NBA Power Rankings – November 26th, 2012

Well hello everyone!  After the longest of layoffs (which was the result of a combination of factors, including but not limited to Hurricane Sandy, traveling, and hangovers), I’m back to give you my personal, probably biased ranking of every team in the NBA.  All records are current as of Monday morning, and hopefully you will come back next week and see a new edition.  Check out the previous version of the rankings here (all the way back to the first week of the season), and feel free to comment.  Let’s get to it!

1. Miami Heat (10-3) – Previous Ranking: 1 – One thing that has not changed since the first week of the season is that the Miami Heat are still the best team in the land.  They have the best offense in the league according to almost every advanced metric (1st in EFG%, TS%, and Hollinger’s Offensive Efficiency), and that has helped them to the third highest win percentage behind San Antonio.  LeBron James has been the best player so far this season (25.2 ppg, 8.8 rpg, 6.5 apg), and Chris Bosh has made up for some lackluster play from Dwayne Wade by taking on a bigger role in the offense.  Their biggest concerns are the lack of rebounding from everyone else on the team, which is a problem that existed last season, and the drastic drop-off in defensive efficiency, which is a new problem.  We’ll see if they can get back on track when Wade gets fully healthy, but they better be locked in for their game against San Antonio on Thursday.

2. San Antonio Spurs (11-3) – Previous Ranking: 2 – The Spurs sit at the number two spot despite the best record in the league because two of their losses came at home, and they have been beaten twice by a team in their own conference, which is not something you want to do against a potential playoff opponent.  Their offense is not quite as explosive as it was last season, but it still sits near the top of the league in efficiency.  The biggest positive so far has to be the play of Tim Duncan, who has turned back the clock and actually sits second in the league in PER behind LeBron.  His lack of minutes depresses his rating in Estimated Wins Added and Value Added (two cumulative statistics, versus being a per-minute statistic like PER), but the Spurs will gladly keep him at his current minute level if he can play like this for the rest of the season.  This team’s biggest concern will always be the health of its three stars, but the young guys are playing better every game and portend a happy transition out of the Duncan-Ginobili era.

3. Memphis Grizzlies (9-2) – Previous Ranking: 11 – This team’s previous ranking shows how much time has passed since I last put this column out.  The Grizz were a bit of a forgotten sleeper coming into the season after a (relatively) disappointing season last year.  This year, they have posted a lot of solid wins, beating the Heat, Thunder and Knicks in three straight games.  Their big man tandem can cause problems against almost every team in the league, and they are coming off of a win against the one team that can match their size in the Lakers.  If Rudy Gay can continue to raise his game when they need him most, and the bench continues to provide the three-point shooting that was missing last year, this team will be a nightmare in the postseason.

Not many teams can match up with the Grizzlies down low.

4. New York Knicks (9-3) – Previous Ranking: 4 – Well, the excellent play wasn’t going to last forever.  After starting the season like gangbusters, the Knicks (and especially the defense) has fallen off over the last three games.  Luckily, one of those games came against the Pistons, so they were able to coast to a win anyway.  But with this roster of old and slow bigs behind Tyson Chandler, the Knicks have to be on their game with their defensive rotations and pressure in order to have the strong defense that portends postseason success.  On a more positive note, Melo and J.R. Smith are melding explosive scoring progress with a willingness to pass the ball and play strong defense.  If Mike Woodson does the right thing and bring Amar’e off the bench with J.R. Smith, their second unit will be among the best in the league.  It will be interesting to see how all the pieces come back together (they are getting Iman Shumpert back at some point this year, too), but the Knicks have shown the capability of playing as well as almost any team in the league.

5. Oklahoma City Thunder (10-4) – Previous Ranking: 3 – The Thunder are finally showing some signs of life, but that isn’t enough to push them back to the number two spot that they occupied coming into the season.  Their offense is still really good, both in terms of raw points and efficiency, sitting just behind New York and Miami to form a triumvirate that is on a different level than anyone else.  Their defense is average (15th in Defensive Efficiency), and combining an elite offense with a decent defense will get them enough wins in the regular season to come in as a top 2 or 3 seed in the West.  But there are some issues, starting with the fact that they only have one strong win so far this season (at home against the Clippers).  Their second unit has struggled at times, with Maynor and Martin not being able to make up for the creating duties that Harden left behind.  Their starting five is still anemic offensively, and most of that comes with having Perkins on the floor.  Unless there is a big center that he can bump with in the post, his presence is looking like a net negative on the court, and Scott Brooks has been unwilling to recognize that.  Unless Sam Presti can swing a trade for a more offensive-minded big, or Perry Jones III starts showing something in his limited minutes, the Thunder will have to rely more and more on small lineups.

6. Los Angeles Clippers (8-5) – Previous Ranking: 6 – After starting the season out on a tear, the Clippers have lost three straight, albeit on the road against three quality opponents.  Chris Paul and Blake Griffin are still very good (Kevin Arnovitz tweeted that Blake is shooting better from midrange than Kevin Garnett, LaMarcus Aldridge, and Pau Gasol this year), but it has been the play of Jamal Crawford, Eric Bledsoe, and DeAndre Jordan that has fans really excited.  This is another team that will have some rotation questions to answer when Chauncey Billups and Grant Hill get healthy, but for now they are playing really good defense and building a good offense around the CP3-Griffin pick and roll.

7. Brooklyn Nets (8-4) – Previous Ranking: 13 - Don’t be deceived by their first place ranking in points given up per game; the Nets play the slowest pace in the league, and actually rate below average in defensive efficiency.  So while the defense is not as catastrophic as I thought it might be, the Nets are doing the smart thing and slowing the game down so they can stay in it and allow their efficient half-court offense to win them games late.  Brook Lopez combines the blocks and field goal percentage of a center with the scoring and (unfortunately) rebounding of a small forward, a mix that can be effective if the right pieces are around him.  Luckily, the Nets have a lot of big wings and one of the better per-minute rebounders in the league in Kris Humpries.  Still, their interior defense is weak in the starting lineup, and doesn’t get any better when Andray Blatche gets on the floor.  And if Lopez isn’t scoring close to 20 a night, his contributions in other areas of the floor are not enough to offset his weaknesses.

8. Atlanta Hawks (8-4) – Previous Ranking: 8 – Here is a team where the per-game numbers match the efficiency numbers on the defensive end.  The Hawks are second in the league in points allowed per game, and first in defensive efficiency.  They are FINALLY running the offense through their bigs, and Al Horford and Josh Smith have answered the call with good all-around play.  Yes, Josh is taking too many long two-pointers, but he has cut down on his three-pointers and still chips in on the defensive side with blocks and steals.  He and Lou Williams will bring their shooting percentages up in time, which should bring their offense to something a little above league average.  If they can do that and continue to play good defense, they have a chance of reprising their perennial one-series-and-out, which is pretty good after trading one of your best players for a bunch of scrap.

Steph Curry’s back must be tired from carrying the Warriors this season.

9. Golden State Warriors (8-6) – Previous Ranking: 18 – No, they haven’t been the offensive juggernaut that League Pass subscribers thought they would be, but the Warriors have played really well all things considered.  They have been without Bogut for all but 4 games this season, Brandon Rush is out for the year with an injury, and Klay Thompson has not taken anywhere near the leap forward that many predicted would come in his second season.  But all of their losses have come against really quality opponents, and rookie Harrison Barnes has shown flashes of the potential that he has had since high school.  Warrior fans just have to hope that they can stay over .500 until Andrew Bogut gets healthy, and they start to live up to their full potential on both sides of the court.

10. Denver Nuggets (8-6) – Previous Ranking: 19 – This is probably the most confusing team in the league.  They started out the year losing 3 in a row, leading everyone (including me) to kill them for their lack of cohesiveness.  Then they went off and won 4 in a row, then lost 3 again, and now are on a 4 game win streak.  It’s hard to tell where the team is going to go next, but they have a signature win in Memphis and have played 9 out of their 14 games away from home, where they are 4-1.  Unfortunately for them, 8 of their next 9 are also away from Denver, so they will have to figure things out if they want to stay above .500.  It has to start with their three-point shooting, where Ty Lawson are both below 30%.

11. Los Angeles Lakers (7-7) – Previous Ranking: 14 - The Lakers are top 10 in both offensive and defensive efficiency, but still haven’t gotten that one marquee win to show that they are all the way back.  Their best win is at home against Brooklyn, and they have lost to Memphis, the Spurs and the Clippers.  Obviously, it is hard to judge how they will look a few weeks from now, when Mike D’Antoni has the point guard and the practice time to implement his system, but pundits cautioning that the season doesn’t start until Steve Nash gets back are ignoring the fact that they have a bunch of older players that they are relying on.  Injuries will always be a concern when you have two guys with the kind of mileage that Steve Nash and Kobe have, and especially when you are asking them to play 36+ minutes per game.  I’m a lot more worried about D’Antoni’s habit of playing 7 or 8 man rotations and having his starters play big minutes than I am about the X’s and O’s of his system.  Will the big four have enough in the tank when the postseason begins?

12. Boston Celtics (7-6) – Previous Ranking: 9 - They finally got a quality win last Friday against the Thunder, but things are not looking very good.  They seem to have taken the weaknesses from last year (resulted in an offense that was over reliant on Rondo creating looks for long two’s), and stripped away the biggest strength, which was a top-flight defense.  Jason Terry is shooting well, but not really creating looks for other players in the second unit.  Paul Pierce is the only Celtic besides Rondo to average over 2 assists per game, which is a recipe for disaster if the other team can keep Rondo from penetrating.  More worrying is that the young legs on the perimeter haven’t contributed on the defensive end like we thought they would.  Will it change when Avery Bradley gets back? Should they make a move for a real backup PG? Who knows?

13. Philadelphia 76ers (7-6) – Previous Ranking: 20 – At this point, I don’t think anyone was surprised by the news that Andrew Bynum is out indefinitely.  What was being lauded as a great trade for a 76ers team that was trying to shake things up has turned into a disaster.  Their big man rotation is painfully thin (Kwame Brown is getting legitimate minutes), and they lost their best perimeter defender from a team that needs to play top-notch defense to stay afloat.  Nick Young is still terrible, but he has just enough 20 point games to trick coaches into putting him in the game.  The funny thing is, right now, the rest of the 76ers are shooting well enough from deep to make his one skill (3 point shooting) somewhat expendable.  The lone bright spot right now is the stellar play of Jrue Holiday, who has taken off since he got his extension and was given the reins on the team.

14. Chicago Bulls (6-6) – Previous Ranking: 7 - I promise that this is the last time I will lament the fact that the Bulls are not pulling a Spurs for the good of the franchise and tanking for a high draft pick during the one year that their superstar is not playing.  Instead, the Bulls are hovering around .500 thanks to a top-3 defense and a career year from Joakim Noah.  The fiery center is averaging close to a double-double, as well as 4.1 assists, 2.1 blocks, and 1.3 steals.  One of these days, thought, Luol Deng’s body is going to fall apart from playing 40 minutes a game in their exhausting defensive system, and the offense will completely go into the tank.  That will be just enough time for them to fall to the 8th seed, get wrecked by Miami (even with a semi-healthy Derrick Rose), and have a mid-first round draft pick.  Yay!

15. Milwaukee Bucks (6-5) – Previous Ranking: 10 – I honestly don’t understand how the Bucks have anything close to an average offense in terms of efficiency with two high-usage, low efficiency guards leading way.  Monta Ellis and Brandon Jennings are both shooting below 42% from the field, and below 30% from downtown.  Ellis in particular has been bad, shooting an abysmal 21% from three.  Combining that with Eryan Ilyasova’s horrific excuse for a season (right after he got paid… go figure) should lead to disaster, but the players surrounding them have chipped in with great defense and made shots when they have been allowed to take them.  The three-headed monster of Sanders, Henson and Udoh has given them good minutes of length and defense.  Sanders, in particular, has been a per-minute monster when he can stay on the court and out of foul trouble.  But so much redundancy is not going to help them be a real threat in the East unless they can move some of those pieces.

Do the Jazz have to jettison one of their frontcourt players to take the next step?

16. Utah Jazz (7-7) – Previous Ranking: 12 – Speaking of redundancies likely to be remedied through trades, we have the Utah Jazz staying remarkably average despite their three best players taking minutes away from one another.  Coach Tyrone Corbin has tried to remedy the situation by playing a massive starting front court with Paul Millsap at the 3, but he is still only getting 30 minutes per game and Derrick Favors is only getting 24.  The trouble is, their offense is built around Al Jefferson, a post-up center that can get points at middling efficiency and rebound the ball, but who is a sieve on the defensive end.  This is one team that will likely look massively different next season, with Mo Williams, Jefferson, and Millsap all on expiring and somewhat attractive contracts.  If they traded Jefferson for a scoring wing or point guard (Monta Ellis?), and moved Derrick Favors in as the starting 5 with Millsap next to him, this team might improve their defense without sacrificing much in the way of offense.

17. Houston Rockets (6-7) – Previous Ranking: 15 – Surprise! The Rockets are a team with a lot of pieces but not a lot of elite talent, and that has led to a team that is really average.  They are almost dead center in offensive and defensive efficiency, which seems to fit what you see when you watch them play.  James Harden is a very good offensive player, but not the superstar he was in the first few games.  His efficiency numbers are down from last year, which you would expect, but he is still getting to the line a ton and dishing out a good number of assists for the focal point of an offense.  Omer Asik is killing it on the boards, but doesn’t have a very good field goal percentage for someone who is only counted on for dunks and dump-offs under the hoop.  The biggest thing holding them back has been the sub-par play of Jeremy Lin, who defenses seemed to have figured out.  He’s not getting to the line, and his shooting percentages have predictably fallen way off of the pace he set during his run last season.  He might be best suited for a second-unit role, where he can run the offense against lesser defenders and be taken out if his shooting is really bad, but the Rockets don’t have many other options at the point right now.  Unfortunately, they might have to stick with him for a while.

18. Dallas Mavericks (7-7) – Previous Ranking: 16 – Now this is a little more like it.  After a season-opening win against the Lakers and 4 wins in their first 5 games, the Mavs have resembled the team that everyone thought they were coming in.  They are well-coached enough and have enough talent to beat bad teams, but they likely won’t beat many good teams unless their opponent has a bad night, like the Knicks.  O.J. Mayo has blossomed as the lead dog in a balanced offensive attack and is killing it from all over the floor.  He won’t keep shooting 53% from three, but he is a talented offensive player with a high ceiling.  It is a little weird that he didn’t work out as a sixth man in Memphis, because that seems to be his best role on a contending team, but if he keeps playing like this then he will have earned a longer stint as a starting two on a good team.

19. Charlotte Bobcats (7-5) – Previous Ranking: 26 – The Bobcats have been one of the pleasant surprises of the early season, flashing an improved offense and defense.  I know, it isn’t hard to improve on “worst in the league by a comfortable margin”, but it’s progress.  It is tough to see where the wins will come from over the next few weeks, as Charlotte has to let other teams play Washington for a while, and they also have the Milwaukee problem of being led by two inefficient guards with a lot less talent then the ones on the Bucks.  They can, however, be buoyed by the fact that Michael Kidd-Gilchrest has shown a well-rounded game while understanding his limitations on offense and working hard on the defensive end.

20. Portland Trail Blazers (6-7) – Previous Ranking: 17 – This is another team that should look at the positives thus far this season while trying to forget some of the problems.  Damian Lillard is drawing rave reviews from commentators, analysts, and current players, and looks like a starting point guard for the forseeable future.  Nic Batum and Wes Matthews are also delivering on the offensive end, with Batum in particular delivering all over the floor, to the delight of Portland fans and fantasy owners everywhere.  The downside is the really rough defense that they have been playing, even with two wings with reputations as defensive stoppers.  The coach is also giving too many minutes to the likes of Ronnie Price and Sasha Pavlovic, at the expense of the younger guys like Nolan Smith and Luke Babbit.  I understand wanting to win, but if your bench is bad anyway, why not give minutes to the guys with room to grow and evaluate them to see if they are keepers?

Many Minnesota fans were thrilled to see Kevin Love’s face out on the court. Can you blame them?

21. Minnesota Timberwolves (5-7) – Previous Ranking: 22 – For a team that has suffered so much from injuries, it must have been a sight for sore eyes to see Kevin Love out on the floor and grabbing boards all over the place in his first game back.  They accomplished their goal of staying afloat until their star came back, and after shaking off a little rust from deep, Love should re-establish himself as an MVP candidate.  Hopefully, the confidence gained by some of the lesser players will encourage them to keep contributing, and not just start watching Love as he goes to work.  Love is a great passer, and having him on the floor with Andre Kirilenko should lead to a feast of backdoor cuts and open shots that will work wonders in Adelman’s offense.  Things are only looking up in Minnesota.

22. Indiana Pacers (6-8) – Previous Ranking: 5 - Another sign of how long is has been since the last rankings, the Pacers were just about to fall off the cliff when the last edition was posted.  Since their 2-1 start, the offense has gone in the tank to the tune of 3rd worst efficiency in the league.  They have largely tried to compensate with stellar defense, but eventually someone has to hit a shot.  Paul George has struggled in trying to become the go-to scorer on the wing, and outside of an explosion against New Orleans when they kept leaving him open in the corner, it hasn’t worked.  To make things worse, Roy Hibbert forgot that he was one of the more gifted offensive post players in the league, and is shooting 38% on the year.  He’s only had one good game on the offensive end, and with Danny Granger out until February, one of those two has to be consistently good for the Pacers to have a shot.

23. Phoenix Suns (6-8) – Previous Ranking: 27 – The Suns are living up to their reputation of good offense (even with so-so talent) and terrible defense.  Goran Dragic and Marcin Gortat are the only bright spots on the team, and Michael Beasley has been an utter disappointment as a scorer.  Even Jared Dudley is not performing up to his usually efficient standards.  Not much else to say about this team, expect for that it should be interesting to see what kind of offers they get for the Polish Hammer, because he would be a great piece on a contending team like the Celtics or the Thunder.

24. Orlando Magic (5-8) – Previous Ranking: 24 – Orlando is another team that will likely get a few calls from contenders about their pieces.  J.J. Redick in particular is interesting, as he has performed well as the one of the leading scorers on the team and has shown the capability of creating some offense.  They are also doing the right thing and trying to get a look at everyone on the roster so they can plan for the future, because a team that is being led by Big Baby and Arron Afflalo is not going to do much damage.  E’Twaun Moore is shooting very well from outside, and there have been highlights here and there from the likes of Vucevic and Moe Harkless, which Magic fans like to see from pieces that came over in the Dwight Howard deal.

25. Detroit Pistons (3-11) – Previous Ranking: 30 – The Pistons are another team that is getting some good signs from younger players.  Andre Drummond is performing well in limited minutes, staying within the offense and helping out on the boards and as a rim protector.  Brandon Knight and Kyle Singler are both shooting well from outside, which should help open up spacing around Greg Monroe and let him get back to work around the basket.  If Drummond can keep performing this well as his minutes increase, the Pistons will be happy with some parts of their core going forward.

26. Sacramento Kings (4-9) – Previous Ranking: 29 – The Kings are in the bottom five in both offensive and defensive efficiency, and are really only this high because of the recent good play of Tyreke Evans.  His shooting percentage is decent for a guy who can’t shoot very well, and he is staying away from the three-point line for the most part.  Unfortunately, everyone else is pretty bad.  DeMarcus Cousins has not taken a leap forward from last year and has instead taken a step back.  Boogie’s points, rebounds, and field goal percentage are all down, offsetting a moderate uptick in assists and making it difficult to see good things in the Kings’ future.

27. New Orleans Hornets (3-9) – Previous Ranking: 21 – The Hornets, on the other hand, keep getting tempted by bits and pieces of their cornerstone of the future and then getting it taken away.  With the news that Anthony Davis will be out for a few more weeks, the attention now shifts more solidly onto the other top-10 pick for New Orleans, Austin Rivers.  A lot of draft experts were worried about how Rivers’ isolation game would translate to the NBA once he had to compete with athletes that were better than him, and those fears have manifested themselves in the play thus far.  Rivers is shooting under 30% from the floor, largely because he is having trouble getting to good spots on the floor and keeps getting blocked at the rim.  Perhaps a recent move to the bench will help him find his groove, but I have my doubts.

Kyle Lowry is asking how the team played so bad in his absence.

28. Toronto Raptors (3-11) – Previous Ranking: 23 – Can the Raptors find any more ways to lose close games?  Toronto has lost 4 straight, with two of those coming by a single point and another coming in overtime against the Spurs.  Andrea Bargnani has regressed a lot from last year, and judging by the tenor of the Basketball Jones podcasts, Toronto fans are thoroughly finished with him.  Also, after a semi-hot start, DeMar DeRozan has shown why so many people lambasted the extension he got. Luckily, Kyle Lowry is coming back from his injury and Jonas Valanciunas has been good in his minutes so far, so there is a chance for the Toronto Raptors to regain some of the potential that had people pegging them as a sleeper in the preseason.

29. Cleveland Cavaliers (3-10) – Previous Ranking: 25 – Fun times in Cleveland town everyone! Kyrie Irving is out for the next few weeks at the minimum as the team tries to avoid the surgery route, and Anderson Varajeo’s career year is being wasted on a pretty terrible team, flashes from Dion Waiters notwithstanding.  My question is why they wouldn’t go ahead with the surgery if it ensured a full comeback, instead of trying to keep him out just long enough.  If there is any chance of this becoming a permanent injury if he tries to play with it and injures it, then cut the crap and get him the surgery.  The team is going to be bad, and there is nothing wrong with getting more high draft picks to team with Kyrie in the future.  Also, the opportunity to root for the Zeller brothers to play on the same team is too much for me to ignore.

30. Washington Wizards (0-11) – Previous Ranking: 28 - This team is really bad.  Really really bad.  And while this was to be expected when the news of Wall’s injury broke, it is really tough for a team that legitimately tried to put a competent team out on the court.  Bradley Beal is shooting worse than noted gunner Jordan Crawford, which is likely a symptom of not having a real point guard to give him the ball, but is disappointing nonetheless.  Trevor Ariza thinks he is a much better player than he is, and Jan Vesely is competing hard with Derrick Williams to get the title of biggest draft bust.  The Wiz are stuck with this core for next year at least, with Nene’s contract running until 2016. Ugh.
Thanks for reading, and hopefully I’ll be back next week!

All stats courtesy of espn.com and basketball-reference.com