NBA Power Rankings: Deconstructing the League's Top 3 Teams
This compact, fast-paced NBA season has produced as slew of interesting sub-plots since its Christmas Day opening.
The early-season soap opera that was the Chris Paul trade foreshadowed the unfolding drama that was to take place over the course of the 2011-2012 basketball campaign.
From Kobe Bryant’s 40-point scoring streak to the most recent arc that has been dubbed “Linsanity,” there has been no shortage of entertainment to show basketball fans that the NBA can still produce a quality product.
Through all of the plot twists and turns, however, some constants have started to emerge.
Each of these teams made deep playoff runs last season but also came up short of winning an NBA title.
They were all considered the top favorites coming into the 2012 championship crusade and have definitely set themselves a world apart from the rest of the NBA.
Let’s take a closer look at each of these teams to see where they excel and where they falter.
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1. Oklahoma City Thunder
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Record: 22-6 (12-2 at home, 11-5 away)
Standing: No. 1 in the Western Conference
Overview: The Oklahoma City Thunder are the epitome of young guns. Each of the team’s standouts—Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook and James Harden—are all under 25 years of age, which pretty much insures that this team will be contending for many years into the foreseeable future. The Thunder play fast and take no prisoners on the offensive end, and their overall record shows they are very adept at winning.
Strengths: To say that the Thunder can score is an understatement. They have two players in Durant and Westbrook who average more than 20 points per game, and Harden is not far behind, chipping in 16.9 points per game.
The team’s biggest offensive advantage is that they can score in every conceivable way. Westbrook allows the team to get out and run while Durant and Harden allow them to score in a half-court set. Defenses have their hands full when picking their poison against the Thunder.
Weaknesses: Oklahoma City can outrun most teams in the NBA; however, they will also let a team run with them. They have a defense that allows 96.0 points per game. Each of the Thunder’s six losses came games in which their opponent scored over 100 points.
The defensive woes don’t show up just in the losses, either. Five of their wins also included opponents breaking the century mark, and in seven other games, Oklahoma has allowed fewer than 100 points but more than 94.
Their other Achilles heel comes in handling the ball. With a team that has such dynamic players, the Thunder average only 18.1 assists per game. That’s not even good enough to put them in the top 25. They also turn the ball over 16.9 times on average; that is a near 1:1 assist to turnover ratio.
Analysis: Despite their shortcomings defensively, Oklahoma City has shown that, more often than not, they are good enough to outrun their opponents and still win. Still, their lack of a defensive presence outside of Serge Ibaka and their inability to take good care of the basketball definitely raise concerns about whether or not they can repeat their deep playoff run from a year ago.
There are some pretty defensively sound teams in the Western Conference who can make the Thunder pay for giving the ball away so often. They may also find themselves in trouble if they can’t get more offensive production from players other than the usual suspects of Durant, Westbrook and Harden.
All this aside, it should still surprise no one if Oklahoma City continues its conference dominance. They are young and energetic in a conference whose used-to-be heavy hitters are old and declining. The Thunder are definitely leading the surge of the youth movement out West.
2. Miami Heat
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Record: 23-7 (12-2 at home, 11-5 away)
Standing: No. 2 in the Eastern Conference
Overview: The Miami Heat are a three-headed hydra that boasts a perennial All-Star core of Dwyane Wade, LeBron James and Chris Bosh. Their union was a part of the most glorious NBA free-agent coup in the history of the league.
Since their coming together last season, the Miami Heat were dubbed instant title favorites. They made it to the 2011 NBA Finals but were bested by the Dallas Mavericks. This season, the goal is just as high for the Heat, an NBA championship. Some of the supporting faces may have changed, but it hardly matters when the main attractions remain the same.
Strengths: See the Big Three. The question that the Heat can ask each opponent every night is, “Which of our stars would you like to see dominate today’s game?” The presence of Wade, James and Bosh in the starting five makes them nearly impossible for most teams to plan for.
Wade can slash and shoot. James has added post moves to his already-expansive repertoire. Bosh is one of the best inside/outside power forwards in the league. How can you stop that?
The Heat are the best at getting out and finishing on the break. Also, they don’t need monster performances from each of their stars every game in order to win.
Weaknesses: Let’s start with Miami’s defense. They are right in the middle of the pack for points allowed at 94.9 points per game. It’s not actually that bad when you consider that the team averages a second-best 103.5 points per game; however, there’s a flaw hidden behind that near 10-point margin of victory average. Most of Miami’s defense comes from the effort of their big three. As a team, there is a lot left to be desired.
Even more concerning, though, is Miami’s fourth-quarter performance. Many analysts, including former Heat center Shaquille O’Neal, have pointed out Miami’s still-present tendency of settling into isolation in the games’ last minutes. This stagnation has often cost them victories. It’s hard to tell whether it stems from player ennui or if coach Erik Spoelstra still thinks this is reliable way to close games, but it has definitely backfired on Miami numerous times.
Analysis: Say what you want about the Miami Heat, but they are a legitimate NBA powerhouse. There may be other teams in the Eastern Conference that can give Miami some trouble; however, you would be hard-pressed to find a team that could actually beat the Heat in a seven-game series outside of the Chicago Bulls.
It’s hard to gauge whether or not the style Miami is playing is their established game. They stumbled a bit in the regular season last year and even fell back into their isolation tendencies in the playoffs, but they still prevailed and earned a championship berth.
As long as their core is healthy and present, the Heat have one of the best shots at winning it all.
3. Chicago Bulls
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Record: 24-7 (10-1 at home, 14-6 away)
Standing: No. 1 in the Eastern Conference
Overview: The Chicago Bulls are another young team that is set up to maintain a playoff-worthy status for many seasons to come. They have an MVP leader in Derrick Rose, All-Star support in Luol Deng and one of the game's brightest defensive minds in coach Tom Thibodeau.
Everyone expected Chicago to be a solid team last season, but no one saw 62 wins and a No. 1 playoff seed coming. The cat is out of the bag now, and the Bulls have placed themselves at the forefront of every discussion concerning 2012 NBA champion picks.
Continuing their winning ways from the 2010-2011 run, the Chicago Bulls are primed to reclaim their glory of the Jordan Era.
Strengths: Not to be confused with an R&B duo from the 90s, Chicago prides itself on BBD: balance, bench and defense. As for balance, Chicago ranks in the top three for rebounds (second at 44.9 per game), assists (first at 23.2 per game) and points allowed (third at 88.0 points per game). They even have a top-10 offense (eighth at 97.8 points per game).
There’s no question, though, that it all starts on the defensive end for this team. Chicago has held teams under 80 points eight times so far this season. Four of those games included opponents that didn’t even break 70 points.
As far as the bench goes, they have four players in Taj Gibson, Kyle Korver, Ronnie Brewer, and C.J. Watson who could arguably start for any other team in the league. Opponents of the Bulls face a team that can throw two different starter-quality lineups on the floor, and often times that is too much for most teams to handle.
Weaknesses: Sometimes, a player or a team is so good that their biggest opponent is themselves. Such is the case for Chicago. They don’t have a tendency to self-destruct, collapse or rebel, but they do have issues when it comes to staying healthy. Rose, Deng, Watson and Hamilton have all missed very extended stretches that have spanned numerous games. Rose and Hamilton are still sitting out with injuries.
As far as gameplay goes, their team has been a model for consistency, but some players have not. Carlos Boozer still disappears at times as he did against the Miami Heat, and Deng has sometimes failed to assume the leadership reins in Rose’s absence like he did in the Bulls’ most recent contest against the Boston Celtics.
Chicago is the kind of team that needs all hands on deck in order to play at their best. The injuries and inconsistent contributions of some their players jeopardize their chances of success.
Analysis: If the Bulls suddenly find themselves in health’s favor, then the rest of the league will have a lot to worry about. Chicago may not have the fire power of the Thunder or the star power of the Heat, but they excel where those teams don’t, in depth and balance.
Coach Thibodeau definitely has his work cut out for him for the second half of the season. Managing minutes for his recovering players (and Deng who is playing injured) is a task that no NBA coach wants to have in this rapid-fire season.
Also, let’s not discount the fact that Bulls continue to dominate despite numerous injuries and having 20 of their first 30 games on the road. The Bulls’ ability to win without key players and in hostile environments keeps them near the top of favorites for winning it all this year.