Artwork by Anthony Bain
Hello, friends. We have another extra long session of Power Rankings. I was wanting to make them shorter, but Beckley basically threatened me with one of those hot poker stick things you’d put in a fireplace if I didn’t produce an unruly amount of content for you on this post. So you can blame him if you’d like. Without further ado, here are the Week 2 Power Rankings with new categories and a new order at the top of the league!
This is a whole new level of suck
30. Washington Wizards (1-12, 1-6 home, 0-6 road, -11.8 differential, 30th last week)
There’s a certain point in which a team’s pride has to get in the way and take over the malaise that is saturating an organization. Maybe Flip’s voice has been in their ears too long. Maybe Andray Blatche is organizing too many trips to “clubs” and not even team scrimmages to make sure they know what they’re doing. Maybe the Wizards are just tanking early to make sure they don’t screw up their chances at screwing up the future of a potentially great player in this year’s draft class.
Whatever the issue is, this Wizards team stinks. They stink hard. Trevor Booker has been the second best player on the team this year. THINK ABOUT THAT FOR A SECOND. NOW TRY TO THINK ABOUT IT WITHOUT WANTING TO STAB YOUR OWN NECK. JaVale McGee has been the best player, then Booker. How is that possible?! I love me some Trevor Booker but he should be a Craig Smith-type guy for you. He shouldn’t be your Paul Millsap. Free John Wall.
Games this week: home to OKC, home to Denver, back-to-back (home to Boston, at Philly)
If it weren’t for ____________, you’d be unwatchable
29. New Jersey Nets (3-11, 0-4 home, 3-7 road, -9.3 differential, 29th last week)
If it weren’t for Deron Williams, this team would make me vomit all over myself. I’ve tried. I really have. I’ve tried pretending Brook Lopez was healthy and motivated on this team. I’ve tried imagining that Johan Petro is a vertigo version of Dwight Howard. I’ve made myself pretend that Shelden Williams is actually Candace Parker out there. None of it works. I can’t even focus on the sweet, pure stroke of Anthony Morrow because Jordan Farmar is always lurking.
At this point, all I can do to stay interested in this team is hope Marshon Brooks is making his terrible shooting decisions and hope Deron Williams puts up a 20-20 game or has plenty of shots at his “sideburns” on camera at all times. D-Will hasn’t even really been that good, he just looks like his old self because the rest of the team is intent on making you forget that Snookie is the worst thing to happen to New Jersey. By the way, they still haven’t won a home game this season.
Games this week: home to the Warriors, back-to-back-to-back (home to OKC and Charlotte, at Bulls)
28. Charlotte Bobcats (3-11, 2-6 home, 1-5 road, -10.9 differential, 25th last week)
If it weren’t for the peep show that is Bismack Biyombo playing time, I’d serve myself up to a Boris Diaw buffet just to avoid watching this team. It’s one thing to pretend D.J. Augustin is a good player, let alone the best D.J. on the team. It’s another thing to watch Kemba Walker try to dribble the air out of the ball on any basic pick-and-roll (it’s very Barea-like and that’s not a compliment). And as fun as the Ty Thomas, Boris Diaw, Byron Mullens frontcourt has been in all of these losses, they’re not bringing anybody back during a commercial break of Celebrity Apprentice.
Paul Silas has to start giving the people what they want and the people want Bismack Biyombo. It would be one thing if Silas was saving his job with copious amounts of victories by playing the veteran big men. But your team sucks. They’re not even fun terrible. They’re just excrement on the court. So why not play Biyombo more? What’s the worst that happens? He gives your 29th ranked defense a boost for 20 minutes per game before he fouls out? He blocks shots that end up being fastbreaks for your team? He attacks the glass on both ends of the court? I see no downside here.
Games this week: at Orlando, back-to-back (at Chicago, at New Jersey)
27. Detroit Pistons (3-10, 2-5 home, 1-5 road, -9.2 differential, 29th last week)
If it weren’t for Greg Monroe, this team would be like spending your evenings at the DMV. The Pistons are not a fun team. Rodney Stuckey has been atrocious and Ben Gordon has been himself. Brandon Knight isn’t even that fun unless he’s going off. There are only so many times you can pretend Jonas Jerebko can carry your interest before you start trying to recreate the scene from Wayne’s World 2 in which he discusses his high school project with Swedish Drew Barrymore in your mind.
However, Greg Monroe has been a beacon of tall in a sea of undersized mediocrity. He’s scoring at an impressively efficient rate, and not just impressive for him. It’s impressive for everybody. His post defense has been more than passable and his passing has been more than defensive. Wait, what? I don’t think Monroe is close to a franchise piece, but he’s a lot better than what they thought they had two years ago. Pistons fans are no longer trying to talk themselves into Stuckey, and that might be the biggest accomplishment of the Greg Monroe era.Games this week: back-to-back (at Houston, at Wolves), back-to-back (home for Memphis, home for Portland), at OKC
26. Sacramento Kings (4-10, 3-3 home, 1-7 road, -11.6 differential, 26th last week)
If it weren’t for your completely fascinating assault on the concept of passing, I’d be watching old Walt Williams YouTube mixtapes instead of your games. This is probably the most frustrating team in the NBA for me. Tyreke Evans has the capabilities of being an all-world guard who moonlights as a freight train of layups. DeMarcus Cousins should be anchor of doom in the paint, bringing bruises and welts for those that dare get in his way. They have role player after role player after role player capable of making this a winning team. John Salmons can find ways to help a team. Jason Thompson is the least properly used big man in the NBA. Marcus Thornton should be a deluge of scoring every night. And yet…
This team can’t find a way to put it together. Paul Westphal couldn’t do it and Keith Smart doesn’t have a chance of pulling this thing together. They rarely make the right play and when they do, they follow it up with rec league basketball for the next three possessions. They need someone to come in and organize everything. Whether it’s a star, distributing point guard or one of the smartest, toughest coaches the sidelines have ever seen. I hate to see this amalgamation of talent keep urinating all over itself.
Games this week: home for Indiana, back-to-back (at Spurs, at Memphis), at Portland
I don’t mind you being competitive, but you better not win games
25. New Orleans Hornets (3-10, 1-6 home, 2-4 road, -5.1 differential, 27th last week)
Okay New Orleans, let’s cut the crap. It’s one thing to gloat over the fact that you ended up with the Timberwolves draft pick for this loaded class. I can deal with that because Rubio probably wouldn’t be on this team if the Jaric trade doesn’t get made at some point. HOWEVER, it’s an entirely other thing to pretend Gustavo Ayon is a real person.
It’s pretty obvious Gustavo Ayon is a created player from NBA 2K12. The My Player mode has been revolutionizing how we kill time and through some type of Weird Science-ish, Monty Williams has brought his My Player from the multiple choice press conferences into a pick-and-roll near you. I don’t mind this happening. Lord knows I’d love to bring Marshall Law, my 6’11” defensive maven out of the PS3 and into the Wolves’ big man rotation. I just wish the Hornets would admit that’s what they did and let Anthony Michael Hall come over to play with our computer so we can do the same.
Games this week: back-to-back (home to Memphis, at Houston), home to Dallas, home to Spurs
24. Toronto Raptors (4-10, 2-4 home, 2-6 road, -5.9 differential, 20th last week)
If this past week for the Raptors proved anything about this condensed schedule, it showed just how brutal five games in seven nights can be for a bad team that is trying to learn how to win. Without regular practices during the regular season, the Raps had no chance of fixing what went wrong to the Wizards and then the Kings and then the Bulls and so on. Each loss this past week begat the next one until Toronto suddenly found themselves in the midst of a five-game losing streak.
How did this happen? The Raptors forgot how to score. Well, it’s debatable that they knew how to score at all in the first place, but they really had no idea how to score during their showdowns with Washington, Sacramento, Indiana, Chicago and Atlanta. Their offensive efficiency during this losing streak was a paltry 89.6, down nearly eight points per 100 possessions from their season average. If Bargnani and Calderon aren’t scoring for them, they can’t seem to get DeRozan and others going on the offensive end. Start tanking and see if you can pick up a scorer to go with Jonas Valanciunas this off-season.
Games this week: at Boston, home to Portland, at Clippers
What in the Vinny Del Negro was THAT last week?
23. Golden State Warriors (4-8, 3-4 home, 1-4 road, -4.8 differential, 22nd last week)
Let’s get this straight. You build an early double-digit lead by finding an offensive ebb and flow to attack Orlando’s vaunted defense with. After you acquire this lead, you decide to kill all flow and momentum earned during the first few minutes of the game by fouling Dwight Howard and adding a stale stagnation to the night’s contest. It causes many of your players to get into foul trouble and you completely eliminate any chance at a fastbreak throughout the game because he’s not clanking free throws 50 feet off the back iron. YOU WATCH YOUR LEAD DWINDLE AWAY for over a quarter of play and still decide to employ the same strategy that has taken away what you do best.
How was this a good idea, Mark Jackson? It’s one thing to do it for a few minutes against DeAndre Jordan and the Clippers. It’s another thing to allow Dwight Howard to attempt 39 free throws because you’re out of ideas on how to continue building your lead. I want to believe that he’s changing the culture in Golden State and starting them out on a winning path, but that strategy showed a lack of real change. Stephen Jackson is rolling over in his grave right now.
Games this week: back-to-back (at Cavs, at Nets), home to Indiana, home to Memphis
22. Milwaukee Bucks (4-8, 4-0 home, 0-8 road, -3.8 differential, 23rd last week)
This team is night-and-day away from the Bradley Center, but the important thing to see in their home and road splits are the teams they’ve played both home and away. They don’t have a very good record right now because most of their games have been on the road and they haven’t won a road game yet (Analysis!). Perhaps the reason they were so good at home this season is because their four opponents have been the Wolves, Wizards, Spurs and Pistons. They caught the Wolves right at the beginning of the season and you could argue it’s a much different team now. They also caught the Spurs after Manu Ginobili went down with a broken bone in his hand. The other two games should be a cake walk.
On the road? They’ve just been borderline inept. They’ve played a much tougher schedule and seem incapable of closing out games. The Bucks also looked like a D-League squad against the Mavericks this past week. Yes, the Mavs are starting to get back into the swing of things after recovering from their title hangover. But you can’t just lay down and settle for jacking up 3s and turning the ball over because Andrew Bogut misses a game. People have wondered if this is a playoff-capable team and with an effort like this, it’s hard to see how that’s possible.
Games this week: home to Denver, at Knicks, back-to-back (at Miami, home to Atlanta)
21. Minnesota Timberwolves (5-8, 3-5 home, 2-3 road, +1.6 differential, 21st last week)
Last season, Minnesota’s end of the game execution made fans feel like they were witnessing a an actual execution. There was always an ax hanging over the head of the team in the fourth quarter and you knew there was going to be so much blood everywhere when it dropped. Part of this was the team being young and overmatched but a lot of it was because Kurt Rambis had no control over his team and couldn’t draw up a last second play to save his job. With Rick Adelman manning the sidelines now, all of that end of the game worry was supposed to be a thing of the past.
However, the Wolves haven’t been great closing out games. Their execution is average at best and the plays he’s drawn up have looked like flashbacks capable of inducing PTSD. Against Miami in the first week of the season, the Wolves ended up with a terrible shot on the wing for Wayne Ellington and in Atlanta this week, with a chance to steal a game on the road, the Wolves had a play blown up by Ivan Johnson because it involved Kevin Love catching an inbound pass 35 feet from the basket when they were down two. I don’t doubt that Rick will have this team executing on a much higher level a month from now, but seeing the game plan fail time and time again most nights is getting hard to accept. At least they showed against the Kings they’re capable of putting a horrible team away.
Games this week: home to Detroit, back-to-back (at Clippers, at Utah), home to Houston
They’d be treading water if they weren’t sinking… wait, what?
20. Phoenix Suns (4-8, 3-4 home, 1-4 road, -1.5 differential, 18th last week)
Remember when the Suns were treading water with the Memphis Grizzlies last week? Well one of those teams proved they can still move forward this season and the other team is the Suns. Phoenix dropped four straight last week, including home games to Cleveland and New Jersey. How does that happen exactly? Well if you look at the team in front of them, they’re really not very good at all. It has to be a group effort every night because nobody can really score the ball. Other than Markieff Morris and Sebastian Telfair’s seven 3-point attempts, nobody on the team is shooting above Steve Nash’s 35.3% from downtown.
This is a bad team with a regressing defense and five of the next six games on the road. Nash is no longer enough to make this team a cut above the low tier of teams in the NBA and Marcin Gortat’s play has been individually good but not really capable of helping Nash carry this team to victories. A few more losses and we’ll all start complaining about how Nash deserves better. But that ignores the bigger problem ahead of Phoenix which is they have nothing moving forward this season and beyond.
Games this week: back-to-back (at Chicago, at Knicks), at Boston, at Dallas
19. Boston Celtics (4-8, 3-4 home, 1-4 road, -2.8 differential, 15th last week)
Five straight losses for the Celtics and most of them were just competitive enough to keep you from giving up on them pulling this nursing home together and putting the greatest geriatric performance of Oklahoma these eyes have ever seen. I’m getting to the point where I’m not even capable of keeping the long haul of the season in perspective and assuming they’re definitely a playoff team. It seems nuts to consider they might not make it, but they’re not giving us any reason to believe they can string together enough wins to get comfortably back in seeding position.
Maybe Paul Pierce rounding back into shape and out of a round shape will give this team a little more structure. Maybe Rondo will work his point guard wizardry and Harry Potter these guys into a winning team again. Maybe Jermaine O’Neal will turn into one of those fast zombies and decimate the competition. Whatever the solution is, zombie-pocalypse aside, I really would like to see a glimpse of it soon so I can stop feeling awkward about thinking this team can truly be competitive.
Games this week: home to Toronto, home to Phoenix, back-to-back (at Wizards, home to Orlando)
18. Houston Rockets (6-7, 4-1 home, 2-6 road, -1.8 differential, 24th last week)
Guess who stepped up to the plate this past week and played some real basketball? Your Houston Kyle Lowrys did! They were 4-1 on the week and had a huge overtime win at home over the Blazers, in which Kyle Lowry showed why you put him over everybody. This team even started playing some defense, shaving nearly four points per 100 possessions off of their season defensive rating. Between Lowry’s play and Chandler Parson’s being a fantastic second round addition off the bench, this team has nearly all of your NBA mancrushes.
And this team is set up to really make a move in the standings over the rest of January. Seven of their next eight games to end the month are at home and their only road game is in Minnesota. The key for this team’s success moving forward is getting Kevin Martin going. Other than his tumultuous season two years ago when he found his way out of Sacramento and adjusted to a new Houston team and other than his rookie season, Martin has never had a true shooting percentage hanging below 60%. This season, he can’t seem to make a shot that isn’t a free throw and currently has a TS% of 53.6. Get Mini-Mart going, take care of business at home and the Rockets can find themselves not only in the playoffs but challenging for a top 4 seed when February begins.
Games this week: home to Detroit, home to the Hornets, home to the Spurs, at Wolves
17. Cleveland Cavaliers (6-6, 2-1 home, 4-5 road, +1.1 differential, 19th last week)
This Cavs team keeps scrapping and they keep impressing. This isn’t really a very talented team at all. They have some very nice role players on the roster, but other than Kyrie Irving, Anderson Varejao and the frustration Antawn Jamison brings to a fan base, this team is relying on grit and execution more than they’re relying on talent. Irving has been really good so far and I can’t stress that enough. There are things about his game that I find need improving, but considering he’s just a couple weeks into his pro career and he’s scoring the way he is, there’s no reason to think he won’t catapult himself into the top couple tiers of NBA point guards sometime early next season.
The thing about Irving is he knows how to find the backboard when he’s around the basket. This may seem like a very simple idea but with his body control as he enters the paint and his superb ability to put the correct spin on the ball to guide it into the basket, it makes him almost impossible to stop when he’s in the lane. Because of the nature of sports’ insecurity, we immediately have to pit Irving and Rubio against each other and choose one as better than the other. I think they’ve both been about equal and end up speaking to the style of play you prefer out of your young point guard. As much as I personally want Rubio to be better, it’s hard to ignore how much fun I’m having watching Irving play every night.
Games this week: home to Warriors, back-to-back (home to Chicago, at Atlanta)
In desperate need of their power forward
16. Memphis Grizzlies (6-6, 5-2 home, 1-4 road, -0.1 differential, 17th last week)
This is probably going to be a very streaky team until Z-Bo returns and even then it’s going to take some time for him to get back into the grind of his game. This team is more dependent on Mike Conley and Rudy Gay than ever, and that’s fine as long as they’re efficiently scoring on the perimeter. What they need to find themselves doing is working the ball in Marc Gasol and see if he can provide some of that Spanish national team production in Z-Bo’s vacant role. We can all pretend Marreese Speights is going to fill in admirably, but there’s a reason Sixers fans were laughing when he was traded to Memphis.
Maybe the answer is going small more and throwing Rudy into the power forward slot against opposing teams. It could be a liability initially on the defensive end of the court, but he’s an impossible mismatch for even the stretchiest of 4s. Allowing the Grizzlies to amp up the perimeter intensity with Tony Allen and OJ Mayo flanking Conley on the perimeter, while Gay and Gasol man the paint could turn them into a very light version of what Orlando has done since SVG began guiding them. It could be a great stopgap for now and get this team ready for Z-Bo’s return.
Games this week: at Hornets, back-to-back (at Detroit, home to the Kings), at Warriors
15. New York Knicks (6-7, 3-3 home, 3-4 road, -1.2 differential, 14th last week)
Much like Kevin Garnett’s retirement this past summer, it’s weird we never received the news that Amare Stoudemire was calling it a career and pick-and-rolling his way off into the sunset. Can you imagine how good and dangerous this Knicks team would be if they had Amare Stoudemire on the roster? His scoring ability inside would be anchored next to Tyson Chandler’s impeccable spacing on both ends of the court and Carmelo Anthony’s new found glory as a playmaker on the wing. It would be sooooooooooo perfect once they find a solution in the backcourt.
Unfortunately, the Knicks forgot to inform us of Amare calling it quits. Instead, they put an impostor out on the court and have tried to trick us into calling him Amare. I’m pretty sure it’s a fella named Hank Jones who played a little community college ball out in Fresno, California before a vicious bout of vertigo sidelined him forever. That was until the Knicks offered him an acting role on a live stage. And yes, that’s my second vertigo joke of the power rankings and I’m feeling pretty good about it.
Games this week: home to Phoenix, back-to-back (home to Bucks, home to Denver)
N.T.T.H. — Never Trust The Hawks
14. Atlanta Hawks (10-4, 6-1 home, 4-3 road, +7.4 differential, 11th last week)
The victory over the Timberwolves this past week was a PERFECT example of why you should never trust the Hawks to do anything they’re supposed to do. The Wolves pretty much outplayed them for the first 32 minutes of a home contest. The Hawks’ starters put out about as much effort as Eddy Curry on a P90X binge. It took the bench unit to light a fire into the team and bring them back into this game. Did they do it with hard work? Kind of. They mainly did it with hot 3-point shooting, making six of their nine attempts. It’s probably unfair to say the Hawks got lucky in the way they came back against the Wolves, but really it was fueled by Willie Green and Ivan Johnson, so yeah it was pretty damn lucky.
The Hawks’ starters rarely care enough to matter and now they don’t have Al Horford to make up for it with his effort. This team is good enough to coast during the regular season, but when they get into the playoffs it will be the same story it’s always been. It’s a frustrating conglomerate of talent that can’t seemed to be harnessed for good. Trust them at your own peril.
Games this week: home to Portland, back-to-back (at Philly, home to Cavs), at Bucks
Okay, it’s really starting to freak me out that Utah is winning
13. Utah Jazz (8-4, 6-1 home, 2-3 road, 0 differential, 16th last week)
I really don’t want to be rude and dismiss this team’s success so far, but it really makes very little sense to me on any level. They’re one of the most average teams this league can have, and yet they have a very above average record in this short season. Perhaps it’s because they’ve played a schedule with more home games than road, and they’re taking advantage of the raucous crowd, feeding off their energy when they need a spurt. Whatever it is, it’s making up for the fact that Josh Howard finally gave them a third scorer in double figures on the season this past week with his 10.7 points per contest.
I’m also not complaining. As a Wolves fan, I’m praying the Jazz get into the playoff hunt and secure the 8th seed. As many of you might know, the Wolves have not their own first round pick, as it belongs to the New Orleans Hornets. However, the Wolves are owed the Jazz pick if it doesn’t fall in the top 14. So the more wins for these scrappy Jazz players, the better.
Games this week: home to Clippers, home to Mavs, home to Minnesota
In the event of hydroplaning, remember to pump your brakes
12. Portland Trailblazers (8-5, 6-1 home, 2-4 road, +3.1 differential, 5th last week)
A few months ago, I drove in the snow for the first time in my life. It wasn’t really a big deal, except for the fact that I also dealt with driving on an icy street for the first time too. At a certain point, I was coming to a stop at an intersection and the tires failed to grip the road. We started skidding a bit and it looked like I was going to head right into a car coming across the street. This probably isn’t a big deal to most, but it was the first time I had dealt with it and I began to panic for a split-second. However, something came over me — an understanding of sorts. I instinctively pumped my brakes and the tires finally grabbed hold of the ice and asphalt. We stopped safely and I tried to figure out how I knew what to do. I remembered the scene from License to Drive when Corey Haim is daydreaming about driving his dream girl Mercedes away from the evil school bus. He hydroplanes and remembers to pump the brakes from his driver’s ed classes. And THAT’S how I figured out how to stop skidding across an icy road.
What does this have to do with the Blazers? Not much really. After a hot start, Portland came back down to earth this past week. They lost three straight games to three good teams, and cooled the talk of contending for a title a bit. For some teams, an ugly game against New Orleans would be their failed opportunity to remember to pump the brakes while they’re skidding. But this resilient Blazers team remembered exactly what they’re supposed to do and were able to grind one out to get back on the winning track. They’re halfway done with their six-game road trip before they get to return home for a drubbing of the Kings. They’ll be much higher soon but they had to fall a bit this week.
Games this week: at Atlanta, back-to-back (at Toronto, at Detroit), home to the Kings
11. Denver Nuggets (8-5, 6-2 home, 2-3 road, +5.4 differential, 6th last week)
This drop in the rankings for the Nuggets isn’t so much about what they did this past week as it is what the teams ahead of them did this past week. This is still one of the best teams in the West, even though their point differential isn’t as impressive as we’d like it to be. The win over Miami was a fun victory for the team and probably set them up for the letdown against the Jazz the next game.
Denver now plays seven of their next nine games away from the altitude in Denver and this will be a real test for how they can bring their show on the road. The key match-up could be their showdown with Philly on the back end of a back-to-back to start this trip. It will be the two darling darkhorses from each conference, trying to fight for metric supremacy. Should be fun!
Games this week: 4 games in 5 nights (at Bucks, at Philly then at Wizards, at Knicks)
Nice of you to finally show up
10. Los Angeles Lakers (10-5, 9-1 home, 1-4 road, +3.9 differential, 12th last week)
Should Kobe pass or shouldn’t he pass? That is the hot button item right now. Kobe Bryant is scoring at a ridiculous rate right now and he’s doing it in Lakers’ wins for the most part. It’s hard to fault seeing such a beautiful display of midrange shooting and a superstar surgically picking his spots of where he wants to score on the floor and not leave wanting to see more of that the next game. There is a mystique around Kobe Bryant for a reason and it has nothing to do with rings or NBA rankings or anything of the sort. It has to do with it being really damn fun to watch him play basketball when he’s on.
The downside is it’s ignoring two very talented big men and this team won a couple of titles recently because of their length and size supporting the exploits of Kobe. Should Bryant be ignoring them so much and looking for his own when they’re not exactly in a rhythm offensively? Are they not in a rhythm offensively because Kobe is shooting so much? Is as 37% usage rate sustainable even for the most accurate vampires in the league? I’m not sure what the answer is at this point, but I know I’m really enjoying the show I’m seeing every night they go out on the hardwood. Keep entertaining, Kobe.
Games this week: back-to-back (at Miami, at Orlando), home to Indiana
9. Los Angeles Clippers (7-3, 6-1 home, 1-2 road, +3.6 differential, 10th last week)
This is what I wanted to see from the Clippers — a surgical deconstruction of two of the best teams in the NBA. The overtime win against the Heat was fortunate because LeBron missed quite a few free throws in the closing minutes of regulation. But they still executed well enough throughout the entire game to put them in that situation and benefit from it. Against the Lakers, Chris Paul pretty much matched Kobe play for play in the fourth quarter and helped close out a hot shooting night from Bryant.
The Clippers rebounded well in both games and refused to shoot themselves in the feet with costly and senseless turnovers. It’s not just that Chris Paul is making the right decisions with the ball; everybody is making the right decisions with the ball when their name isn’t “Chauncey Billups’ illusions of accuracy grandeur.” I’m still curious about how well they can defend teams with multiple weapons. In other words, I’m really excited for the game against OKC to end the month.
Games this week: 2/3 of back-to-back-to-back (at Utah, home to Dallas), home to Wolves, home to Toronto
8. Dallas Mavericks (8-6, 6-2 home, 2-4 road, +4.1 differential, 13th last week)
You see what happened?! I refused to write this team off last week and it TOTALLY paid off. So… that’s something, I guess. The Mavs had an easy stretch of games against five bad teams and dominated pretty much every single one of them. You can just blame the lack of a tough schedule for them looking better than they did a week ago, but then you’d have to retroactively make the excuse that they started out the season with a tough schedule too.
The weird thing about this team is the loss of Tyson Chandler has really hurt the offense more than the defense. Their defense has been pretty spectacular with the third best defensive rating in the league. Their offense ranks 22nd and it’s maybe just now starting to get back on track (last night’s horrific showing against the Lakers aside). With this team, it’s a total team effort. Everybody has to chip in because nobody outside of Dirk is scoring all that well and there isn’t a single player averaging over 6.1 rebounds per game. Getting Lamar Odom to step up in any way will right a lot of wrongs with this team.
Games this week: back-to-back (at Clippers, at Utah), at Hornets, home to Phoenix
Are they good because they’re good or good because they’re in the East?
7. Orlando Magic (9-3, 4-1 home, 5-2 road, +5.3 differential, 9th last week)
Again, as long as Dwight Howard is in an Orlando uniform, this is one of the best teams in the entire NBA. The defense hasn’t been great this season (just 19th in the league) but the offense is nearly as good as we remember it from the Finals run days. Ryan Anderson and J.J. Redick have been as good as you can hope from them. Anderson is not only filling the void Rashard Lewis left when he stopped being good, but he’s better in the stretch-4 role than Lewis ever was.
They had their first big test of the season with the recent four-game road trip out west that naturally ended in New York City, and they swept the entire trip with tough wins over Portland, Golden State and New York. What’s scary for opponents right now is they don’t need Dwight to be established down low before the perimeter game gets cooking. Anything from him is a bonus right now, and that’s not what you want to see from Orlando when you’re playing them.
Games this week: 2/3 of back-to-back-to-back (home to Charlotte, home to Spurs), home to Lakers, at Boston
6. Indiana Pacers (9-3, 5-0 home, 4-3 road, +4.3 differential, 7th last week)
The Pacers can barely be challenged at home right now, which means their upcoming stretch of six road games in seven games total a very important run to see just how legitimate they are as a power in the East. They still aren’t a dangerous team from an offensive standpoint, but that doesn’t really matter because you can’t score against them. This league has become so much about players buying into a defensive system and that’s exactly what Frank Vogel has been able to get his players to do.
Go ahead; try and run a pick-and-roll against the Pacers. See if you score. Try and beat them back in transition for an easy bucket. Try to get open jumpers against them. See if you can even put back your own misses if you grab the offensive rebound. The Pacers clamp down on you so well and just get in the way. The muck up everything and are super important while doing it. They’re basically muckety-mucks… okay, I’ll just end this now.
Games this week: at Kings, at Warriors, at Lakers
Bucking the trends
5. San Antonio Spurs (9-4, 9-0 home, 0-4 road, +5.6 differential, 8th last week)
For years, I would see the Spurs make a seemingly minor but super intelligent trade and think to myself, “[EXPLETIVE] R.C. Buford!” He was just such a brilliant manipulator of the roster and new exactly how to fill holes to keep this team near the top of the West. I always felt like he was tricking the rest of the league into making deals that were fairly one-sided. It was like how the internet reacts to Daryl Morey, only it actually led to something good.
Now? I keep watching how the Spurs are competing every night with the likes of a rookie Kawhi Leonard, Danny Green, Matt Bonner, James Anderson and T.J. Ford and think to myself, “[EXPLETIVE] Gregg Popovich!” He knows how to take in the roster that Buford provides and figure out the best way to accentuate their strengths and keep them high in the Western Conference seeding. This team lost Manu Ginobili and hasn’t really missed a beat. They use Duncan in the right spots and ride out whatever Tony Parker is creating on offense. They don’t try to change what it is they do well and just make the opposing team adjust to them. It’s been a joy watching him coach the last two seasons, and almost as much as the last 15.
Games this week: 4 games in 5 nights (at Miami, at Orlando then home to Kings, at Houston), at Hornets
4. Philadelphia 76ers (10-3, 6-0 home, 4-3 road, +14.9 differential, 4th last week)
I have bad news for the people who are waiting for the Sixers to fall back down to earth and not be so good: it’s going to be a while. I know there’s the argument that the Sixers haven’t played anyone that good lately and therefore their numbers and record are completely inflated. Maybe that’s true a little bit. Their schedule this month has seen them play Indiana, New York and a bunch of pretty easy games. And it’s no coincidence they’re 8-1 in January. I still contend that Philly is doing what good teams are supposed to do. They’re hammering the little guys.
Against the better team? Maybe they’ll struggle a bit. They get to match up with Denver at home and then face Atlanta and Miami on a back-to-back. It will be a nice test for them, especially if Dwyane Wade magically heals before that game. However, 12 of their next 14 games are at home and they’re going to have a great opportunity to inflate those numbers some more during this stretch. They’re doing what good teams do. They’re exploiting a weak conference. We never have issues with power teams in the past doing it. Why is it not okay for Philly to do it?
Games this week: home to Denver, back-to-back (home to Atlanta, at Miami), home to Wizards
Still your only title contenders, but with a brand new order!
3. Miami Heat (8-4, 3-1 home, 5-3 road, +6.8 differential, 1st last week)
Well… that was an embarrassing week. Miami was the destroyer of worlds. Miami was laying the smack down on any team foolish enough to participate in a league-sanctioned game. Opposing teams would have to choose between public embarrassment or forfeiting the games. It looked like Miami was ready to roll through the regular season. Then they kind of fell apart against Golden State on the road. No big deal though; lots of teams have hiccups on the road. Except then they also collapsed against the Clippers in Los Angeles before being run off the court in Denver.
So about that destroying worlds stuff…Miami now returns home for eight of their next nine games and have to find a way to bring back the domination they showed early on. The problem is Dwyane Wade isn’t so much healthy and/or playing, so it’s now up to LeBron and Bosh to find a cohesive two-man game they can sustain for 40-ish minutes per night. They’re more than capable of doing this, but they still have to execute it. Good luck with that.
Games this week: home to Spurs, home to Lakers, back-to-back (home to Philly, home to Bucks)
2. Chicago Bulls (12-3, 5-0 home, 7-3 road, +8.5 differential, 2nd last week)
Before I get a single word about not respecting Chicago, I’m only putting them second, instead of first, because of the Derrick Rose turf toe injury. If it wasn’t for that hardwood-induced turf injury, they’d be atop the leaderboards and looking to bring it home like Roy McAvoy in Tin Cup. They’d let the big dog eat… or you know… let Carlos Boozer scream about stuff.
I got to watch them up close recently at the Wolves game and I have to say I was really impressed with just how much they communicate on defense. When you’re close enough to hear the chatter on Minnesota, you wouldn’t even know that Darko is capable of speaking. So to hear Noah, Boozer, Taj, etc. calling out which side the screen is coming and where to take the opponent, it’s really a fun contrast than what I’m used to hearing… or not hearing.
Games this week: home to Phoenix, back-to-back (at Cavs, home to Charlotte), home to the Nets
1. Oklahoma City Thunder (12-2, 6-1 home, 6-1 road, +5.0 differential, 3rd last week)
Does it freak anybody else out to see what Kevin Durant is shooting this season? He’s hitting all field goals at a 50.2% clip and he’s made 54% of his 16-23 foot jumpers. That’s an insane clip to be hitting shots from that far away. Aside from the percentage, it’s kind of scary to see how many of those buckets aren’t being assisted anymore. Last year, 64% of his baskets from that range were assisted. This season? That number is down to 46%. So he’s basically taking the ball, surveying the space in front of him and then making you his son however he pleases.
This probably isn’t sustainable because eventually the regression to the mean slaps you in the face with a glove and challenges you to a duel. And nobody is quicker in a duel than the mean. If anybody could out shoot the mean though, it’s definitely Kevin Durant. 10 paces at dawn, KD. Bring your Durant and Wesson.Games this week: at Wizards, at Nets, home to Detroit