Wednesday, January 28, 2015

NBA Power Rankings: Part 1

Here we are, in the last few days of January, or in other words, Super Bowl week, which is annually the biggest and grandest time period in the NFL. So naturally, I decided it would be a good idea to do power rankings on all 30 NBA teams, and see where everybody is at what is basically the midpoint of the season. But rest assured, I haven’t forgotten about the NFL, and I will have something Super Bowl related, including my pick, up on Friday.

The last time I ranked the NBA teams, all the way back in October, it was mostly just guess work. That was before we knew things like, “Lance Stephenson and the Hornets are the worst marriage since O.J’s” or, “Memphis and Golden State are the two best teams in the West” or, “The Knicks will run the worst iteration of the triangle offense in the history of the NBA”. Actually, who am I kidding? Everybody knew the Knickerbockers couldn’t run that offense, and were going to suck.

So, without further ado, much like at the beginning of the season, let’s rank these teams, from 30-16 (I’ll have the top 15 up next early next week), and group them together with the teams around them, while giving each group names that capture the sense and feel of the team at this point of the season.

The Single Digit Win All Stars

30. Philadelphia 76ers
29. New York Knicks
28. Minnesota Timberwolves

Just lots and lots of terrible, unwatchable, mind-numbing, and excruciatingly-bad basketball. A few thoughts:

  • Remember early in the season when “The Kentucky Wildcats would beat the Philadelphia 76ers” was an argument being made by multiple idiotic ESPN talking heads? (I’m looking right at you Jemele Hill) I know I do. I felt the same way about that ridiculous argument then as I do now; no college team, in any sport, would ever be able to win a serious game against professionals. I know the Sixers are terrible, and are in the midst of a second straight season of taking a dump on their fans and the rest of the NBA by tanking so hellaciously that it’s disconcerting to watch, but this is still a team full of guys good enough to make an NBA roster. Yes, even guys no one has ever heard of, like Henry Sims. Kentucky is a great college squad, but there’s no way every single member of their team is going to have a cup of coffee in the Association. The Harrison twins would get torn apart by the Michael Carter-Williams, and Nerlens Noel would be, by far, the best big man in the game. Plus, don’t forget that the Wildcats secretly, at times, suck on offense end. You can’t have multiple lapses, or struggle mightily with teams like Texas A&M, Ole Miss, and South Carolina, and expect to be taken seriously as a team that would beat a collection of pros. So can we please, forever, but this argument to bed? It’s silly. Then again, the fact that people made this argument just goes to show just how much the 76ers stink. Dang. Get it together Philly.
  • Andrew Wiggins seems to have figured it out, at least a little bit, since the start of the new year. He’s had a few explosive scoring nights since the start of the New Year, like 31 on January 18th, or 23 just two days ago against the Thunder. In fact, the last time he failed to score in double digits was all the way back on December 21st. Is he the best rookie in the league right now? I think he might be.
  • The Phil Jackson era in New York literally couldn’t have gotten off to a worse start. He failed to hire a real gem like Stan Van Gundy or Steve Kerr, and instead had to settle for Derek Fisher, a guy with no coaching experience on any level who will definitely be sent on a one way train out of town as soon as the season ends. The triangle (not surprisingly) hasn’t worked at all, the roster is old and bad, and they committed $124 million to the most overrated player in the NBA, Carmelo Anthony, who will be on their team taking terrible shots, stopping the flow of the offense, and playing zero defense for the next four seasons. Can we please stop saying this guy is the “best scorer” in the league? Like forever? He’s an inefficient, career 45.5% shooter from the floor, who just happens to have a few nice, flashy scoring moves every once in a while. So what? Who cares? It’s never led to anything except missed shots, alienated teammates, and early playoff exits. I don’t care that ‘Melo can score from anywhere on the floor, I care about what he consistently does. Sure, maybe Kevin Durant can’t score in as many ways as Anthony does, but the Durantula scores his points in a more efficient way (he’s a career 48.1% shooter, and is currently in his third straight year shooting over 50%). Let’s take a look at some more numbers. Here are their points per game averages and shooting percentages since 2007-08 (Durant’s first year in the league):

Durant: 20.3 PPG, 43% FGs
Anthony: 25.7 PPG, 49.2% FGs

Durant: 25.3 PPG, 47.6% FGs
Anthony: 22.8 PPG, 44.3% FGs

Durant: 30.1 PPG (won scoring title), 47.6% FGs
Anthony: 28.2 PPG, 45.8% FGs

Durant: 27.7 PPG (won scoring title), 46.2% FGs
Anthony: 25.6 PPG, 45.5% FGs

Durant: 28.0 PPG (won scoring title), 49.6% FGs
Anthony: 22.6 PPG, 43% FGs

Durant: 28.1 PPG, 51% FGs
Anthony: 28.7 PPG (won scoring title), 44.9% FGs

Durant: 32.0 PPG (won scoring title), 50.3% FGs
Anthony: 27.4 PPG, 45.2% FGs

Durant: 25.6 PPG, 51.9% FGs
Anthony: 24.1 PPG, 45% FGs

So, as you can see, the Slim Reaper has, over his entire career, consistently scored more points per game while also shooting a higher percentage from the floor. Durant, when healthy, is the best scorer in the NBA, and has been for several years now. Plus, there’s no way KD would ever play for a team that was 8-37, like the Knicks are right now.

Now, I’m not completely blaming ‘Melo for everything that’s gone wrong in New York this season (or last season, for that matter). The roster is horrible, and he’s saddled with one of the worst coaches in the league. Plus, he’s dealt with a few lingering injuries during the season. But he can’t escape all culpability for their embarrassing play. He’s the best player on the team, the trend setter for the franchise. He’s the leader, and everything runs through him. And that’s led to them being 29 games under .500. Let’s just go ahead and bury the “Carmelo Anthony is a superstar” label forever. Thank you.

Dang, I wish I could scream THIS IS SPARTA!!!! and kick this guy 300-style into a bottomless pit so we’d never have to see him again

27. Los Angeles Lakers

That is the dream of every player in L.A. locker room right now. They all wish they could kick Kobe Bryant square in the chest. Fortunately for them, they got their wish (sort of) as the Black Mamba is having surgery on his torn rotator cuff, and injury that will keep him out for the rest of the season. Thanks for the memories in 2015 Kobe. I’ll never forget your alarming ball hogging this year, or your 37.3% field goal percentage for as long as I live. Or how you blamed your injury on passing too much. Yeah, that’s exactly what happened. What a joke, and the perfect thing to say as you end a season where you unapologetically and defiantly hogged the rock. I’m tired of old man Kobe saying dumb things. Can he please go away?

Are we ever going to be good again?

26. Orlando Magic
25. Sacramento Kings

This is the third straight season of Orlando’s rebuild (since they lost Dwight Howard), and it doesn’t feel like they’re any closer to competing than they were when they started this. What’s going on in Disney? One huge problem is that they’ve got one of the worst/clueless/inept/Wade Phillips-esque coaches on the sidelines, Jacque Vaughn, who decided recently that it would be a great idea to bring Tobias Harris (17.4 points per game) off the bench, despite the fact that he’s a versatile scorer who has happened to nail like a zillion enormous crunch time shots for them this year. They gave Channing Frye $32 million last off-season, and so far, he’s averaged just 8 points per game on 39.6% shooting. What a waste. Nikola Vucevic is a solid player, and his numbers (19.5 PPG, 11.2 rebounds per game) would suggest that he’s a borderline All Star, until you remember that he’s basically Kevin Love without three point range. He’s not a good post defender or rim protector, and Orlando doesn’t have a guy like that playing next to him to hide that fact. In fact, there really isn’t a guy like that on the roster. I’m intrigued by rookie Aaron Gordon, though he’s only played 16 games because of injury. And the Victor Oladipo-Elfrid Payton backcourt is an interesting one going forward, but they only have a combined 111 starts between them. Plus, I’m not sure they’ve been able to draft a legitimate potential NBA superstar yet, because I don’t see one on this roster. Unlike OKC, who lucked into drafting three in a row, Orlando seems to have landed on a bunch of really nice, potential All Stars, but not someone who’s capable of being the best player on a championship team. That may be the reason why this rebuild will ultimately be remembered years from now as unsuccessful and extremely frustrating. But despite that, this team should still be better than it is. It might be time for a coaching change.

Sacramento’s owner, Vivek Ranadive, is the classic example of, “I just bought this team, and because of that, I want to be extremely involved, and do extremely dumb things like throw Nik Stauskas into trade rumors after he’s played half the year, or fire our coach, Mike Malone, after 24 games, because we struggled while we were missing our best player, Boogie Cousins”. Nice job Vivek.

Speaking of Boogie, he’s quietly having an awesome year, averaging 24.2 points and 12.6 rebounds per game. Cousins is a terrific athlete, and he can basically go around, through, or by anyone he wants. There aren’t 12 guys better than him in the league right now, but the amazing thing is that he might not even make the All Star team, because his team sucks so much, or at least they do compared to the loaded West.

Honestly, what’s the plan?

24. Denver Nuggets
23. Brooklyn Nets

The Nuggets need a fire sale. There isn’t anyone on that roster that they should be holding onto like they’re a winning Power Ball ticket. It was a nice run with this group of guys, but George Karl is gone, and trying to grasp anything from those teams are fruitless. Trade Ty Lawson, Kenneth Faried, Arron Afflalo, and whoever else you can for whatever you can get. Tank so flagrantly that the Sixers get embarrassed. Actually, don’t do that. Not that badly.

I’m sure every Nets fan has thought this over the last year, but honestly, Brooklyn is screwed long term. Boston destroyed them so violently in that KG and Pierce trade that it reminded me of every Steven Seagal fight scene (and I don’t have to tell you who Seagal is), and they’ve still got a ton of money committed to Deron Williams and his bad attitude, Joe Johnson and his overrated and declining skills, and Brook Lopez and his bad feet. No wonder they’ve spent the last few months trying to trade those guys. The lesson, as always: never hire Billy King to be your GM. Only bad things can happen, like trading three future first round picks for old, declining, former superstars.

We’ll be intriguing…. hopefully next season….
22. Indiana Pacers
21. Boston Celtics
20. Detroit Pistons
19. Utah Jazz

Indiana is horrible, and watching them on the offensive end causes my brain to start hemorrhaging. They need the off-season, and the return of Paul George, to become really interesting again.

Boston won’t be a serious threat for anything the next few years, but they do have an extremely bright future. They’ll have all those picks they amazingly tricked Brooklyn into giving them, a bunch of potential solid NBA players (Marcus Smart, Jared Sullinger), and one of the best coaches in the league, Brad Stevens. Keep an eye on the 2017 Celtics. You might really start to see something then.

Has there ever, in the history of the Association, been a team that took off so miraculously after releasing just one player? I can’t think of a situation where that’s happened so visibly like it did in Detroit. The Pistons were tired of Josh Smith consistently chipping paint off the rim from three point range, throwing stupid passes, and just making boneheaded decisions in general, so, rather than keep him around, he got the boot. And Detroit sprouted wings almost instantly, recovering from an abysmal 5-23 start to go 12-6 in their last 18 games. No player benefited more from the releasing of Smith than Brandon Jennings, who instantly began playing the best basketball of his career, averging almost 20 points and 7 assists a game in January, including a 24 point, 21 assist game on January 21st. Unfortunately for the Pistons, Jennings ruptured his Achilles on the 24th, ending his season, and maybe Detroit’s hope for the postseason. They might be able to sneak in, solely because the bottom of the East is so bad, but it’s not going to amount to anything besides an early playoff exit. Honestly, I’m more intrigued about next year with this team. It will be Stan Van Gundy’s second season in the Motor City, meaning he’s had a full year to instill everything he wants to do. He seemed to have the magic touch when it came to Jennings, and he’ll have the freakishly talented/athletic Andre Drummond still on the roster. Drummond didn’t quite take off this season like I thought he would, but the potential is still there, and could be realized at any moment. Watch out for the 2016 Pistons.

The best thing about this Utah Jazz season has been the sudden and rapid emergence of Derrick Favors, who appears to be finally be figuring out that, “oh my gosh, I’m a super athletic monster, and I should be dominating these guys way more than I am”. He’s averaging a career best 15.7 points per game, and a solid 8.6 rebounds per contest, all while shooting 54.2% from the field. But don’t forget about the French-born Rudy Gobert either, who introduced himself to the world with blocks like this on Pau Gasol in this summer’s World Championships. He, despite playing just 21.6 minutes per game, is averaging 7.2 rebounds and 2.2 blocks per game. Plus, there’s an extremely fun nickname race going on with this guy right now. “French Rejection” is decent, but it can’t hold a candle to “Stifle Tower”. Dang... that one’s awesome. We need more great nicknames in sports!

Our season feels like one giant Lance right to the face

18. Charlotte Hornets

I’m not going to completely blame Lance Stephenson for the struggles in Charlotte this year (Al Jefferson’s recent injury, and no Josh McRoberts, who was surprisingly crucial to their success last season), but he might be the worst and most disappointing signing of the off-season. I had my doubts about this one working out before the season even began, because he wasn’t exactly a model teammate in Indiana (he, along with the departure of Danny Granger, might be the main reasons for the Pacers shockingly and unexplainably collapse last year), and unfortunately for MJ’s team, those preseason fears have been realized. It’s never a good thing when you’re averaging more shot attempts per game (10.6) than points (9.8), or shooting almost 11% worse from the floor this year (38.5%) than you did last year (49.1%). Giving him $27 million over the next three years is basically like taking $27 million and flushing it down the toilet. Though, to be fair, that actually might be a better use of that money, because at least the toilet won’t hurt your team.

Who are these guys and when did they suddenly become legitimate NBA players?

17. Miami Heat
16. Milwaukee Bucks

Miami’s Hassan Whiteside and Milwaukee’s Brandon Knight are the two biggest breakout players of this NBA season. Before this year, Knight’s most famous NBA moment was this poster he got put on by Deandre Jordan, but he’s doing his best to make that a distant memory (he’ll never be able to, but still) with his impressive campaign this year. He’s been one of the best point guards in the East this season (behind John Wall and Kyle Lowry), averaging about 18 points and 5 assists a game, and is the major reason the Bucks are in playoff contention, and have stayed afloat, despite Jabari Parker’s torn ACL and Larry Sanders’ constant insanity and zany antics. Here’s an interesting question: if Knight and Kyrie Irving switched places, would Milwaukee still be 23-22? Considering Kyrie, before this season, had never played on a team above .500, I’d say they wouldn’t be. And what would the Cavs record be with Knight? They’re 26-20 right now; is it unreasonable to assume they’d be 30-16 instead? Knight doesn’t hog the ball or over-dribble like Irving, and he actually encourages ball movement. Give me Brandon Knight all day, every day.

As shocking as Knight’s rise has been, there isn’t a more “who the bleep are you” guy than Hassan Whiteside, who literally came from nowhere (he played one year at Marshall, and spent time overseas playing in Lebanon) to become a major contributor in the Heat lineup. His 14 point, 13 rebound, 12 block performance on Sunday has to be the most improbable and random triple double in the history of the NBA. Lucky for me, I scooped him up about two weeks ago out of free agency for my fantasy team. He’s paid off more than I ever imagined.

As mentioned above, I’ll be back with my top 15 early next week. Also, stay tuned for my Super Bowl thoughts and prediction on Friday.

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