NBA Power Rankings; Warriors still #1

Posted: 12/04/2014 by levcohen in Basketball

It’s been close to a month since my last power rankings, so let’s do another one. You know the season is in full swing when seven Western Conference teams have better records than the second best team in the East. And while last year the West dominated the 6-15 range in these rankings, this year they are going to dominate the top 10. Expect six to eight Western Conference teams to be in the top 10 on a regular basis. We’ll start, of course, with:
(ranking in my last power rankings)

— Tier 1: Consistently dominant—

1. Golden State Warriors, 15-2 (1): I tried to wait out the Warriors. I really did. I waited and waited and waited to do another power rankings, thinking it would be nice to have a new #1 and feeling that it was likely that the Warriors would stumble at some point. And, while they almost certainly will eventually slow down slightly, they haven’t yet. They are one of the most talented teams in the league, and new head coach Steve Kerr has been a breath of fresh air for the offense. Last year, the Warriors were great defensively but surprisingly mediocre offensively. This year, the difference is not their defense (it’s still top-three if not top-one), but rather their offense. Last year’s 12th most efficient team per 100 possessions is now seventh, and to me they have the best offense in the NBA outside of Dallas and Los Angeles (not the Lakers). They play at the fastest pace in basketball, and just simply dominate teams. They have a top MVP candidate in Stephen Curry (24-5-8 with better defense than people think, 3.2 threes per game, and a 27.9 PER), but they also have a really deep bench. Andre Iguodala, Shaun Livingston, and Leandro Barbosa are all great options off the bench, and Marreese Speights has quickly developed into a top sixth man of the year candidate. In just 16 minutes per game, he’s averaging 12.4 points and five rebounds per game while shooting 57% and posting a 26.6 PER, which ranks sixth in the NBA. He won’t keep this torrid pace up, and neither will the Warriors, but both look pretty darn dominant right now.

2. San Antonio Spurs, 13-5 (5): Nothing much to say about the Spurs. Even after all these years, it’s still shocking to me how consistently good they have been in the regular season. It’s not as if Gregg Popovich rides his stars in the regular season (in fact, he does the opposite), but they just win and win and win, no matter who is providing the minutes and points.

3. Memphis Grizzlies, 15-3 (4): Defensively, the Grizzlies have actually been a bit worse than people who just look at their points allowed per game think, because the Grizzlies play at a very slow pace. While they’ve allowed the second fewest points per game, they are just fourth in defensive efficiency per 100 possessions. But they make up for that and more with their offense, which has actually been above-average this year. Most of the praise is being awarded to Marc Gasol, and for good reason. Gasol has turned into a scorer and a playmaker, and has allowed Mike Conley and Zach Randolph to take more of a backseat, which in turn has made the other two more effective. The Grizzlies look set to grab a top four seed, and hopefully they don’t play the Clippers again in the first round. Any matchup featuring the Grizzlies and a more offensively oriented team would be interesting. Just imagine Dallas-Memphis or Portland-Memphis. Either series would definitely be one to watch.

4. Dallas Mavericks, 15-5 (11): I said it last time, and I’ll say it again: I believe in this team. I had them ranked 11th because of a 4-3 start, but since then they have been terrific. This is without a doubt the best offensive team in basketball, as they are averaging the most points per possession and the most points per game. They have weapons galore, and it’s hard to find a team that’s sound enough defensively to defend Monta Ellis, Chandler Parsons, Dirk Nowitzki, and easy-bucket specialist Tyson Chandler. They also have Brandan Wright coming off the bench, and all Wright is doing is shooting 73% from the field. Their close-win luck will end soon enough (five straight wins by seven or fewer points), but their offensive efficiency will not.

—Tier 2: Oozing with talent—

5. Chicago Bulls, 12-7 (2)
6. Cleveland Cavaliers, 9-7 (6): I’m clumping these teams together because they are still, despite slow starts, the overwhelming co-favorites in the Eastern Conference. They both have tons of talent, and while there have been worrying signs, they will both stay near the top of my rankings ahead of teams with better records until I see something more worrying.

7. Los Angeles Clippers, 13-5 (9): After a disappointing start to the season, the Clippers have quickly restored order. They’ve won six straight and eight of nine, and, since November 19th, seven of their nine games have ended in wins by 16+ points. Chris Paul looks like he always has, and has regained his status as a top MVP candidate. Blake Griffin started slow, but he’s up over 20 points per game and should see his rebounding numbers climb. Meanwhile, DeAndre Jordan is third in the NBA in rebounds per game while Jamal Crawford and J.J. Redick can catch fire in an instant. There are still concerns, which is why I have them seventh: they need a wing defender, they could use another good post defender, and they could use an upgrade over Jordan Farmar at backup point guard, especially given that Chris Paul is injury prone. These are pretty significant concerns, and I’ll keep an eye on how they address them as we get closer to the trade deadline, but for now, you can’t be too upset with the way they are playing.

8. Houston Rockets, 14-4 (3): Even with Dwight Howard injured, the Rockets haven’t missed a beat. They have five wins in their last six games, including wins over Memphis and Dallas (the only blemish was a home blowout loss to the Clippers, which is why I have the Clippers slightly ahead). And the early injuries to Patrick Beverley, Terrance Jones, and Howard might be blessings in disguise, as guys like Isaiah Canaan (before he got injured), Donatas Motiejunas, Kostas Papanikolaou, and Jason Terry have been given chances to prove that they can be key members of a championship run. The swap of Chandler Parsons for Trevor Ariza also looks like, at worse, a sideways move. Ariza’s experience and defense might make him even more valuable to the Rockets than Parsons.

—Tier 3: Incredible production—

9. Portland Trailblazers, 14-4 (8): It shocks me that I have these next two teams, both of which are at least 10 games over .500 already, at #9 and #10. But with seven terrific Western Conference teams and two sleeping giants in the East, this is where I have to slot the Blazers and Raptors in. We know how good Portland’s offense is, as they proved it throughout last season’s run and have continued to be a top-five offense this season. As the season goes on, it will be interesting to see if the Blazers can keep up their defensive effort. They currently allow the sixth fewest points per 100 possessions, and they’ll surely move up in these rankings if they can keep that up.

10. Toronto Raptors, 15-4 (7): I recently wrote about the Raptors, and I readily acknowledge that if I were simply basing this on how each team has played so far this season I would have Toronto in the top three or four. But I’m not just doing that (see: Bulls, Chicago and Cavaliers, Cleveland), and the injury to DeMar DeRozan hurts the Raptors’ outlook over the next few months. I still see the Raptors finishing with a top three seed in the East, but they really need the #1 seed for a great chance of advancing to the Eastern Conference finals. If they finish second or third, they will likely have to face the Bulls or Cavs in the second round, which, even after their respective starts, still would likely be a loss.

—Tier 4: The wildcard—

11. Oklahoma City Thunder, 5-13 (17): To me, the Thunder belong in a category of their own. They are 5-13 and 5.5 games out of eighth place in the West, and yet I’ve moved them up six spots since my last ranking. The reason, of course, is the return of not only Russell Westbrook but also Kevin Durant. Westbrook’s timeline was always fairly rigid, but Durant’s wasn’t: his foot fracture had some people guessing he wouldn’t be back until 2015. But he returned just six weeks after surgery, and looked great in his first game back. If both stars stay healthy, the Thunder will almost certainly make up the 5.5 games and reach the playoffs, where they would be one of the favorites. That’s a big if, though, which is why I’m calling them the wildcard.

—Tier 5: Eastern playoff teams, Western lottery teams–

12. Phoenix Suns, 11-8 (12): Are the Suns going to finish ninth in the superior West for a second consecutive year? It sure looks like it right now. Phoenix’s .579 win percentage and +2 point differential is right in line with last year’s .585 and +2.6, and they look like they are going to be a threat throughout the season just as they were last season. The problem is that there are just eight better teams in the West. These two Phoenix teams, though, will probably lead to some sort of change in the conference structure. We could see the conferences just merge into one, or we could see some team movement from conference to conference. This much is clear: the 16 best teams need to make the playoffs each year. The Suns are one of the 16 best teams, but they might well miss the playoffs again.

13. Washington Wizards, 12-5 (13): We know what the Wizards are going to be in the regular season. They are going to capitalize on an easy schedule and beat the teams they should be beating. Case in point: they are 11-1 against .500-or-worse teams and 1-4 against teams better than .500. They are probably going to be the third or fourth seed, but, with the large exception of Paul Pierce, they are fairly unproven. Can John Wall and Co. step up in the playoffs? Only time will tell, and the regular season should be more about finding lineups that work and determining who can play big minutes in the playoffs than anything.

14. New Orleans Pelicans, 8-8 (14): ANTHONY DAVIS. ANTHONY DAVIS. ANTHONY DAVIS. Sound familiar? That’s because I wrote the same exact thing last week. Unfortunately, it’s looking increasingly likely that the Pelicans have pulled off the difficult task of keeping a top-three player who is a great offensive and defensive player out of the playoffs. Davis makes the Pelicans a threat on any given night, but I don’t think they will play well enough night in and night out to have any real chance at making a playoff run. By the way, Davis’s stats: 25 points per game, 11 rebounds, 2.3 steals, 3.1 blocks, a 56% field goal percentage, a 77% free throw percentage, and an astronomical 33.4 PER. Not only is that by far the best PER in the NBA, but it also would trump the all-time record (31.82 by Wilt Chamberlain in 1962-63). He won’t keep this pace up, but anything close to it would cement his spot as the third best player in basketball and would leave him primed to take the top spot in the coming year(s).

15. Sacramento Kings, 9-9 (15): My 12-15 spots are identical to what they were last time, which is pretty neat. What’s happened to the Kings was pretty predictable. In fact, I predicted it early in the season, saying the Kings were way better than they were last year but still not a threat to make the playoffs. They’ve now lost four in a row and will probably end with a losing record, but they are in the midst of a year that marks the next and possible final step in their lonnnng rebuild.

16. Atlanta Hawks, 11-6 (18): When your favorite team is the Sixers, you need to find some other teams to root for come playoff time. For me, one of those teams is the Atlanta Hawks, who, although unlikely to advance far in the playoffs, have become really fun to watch. They are a really good offensive team and a bad defensive one, which leads to some high-scoring games. They move the ball as well as any team east of San Antonio, and they have an asset in Kyle Korver who is shooting an insane 57% from three on an ample 5.3 attempts per game. I don’t think I’ve ever seen something like that. If Al Horford gets right, and he’s clearly not right, this team could make the second round of the playoffs and cause some difficulties when they get there.

17. Denver Nuggets, 9-9 (26): It’s the Nuggets who have moved up more than any other team on this list thanks to eight wins in their last 11 games. They still won’t make the playoffs, but they are a lot better than I thought they were earlier in the season. They’ve also won four of their past five home games (including 20 and 25 point wins against the Pelicans and Suns), seemingly regaining their stellar homecourt advantage.

—Tier 6: On the Eastern Conference playoff bubble—

18. Miami Heat, 9-9 (10): Yeah, I probably overreacted to Miami’s hot start. This team clearly doesn’t have the horses to compete with the top dogs in the Eastern Conference, despite Chris Bosh’s best efforts. To be fair, though, I did say that they would struggle to make the playoffs when Dwyane Wade inevitably got injured. The injury just happened a bit earlier than I thought it would.

19. Brooklyn Nets, 8-9 (16): The Nets really aren’t a team I want to talk much about. They are probably going to get to around 40 wins, more because they are in the weaker conference than because of their talent. They are the anti-Hawks in that they are really not fun to watch. I hope I don’t have to see them in the playoffs in a yawn-inducing series with the Raptors or Bulls.

20. Milwaukee Bucks, 10-10 (23): The Bucks have quietly become the Kings of the Eastern Conference. Two differences: the Kings are more talented and better than the Bucks, and the Bucks are much more likely to make the playoffs. Makes sense. In all seriousness, though, Brandon Knight, Jabari Parker, Giannis, and the Bucks are pretty fun to watch, at least compared to the Nets.

21. Indiana Pacers, 7-11 (27): They aren’t good, but they aren’t the tanking trainwreck I thought they would be. In retrospect, though, Larry Bird and Frank Vogel probably weren’t going to let this Paul George-less Pacers team tank. They still are defensively sound, but they can’t score; they are ahead of just the Magic, Hornets, Pistons, star-less Thunder, and Sixers in points per possession. None of those other teams are going to make the playoffs (the Thunder probably will, but not the incarnation that led to the #29 offense), so the Pacers are going to have to carry the torch for the scoring-deficient.

— Tier 7: In the midst of a slooow rebuild—

22. Utah Jazz, 5-14 (21)
23. Orlando Magic, 7-14 (28): These teams are in similar positions. They both have been bad for awhile, and they both have some talented young pieces. They are also both still playing pretty badly, so some improvement in the next few months would be nice, if only to give fans something to look forward to next year or whenever the rebuild finally ends.

—Tier 8: Not quite as bad as the 76ers—

24. Boston Celtics, 5-11 (20): Will Rajon Rondo get traded? That’s the biggest question the 2014 Celtics will face, and the answer is yet to be determined. “No” seems like the more likely answer as of now, though.

25. New York Knicks, 4-15 (24): Last time I said it might work eventually. This time? No such hope for Phil Jackson’s triangle or the total defensive discombobulation the team that calls Madison Square Garden home has put out on a nightly basis. Things aren’t looking great in America’s biggest city.

26. Los Angeles Lakers, 5-14 (29): They have looked slightly more competent since Nick Young returned, and Jordan Hill has also been a pleasant surprise. This team is infinitely more watchable than the Knicks and Celtics because it has Kobe Bryant putting up crazy shot numbers and gunning for records, but it’s not any better than either of them.

27. Detroit Pistons, 3-16 (25): Not only are they not better with Stan Van Gundy coaching, but they are a whole lot worse. And that’s saying a lot. Poor Pistons fans.

28. Charlotte Hornets, 4-15 (19): More on them later. I’ve been shocked with how bad the Hornets have looked.

29. Minnesota Timberwolves, 4-13 (22): They lost to the 76ers.

—Tier 9: The Philadelphia 76ers—

30. Philadelphia 76ers, 1-17 (30): The goal for this year? Don’t set any records. It’s been a success so far.

Highest risers:
Denver Nuggets (+9)
Dallas Mavericks (+7)

Biggest fallers:
Charlotte Hornets (-9)
Miami Heat (-8)

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