knicks, 33-45 (21): For a while, I really thought the Knicks were going to make the playoffs. They were streaking, and at one point were tied with the Hawks. But I hadn’t looked at their schedule. Their last six games are against the Wizards, Heat, Raptors, Bulls, Nets, and Raptors again. All six are legitimate playoff teams, and the Knicks have already lost the first two. They are 13-31 against teams in these rankings, which tells you how likely it is that they’ll win even two of the last four games. Not likely at all, that is.

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