Mid January NBA Power Rankings: The Elites

Posted: 01/15/2015 by levcohen in Basketball

It’s been a while, and the All-Star break is coming up in a few weeks, so I thought it would be a good time to do another power rankings. In fact, it’s been over a month since my last ranking of the 30 teams, so there will be some pretty big shakeups in these rankings. Since it’s been so long, I’ve decided to delve deeper into each team, which of course means more words. Since the top five teams are the most fun to write about, I usually write the most about them, so they’ll get a post to themselves.

— Tier 1: Consistently dominant—

1. Golden State Warriors, 31-5 (1): It was surprising at the beginning of the year, but it’s certainly not a surprise anymore: the Warriors are the best team in the NBA. In fact, they might be the #1 team from start to finish. Remember, this is a team that last season were legitimately at risk of missing the playoffs pretty late in the season. They ended 51-31, just three games ahead of the lottery-bound Phoenix Suns. And then they fired Mark Jackson, the quintessential players’ coach, and replaced him with Steve Kerr, who had never been a head coach. Even considering all the talent, it was reasonable to predict that the Warriors would take a small step back this year. Instead, they’ve upped their win percentage from .622 to .861 and their point differential from +4.8 to +11.1. They have three fewer losses than any other team and a point differential four points better, so it’s fair to say they are easily the best team in basketball. What’s changed? There weren’t any big trades or signings or draft picks, but the team is definitely different. Stephen Curry is obviously the linchpin of the team and is an MVP favorite, but he was great last year, too, so I’m going to skip him. Curry’s backcourt sidekick, Klay Thompson, has been much more efficient this season, raising his field goal percentage from .444 to .464 and his three point percentage from 42% to 44% while scoring three more points per game despite playing three fewer minutes. He’s even hitting more three-pointers this year than the 2.8 he hit per game last season. But it’s the depth guys that are more interesting. While established veterans David Lee and Andre Iguodala have each taken a noticeable step back, Draymond Green and Marreesse Speights each have much bigger roles. Speights is amazingly averaging 12.6 points per game in 18.6 minutes, becoming Golden State’s scorer off the bench after a season in which he was frequently in the doghouse and averaged 6.4 points in 12.4 minutes. I don’t know if the career 47% shooter can keep shooting 52%, but he’s been a huge part of the Warriors’ success. Green, though, has been the even bigger story. You could see the potential last year, when Green played well and looked like a long-term “glue guy” (code for important bench player). But he entered the starting lineup when Lee got hurt and hasn’t relinquished it. He’s averaging more minutes than anyone other than Curry and Thompson, and he’s playing a lot better. Green is still not a great shooter, but he’s scoring 11.8 points per game this year. Why? He’s shooting 4.3 threes per game this year, more than twice as high as last year’s 2.0. His field goal percentage has gone up from 41% to 44%, while he’s getting to the line more and has pushed his free throw percentage over 70%. He’s also a tremendous rebounder and passer for a small forward, and has a 2:1 assist:turnover ratio. Green’s biggest attribute, though, is his defense. He’s amazingly second in the entire NBA in ESPN’s Defensive Real Plus Minus at 4.69. That means he’s saving the Warriors 4.69 points per 100 possessions, so it’s no coincidence that the Warriors are easily the best defense in basketball. Green is 10th overall in RPM, behind: Stephen Curry (easily #1 overall), Damian Lillard (more on him soon), James Harden, Chris Paul, Anthony Davis, Kyle Lowry, John Wall, Paul Millsap, and Jimmy Butler. Wow.

The scary thing about the Warriors is that they have gotten very little from Lee and Iguodala, former stars who are bound to have some big moments come playoff time. It’ll be interesting to see whether the Warriors make a trade (could Lee go?), but I personally would just stick with this team right now. The Warriors have a better chance at winning it all than anyone, with a huge asterisk: Andrew Bogut must stay healthy. Bogut doesn’t often stay healthy, and he’s the only defensive presence down low (third in the NBA in DRPM). That’s why it might make some sense for the Warriors to get someone who can defend down low in Bogut’s stead. But right now, this team looks pretty unstoppable.

2. Portland Trailblazers, 30-9 (9): It’s pretty embarrassing that I had Portland at nine last time even though they were 14-4. I’m done doubting. When you have Damian Lillard and LaMarcus Aldridge, you are going to have a good team. The Blazers got off to a fast start last season, too, but that’s when they were the biggest surprise in the NBA and many wrote them off as pretenders in the fierce Western Conference. Then they entered the playoffs as a 54-28 five seed and knocked off the Rockets in the first round. This season, everyone’s taking them seriously. Like last year, Lillard and Aldridge are both averaging 20+ points per game. Aldridge’s numbers are weirdly similar to last season’s:
2013-14: 36.2 mpg, 23.2 ppg, 11.1 rpg, 2.6 apg, 46% field goal, 82% free throw
2014-15: 36.4 mpg, 23.3 ppg, 10.5 rpg, 1.9 apg, 46% field goal, 86% free throw

The big difference has been that Aldridge is now a threat from beyond the arc; after shooting 3-15 from three point range last season, he’s a stellar 18-38 already this year. Aldridge was already among the top-10 players in the NBA; now he might be top-5. The bigger step forward, though, has come from Lillard, the now-24-year-old Weber State alum who can legitimately claim to be the best point guard in basketball not named Stephen Curry. He’s boosted his PER from 18.7, which was above-average, to 22.8, which is 14th in the NBA and is probably underrating him. Lillard, who has made big shot after big shot after big shot early in his career, has upped his field goal percentage from 42.4% to 45.5%. Given the fact that he hits a lot of threes and is a great free throw shooter, Lillard has evolved into an efficient point guard. He’s averaging a career-high 22 points per game and adds 4.7 rebounds and 6.2 assists.

The Blazers’ supporting cast isn’t as good as Golden State’s, which is what separates the two teams. Last season’s biggest weakness was the bench (relative, of course, to other benches and not the rest of their team), and it probably still is, but it’s improved. Chris Kaman is a huge backup center upgrade over Joel Freeland and has averaged 9.8 points and 6.7 rebounds in fewer than 20 minutes per game. The biggest thing Portland needs? Probably another wing player. Wes Matthews is solid, while Nic Batum has seen his scoring drop but still provides lots of value. But Portland’s best bench wings are C.J. McCollum, Dorell Wright, and Allen Crabbe. Not great, and it’ll be something to watch if Matthews or Batum get into foul trouble in the playoffs. Portland could make a trade, but even if they don’t, they’re a contender. They just play great (and beautiful) basketball, with great ball movement and an underrated defense that is allowing the fewest points per game in all of basketball after being middle-of-the-pack (maybe worse) last year. They’ve improved from 16th to third in points allowed per possession. This is no fluke: everything has come together for this team over the past two seasons.

3. Atlanta Hawks, 31-8 (16): Here’s what I wrote about the Hawks last time: 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.

They were 11-6 then and 31-8 now, so things have changed. First, a few things that haven’t changed: this is still the team I’m going to be rooting for come playoff time, but don’t call me a bandwagon fan because I liked them before it was cool. It’s still a team that’s really run to watch, and Kyle Korver is still incredible. He’s now shooting 53% from three on 5.8 attempts per game. How is that even possible? And while he’s been better lately, Al Horford still isn’t the same guy he was before the injury. But that just makes everything that I’m about to say that much more amazing.

The Hawks are (gulp) 24-2 since November 26th. And one of those losses came on a buzzer-beater by Orlando’s Tobias Harris. The biggest difference has been the defense. The last time I wrote, the Hawks were 11-6 and were coming off two straight games in which they had won despite giving up more than 100 points. They had allowed opponents to cross the triple-digit threshold in nine of their first 17 games (53% of the time). In their last 22 games, they’ve allowed opponents to hit 100 points just seven times (32%). They’ve been a top-10 defensive team after opening the season as a bottom-10 one. This defensive transformation has been much more of a team effort than an individual one, as Paul Millsap is the only starter in the top-100 by DRPM. That, along with everything else, has to be attributed to coach Mike Budenholzer. Who knows if he will, but Budenholzer should win Coach of the Year in a landslide. He has turned a dysfunctional team that was bounced from the playoffs in the first round every single year to a free-flowing one that should now be considered the favorite in the Eastern Conference. Josh Smith and Joe Johnson are gone, which helps, and this team is just perfect together. The starting lineup of Jeff Teague, Korver, DeMarre Carroll, Millsap, and Horford has it all. Teague is the best offensive point guard in the Eastern Conference, and he runs extremely effective pick-and-rolls with Millsap and Horford. Korver not only requires a defender with a few inches of him at all times but also moves around well without the ball. Carroll is the king of the scrappy points, Millsap can get an easy layup an instant after seemingly being bottled up, and Horford is a great midrange shooter. They have it all. And the bench is pretty good too. Dennis Schroder, the German backup point guard, is probably going to be a future starter, and he’s been great for the Hawks this year. Thabo Sefolosha is a good defender who has experience with the Thunder playing in big games. Pero Antic is a big man who can shoot the three, and Elton Brand is another veteran presence. The run might come to an end, but there’s certainly no end in sight. This team is really good.

4. Chicago Bulls, 26-14 (5): The Hawks will probably win the top seed in the East, but the Bulls might still be the favorite to reach the NBA Finals. Their biggest strength is their frontcourt, which matches up well with Atlanta’s and everyone else’s. Pau Gasol was the best free-agent signing of the offseason, and it isn’t close. He’s absolutely exploded with the Bulls, averaging 19 points, 11 rebounds, and 2 blocks per game while shooting 48% from the field and 82% from the line. Then the Bulls have Joakim Noah, Taj Gibson, and Nikola Mirotic. Noah has been disappointing this season, and he must turn things around before the playoffs. He’s clearly been dealing with injuries, and his stats have suffered. His PER is down to 14.6 from 20.1 last season. After turning into a triple-double threat with 13 points, 11 rebounds, and five assists per game last season (including consecutive months at 7+ assists per game to end the season), he’s down to 7.6, 9.4, and 3.6 assists per game. He’s no longer the offensive threat he was last season, and he’s also been less effective defensively. He’s going to be one of the big men the Bulls play down the stretch in big games, so he must improve.

At this point, we know who Taj Gibson is, which is a very valuable sixth man. Every time you watch the Bulls, you’ll know when Gibson is in the game. He’s one of those guys who makes his presence known, both offensively and defensively. He’s a very high energy big man and has become a lot more efficient this season, upping his field goal percentage above 50% for the first time in his career. A likely starter elsewhere, Gibson might not be playing as much as he’d like to, but his 27.5 minutes per game are perfect for the Bulls.

And then there’s Mirotic, who might end second in Rookie of the Year voting behind Andrew Wiggins. Yes, even though he only plays 18 minutes per game. He’s second in PER among rookies behind Nuggets center Jusuf Nurkic, and they are the only two rookies to have an above-average (15+) PER. Mirotic is so good that he is actually causing the Bulls a problem most teams would dream to have: how do you leave him on the bench down the stretch? He creates matchup issues, with his ability to shoot the three (37%) and get to the line (six attempts per 36 minutes). Unfortunately for him, he won’t sniff the court in the final few minutes of playoff games with Noah, Gasol, and Gibson ahead of him on the depth chart. But when all the bench players are playing, he can dominate.

I’ve already talked about Jimmy Butler, so I’ll leave it at this: Butler is the Bulls’ best player now, and the Bulls have a real shot at winning it all if he plays like a superstar in the playoffs. They’ll also need help from Derrick Rose and Noah, but Butler is the key to it all.

5. Dallas Mavericks, 27-13 (4): It remains to be seen whether the Rajon Rondo trade will turn out well. The Mavericks are 8-5 since the trade, which isn’t great, and they’ve lost three of their last four, including losses to the Pistons and Nuggets. And look at Rondo’s shooting performances in his time as a Maverick: 3-11, 6-15, 6-14, 10-17, 7-17, 4-10, 12-19, 2-6, 1-13, 3-7, 1-11, 10-16. That’s right; Rondo has had three games in which he’s shot 58%+ and two in which he’s shot sub-10%. In his last six games, he’s scored more than 20 points twice and six or fewer the other four times. But the Mavericks didn’t trade for Rondo to gain scoring; they traded for him because they wanted a distributor who also played good defense at the point. I’m still hopeful that this trade will work out well for the Mavericks, even though Rondo hasn’t played great so far. The biggest warning sign is that the Mavs are shooting just 44.6% from the field in January after shooting 47.5% in both November and December. But that could just be the small sample size talking, as the Mavericks have played just seven games this month. I have them ranked this high because I think they have a starting lineup that can match up with any in the NBA. Like the Hawks’ lineup, you’d think a starting lineup including Rondo, Monta Ellis, Chandler Parsons, Dirk Nowitzki, and Tyson Chandler would work well. I think it still will, but I’m worried that too many of those guys need the ball, and guys like Ellis and Parsons aren’t going to get to bring the ball up now that the Mavericks have Rondo. I hope that this is just a transition period for the Mavericks, but I worry that I’ll have to drop them a few spots by the All-Star break.

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