We’re almost a quarter of the way through the regular season after roughly one month of games. Well, everyone except for the Clippers, at least. Somehow they managed to only play fifteen games to everyone else’s 17-20. Either way, this seems like as good of a point as any to rank the league from top to bottom. Because that’s always so meaningful and not at all a gimmick used when you can’t think of anything original to write. Nope, this is totally imperative.
Without further ado, our inconsequential rankings.
1) Miami Heat
This pains me as much as it pains you, but I can’t overlook the fact that this team is 8-1 without their second best player (who also happens to be a top five talent in the league) & the majority of their losses came on a west coast road swing, a scenario in which every team from the eastern seaboard gets their asses handed to them. They’re still the favorite, no matter how much I want to think the Bulls, Pacers or Nuggets are.
2) Chicago Bulls
This team looks almost identical to last year’s but with Rip Hamilton thrown into the mix, but with Taj Gibson and Luol Deng currently sidelined, and the team seemingly over-reliant on their point guard to score over 30% of their points and assist on another 20%, we can’t even begin to fathom putting them past Miami, they haven’t done anything noteworthy that would lead us to believe they’d overcome that 4-1 loss last year in the Conference Finals. Wednesday’s loss against Indiana has us more likely to move them down than up.
3) Denver Nuggets
We hope this year isn’t an anomaly with all the deep semi-star teams competing at the same level as the top-heavy legitimate-star laden teams, but between the lockout and all the moving pieces and the condensed schedule, we’re inclined to believe it is. Never the less, teams like the Nuggets seem to be making the most of it, and right now we have them as the favorites in the west, not necessarily to get to the Finals, but to win a title (we’ll get to that later). This difference is based on who we think will be waiting to play them from the East.
4) Indiana Pacers
So we wrote last weekend that over their next three games, if the Pacers went 1-2 it should be regarded as a success. Instead they went 2-1, with wins in Los Angeles and Chicago (the one loss came at home to Orlando). As of now this team is exceeding even my somewhat oversized expectations from the beginning of the season. I’m not sure if you can win a title with Danny Granger, David West and Roy Hibbert as your three best players, but more importantly no one’s ever won a title with their 6th, 7th and 8th best players being Paul George, Tyler Hansbrough and George Hill.
5) Oklahoma City Thunder
Let me state, Oklahoma City would still be my pick to make the Finals in the west, but not to win the title. When it comes to the Mavericks you’re not going to beat the Heat by matching them star for star, which is why everyone has the Thunder pegged as the Heat’s biggest challenge. Basically, you have to circumvent the star-philosophy with a deep roster of capable talent (i.e. the Pacers and Nuggets). Right now, the Heat have better stars and a better supporting cast (something we couldn’t say last season), and despite the Thunder holding the league’s best record there isn’t any other reason for me to think that will be relevant in a seven game series.
If Perkins and/or Ibaka level LeBron a couple times early in a theoretical match-up and LeBron subsequently curls up in a ball like he did against the Thunder – which is entirely possible – the Thunder could win a title. But I don’t see this Heat team blowing two straight finals and this Thunder team is still relatively inexperienced and relies way too heavily on Durant, an erratic Westbrook and a hot-and-cold Harden for me to rank them any higher.
6) Los Angeles Clippers
To be honest, while I don’t think it’s sustainable in the long-term, the Clippers didn’t really miss much in Chris Paul’s absence with Mo Williams and Billups available to fill the void. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying Paul is redundant or overpaid or that the other two guys are as good as he is. It’s just with Paul’s ongoing health issues, having two better than average back-up point guards is probably a necessary precautionary measure. They might be thin up front, but so is most of the league, and with their depth along the perimeter it might not matter in the long run.
7) San Antonio Spurs
Every time I catch a box score of a Spurs game this season, point totals look something like this:
Parker: 20 points
Bonner: 17 points
Splitter: 15 points
Duncan: 14 points
Point being, when you think the Ginobli injury will absolutely cripple this team, Popovich inexplicably works around it and makes a team including Gary Neal, Kawhi Leonard & Daniel Green a viable playoff contender. If the Hawks had this same core of guys getting 15+ minutes a night they’d be lucky to have two wins this season.
The Magic are out-performing at least our expectations of them, but we can’t rank them much higher considering Dwight Howard is probably going to be in New York, New Jersey, LA or Dallas by the end of February. If they’re smart they’ll either accept or make the rumored proposition of Tyson Chandler and Amar’e Stoudamire for Howard. With any other style of play other than Dantoni’s, Chandler and Amar’e are viable assets regardless of who the point guard is. And if the Knicks have decided they’d rather have Howard, Melo and go after Deron Williams at the end of the season, well, it seems the Magic would be wise to go for this particular bait.
Everyone knows Howard is leaving at the end of the season, this is bar none the best offer they’re going to receive if it does, in fact, exist. The two big men will sulk for a bit at first, given that it seems pretty clear they both went to play for the Knicks specifically for being in NYC, which obviously won’t be the case if they’re playing for the Magic. However, they’ll eventually come around and your franchise will still be relevant. The Magic have to know they want to avoid becoming the franchise they were between Shaq and Howard (though saying this is unfair to both Grant Hill & ownership, but I’m saying it anyway).
9) Dallas Mavericks
So it seems obvious at this point that this team is almost willfully experiencing a hangover from last season’s title, in fact Dirk Nowitzki even admitted as much recently, hence he has taken the last four games off for conditioning. To say the least this is fairly unorthodox. But even under those circumstances and all the personnel changes and condensed schedule for a veteran’s veteran team, they’re still tied for 7th in the west and likely to climb the standings once Nowitzki returns. I’m probably over-selling them right now, but seeing this team defend its title in a meaningful way would be great to watch.
10) Atlanta Hawks
So this is handily the least stressed team in the league. Everyone looks pretty content to make the post-season and lose in the first or (probably) second round. But the Hawks are currently sporting the league’s sixth best record and seem to be doing so effortlessly. Charles Barkley provided color commentary for their triple overtime loss to the Heat, who were without LeBron & Wade. He basically just eviscerated them for not giving a shit and it was completely warranted. But the Hawks were somewhere else that night, as they often seem to be. For most teams in the league, if they had done what the Hawks had accomplished at this point in the season, we’d assume they’d only improve. But with the Hawks, this is probably the high point of their season.
11) Los Angeles Lakers
Judging by their chippy behavior in Wednesday’s win against the Clippers, someone’s fearing the same inferiority complex their Staples Center cohorts have dealt with for thirty-five years. They’re definitely a less stable team and are currently aging at a volatile rate, meanwhile the Clippers appear to have stolen at least a portion of the limelight and the Lakers can’t seem to string together a succession of impressive wins. People keep telling me it’s a long season and assuring me they’ll turn things around, but that’s just the thing. It’s a long season, and even if this one is shortened it seems that with this collection of veterans playing for this coach, the Lakers aren’t going to improve any time soon. If they do and the Lakers manage a top-five seed in this Western Conference, Kobe should be hands down the MVP.
12) Philadelphia 76ers
Of all the deep yet star-deprived teams this season posting winning records, Philadelphia is the one I trust the least. It’s a combination of them lacking depth up front in favor of too many interchangeable perimeter assets, their weak schedule up until now and their recent descent back to reality (oh, and my own preset notions about who and what the Sixers would be) that’s influencing this belief. But still, they’re far better than we thought they would be and are going to finish as probably the sixth seed in the East.
13) Utah Jazz
Much like the Sixers and Clippers have too many guards, the Jazz have gone in the opposite direction and have a surplus of big men in Paul Milsap, Derrick Favors, Al Jefferson & Enes Kanter. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but when Devin Harris is having the season he’s currently experiencing and Raja Bell is your starting shooting guard, some of those big men should be used to shore up what they’re missing on the exterior. But also much like Philly, the Jazz are doing more than anyone expected of them. Even more so than Philly, they seem less likely to keep their playoff spot.
14) Portland Trailblazers
I’m not entirely sure what’s happened to Portland. They started off the season stronger than anyone, making mince-meat out of high-caliber opponents and coasting to a 7-3 record. They’re now 11-8 and still clinging to a playoff spot, but they don’t have the same panache that they did, and there’s really no explanation for it. I suppose this is an example of water seeking its own level, because just as there was no reason for them to start out in the middle of a hot streak, there’s no reason for them to suddenly plummet.
15) Boston Celtics
They’re likely to make the playoffs – I think they have yet to play a single game fully healthy – but this is the last “run” for a short-lived “dynasty”. Enjoy it while it’s there, but between them, the Lakers, Knicks, Magic and several others are all looking to make significant changes for the long and short term, it seems almost inevitable that the Celtics will be apart of the Great NBA Migration of 2012.
16) Memphis Grizzlies
I’m sitting here watching this Grizzlies on Thursday night as I write this, and as disappointing as losing Zach Randolph for what’s effectively the entire season must be, the fact they don’t have to wear these green and yellow Mike-N-Ike uniforms every night has to more than make up for losing one of the 10 best post-players in the league. Good lord, it’s a good these were probably worn in the black & white era. Anyhow, like I mentioned, this is a team missing its best player so their ceiling is limited, one would assume. They’ll almost certainly make the playoffs and maybe even pull off a similar upset like last season, but getting past the second round of the playoffs seems unlikely.
17) Minnesota Timberwolves
If it wasn’t for the slow start full of narrow losses Minnesota would be higher. In fact, they should be higher after what they did to a Nowitzki-less Mavs team this week, but they’re really, really green. It’s tough to make a playoff run when Darko Milicic is your most seasoned veteran, and he’s widely regarded as a tremendous disappointment. We’ve heaped enough praise on Adelman here, but if they win one or two playoff games this year they’re maxing out their potential.
18) Houston Rockets
Darryl Morey has put together a team just lingering over .500 and may even get the 7th or 8th seed but probably won’t, much like every other year for the past few. One silver lining, after watching how Gasol has played this year, Morey and the rest of the front office has to be ecstatic that the three-way deal with the Lakers and Hornets fell through. At the same time, it isn’t going to be all that rewarding drafting in the early to mid-teens again.
19) Golden State Warriors
This is another potential trade partner for the Knicks, considering how badly the Warriors wanted Chandler. It would actually make sense for both teams if he was sent to Golden State in return for Ellis or Curry, who are somewhat redundant in the Bay Area. Their record doesn’t indicate it but Golden State is competitive in most every game they play, they’re simply lacking size at pretty much every position on the court, most notably in the back court. Marc Jackson has instilled a much needed defensive presence, but we’re a few years away from this core group of players being any sort of worrisome opposition.
20) Milwaukee Bucks
Bogut’s out indefinitely, and as much as we might like Brandon Jennings on a personal level, he’s content to keep his shooting percentage right around the bare minimum to stay in the starting lineup. Once he realizes he isn’t Kobe Bryant and the Bucks stop relying on Bogut’s health every single season, they might be able to win a playoff series with Jennings, Jackson & Bogut. I’m not holding my breath, though, for any of this to happen.
21) New York Knicks
I was tempted to put them higher just because of the potential for this team once Baron Davis comes back, but we’re not certain his impact will be the cure-all everyone is hoping for and we’re willing to eat crow at the end of February when we do this again, should the Knicks turn things around. Right now, however, this team is completely disorganized. They were simply dominated by the Cavs earlier in the week, an that isn’t something Cleveland has been able to say too often the past 1.5 seasons. If they make some sort of trade it will only further confuse their stilted chemistry, so consider us sellers on the Knicks, whom we have as the first team in the bottom third of the league.
22) Cleveland Cavaliers
Byron Scott, as predicted on this site some time ago, has this team far better positioned beyond any reasonable metric. Their best player is a rookie point guard and their second best player is known more for resembling a Brazilian Sideshow Bob than any on-court performance, but as is his wont, Scott has numerous players on this team playing beyond their potential, most notably Alonzo Gee (who? Exactly) and the team in general all seems to be on the same page. They’re still a limited roster and they’ll endure some simply brutal defeats, like the record breaking loss to the Bulls last Friday. But with a few lucky breaks they stand a chance of snagging the eigth seed in the East, where they will play either Miami or Chicago, if it’s the former, well, it will be nice to hear something obsessively bandied about on ESPN besides the NFL.
23) Sacramento Kings
If you’re loaded with talent and potential does it really matter if no one’s on the same page or wants to pass the ball and everyone hates the city they’re relegated too? We’re finding out this year with the Kings, and the answer seems to be a resounding No. It took roughly ten games for DeMarcus Cousins to be rumored to want traded, then for him and his agent to drive the coach out of town, and now the team stands at a formidable 6-13, good for last in the division.
Maybe if they could keep this group of players together they could be reminiscent of the Webber-Bibby-Divac days, but they’re going to be forced into way overpaying guys like Tyreke Evans and Cousins, who are second-tier stars at best and will occupy all of their cap space. Such is the dilemma of being a small market NBA team. You not only need to draft talented and capable players, you need to draft talented and capable players who don’t mind not playing in a top ten market.
24) Phoenix Suns
You know you’re in trouble when the most compelling story to your team is whether or not your perpetually cost-cutting owner will go the full mile and cut his team’s beloved, aging point guard and give him an opportunity to win a title with a franchise that isn’t regularly signing bad contracts and crippling the team’s talent level. If you’ve watched Nash play this season you know he can still be a major contributor to at least one of the following contending teams: Oklahoma City (move Westbrook to the 2-guard), Dallas, Miami, LA Lakers, Memphis, Indiana, Atlanta, Utah and New York. That would make any of those teams an exponentially better TV product and we could all finally and completely ignore the Suns.
25) New Jersey Nets
One would think Deron Williams would have more of an impact on their record than he has, but even with a point guard of his caliber when the second best player taking the court for your team is arguably Kris Humphries, who’s just overwhelmed with distractions; or rookie MarShon Brooks, who no one had any immediate expectations for; we can’t be too down on the guy. Long story short: This team is in limbo until the Nets finally and mercifully move to Brooklyn.
26) New Orleans Hornets
So Eric Gordon didn’t sign the contract extension offered to him which means the Timberwolves first round pick is likely the only substantive asset they’re likely to end up with, and as we mentioned before, that pick is even less likely to be all that valuable. This is so much better than having the current two best players on the Rockets, who are actually posting a winning record. David Stern (or whoever he’s passing the buck to these days) really screwed the pooch on this one and sort of royally f*cked this franchise for whoever buys it, if anyone actually does so. The prospects are looking grim these days.
27) Detroit Pistons
Few teams inspire more apathy in its fan base than the Pistons. Drafting Greg Monroe and Brandon Knight appear to be steps in the right direction, but it doesn’t begin to make-up for signing Ben Gordon and Charlie Villanueva to huge contracts like they’re Chris Paul & Tim Duncan (they’re not even Ty Lawson & Anderson Varejao). As a result they’re 4-13 and our pick to finish with the worst record in the league. To their credit, it’s a good year to do so.
28) Washington Wizards
I mean, what’s to say? The roster is a flashback to late 90′s NBA, John Wall doesn’t have any guidance, they currently have the worst contract in the NBA (Rashard Lewis’) and the highlight of Jan Vesely’s career is quite possibly is kissing his girlfriend on draft night. They have potential, as evidenced by their win over the Thunder. But, sorry, other than locking in a top five pick I don’t have any good news.
29) Toronto Raptors
Much like the Bucks, the Raptors seem to pin all their hopes on an injury prone center they drafted first overall several years ago. The strategy is working out just as poorly for them. To be fair, the Raptors are one of the more player abused franchises of the past decade, first with being tricked into hanging their hopes on Vince Carter before everyone realized he didn’t/doesn’t give a shit, it doesn’t help that after he left he all but admitted to tanking games in order to force a trade. And then again in 2007, when Chris Bosh headed to Miami and became the forgotten third of the Big Three. Anyhow, at least they have cap room and are appealing to (some) European players, Steve Nash and Tristan Thompson. Hopefully they make good on their top-five pick in the upcoming draft.
30) Charlotte Bobcats
I know the Bobcats gutted their roster intentionally but I’m still unclear as to why. This isn’t like the NFL where you can attract high profile free agents regardless of where you’re located, no one in the NBA aspires to play basketball in Charlotte in their prime. Do they think Dwight Howard is going to make a b-line to Charlotte because Jordan created some cap space. This is a woefully stupid idea, and as a result their team is composed mostly of other team’s discards.
I guess cutting cap space can be synonymous with tanking to improve your lottery position, but don’t you want to hang onto some assets in order to actually sell tickets and generate a profit. Kemba Walker looks promising but limited (Yahoo even compared his shot selection to Antoine Walker after Wednesday’s game), and he isn’t attracting much attention as a result.
So that’s where we’re at a quarter of the way through the season. It’s about what you’d expect save, for a few surprises. Injuries are going to play more of a role now than they have since I’ve been watching the NBA (roughly twenty years). Injuries render everything unpredictable, that’s why we favor the deep teams so much this season. In other words, we fully expect teams 21-9 to be inverted when we do this again in February.