NBA Power Rankings: Separating Contenders from Pretenders
Dear reader, I remind you: These Power Rankings reflect which teams are probably best positioned to finish with great regular-season records. Well, that and some other subjective criteria I've thrown in there.
Anyway, I remind you of this because the NBA is seven-deep right now, an issue that poses challenges for the ranker. With a whopping seven elite teams, it can be difficult to separate any which one from the other in that upper stratum.
As follows, those teams are: the Heat, Grizzlies, Thunder, Spurs, Knicks, Clippers and Lakers. Within that top seven, almost any order can be justified. Outside of that top seven? Well, the line between "playoffs" and "lottery" seems quite thin.
30. Washington Wizards
Congratulations, Washington. There are no undefeated teams left, and you stand alone as the league's last "defeated" squad. The Wiz came close to winning twice against Boston, but it's gotten worse since that point.
Without John Wall or Nene, there just isn't hope for this team. Starting lineups feature such names as Trevor Booker and A.J. Price. Since getting drafted, Jan Vesely has been atrocious.
So far, Washington's only above-average player has arguably been Emeka Okafor. He plays 25 minutes per game.
29. Sacramento Kings
DeMarcus Cousins still shoots a low percentage? Check. Tyreke Evans is still regressing? Check. Keith Smart still refuses to run pick-and-roll? Oddly, yes—check.
The Sacramento Kings are a mess, a talent graveyard and embarrassment whose closest moment of glory comes when they're being served to the Los Angeles Lakers at a time when everyone is paying attention to Phil Jackson drama.
28. Detroit Pistons
Good times in Detroit again! The Pistons have won an astounding two games in a week, most recently toppling Boston on Sunday night.
Lawrence Frank steadfastly refuses to pair Andre Drummond with Greg Monroe, for reasons that perhaps only he understands. Brandon Knight has shown some promise as a passer, but he isn't hitting shots.
All in all, this is still a terrible team, but one that's shown how Monroe's offense can sometimes transcend such awfulness.
27. Cleveland Cavaliers
Anderson Varejao is having a career year—except for that part about how defense is his specialty and Cleveland has a wretched defense.
It might not be Andy's fault, though. As I watch tape of the Cavs, it's hard to find specific players to blame because communication has broken down in so many places. The Cavs are two safeties arguing with each other after the wide receiver spikes the ball. Blown coverages sometimes don't volunteer the culprit, and we're left to wonder from afar.
One thing is certain: Kyrie Irving has not been good on the defensive end. He's one of the game's best young stars, but it would be nice to see him go over screens in situations that don't remotely call for that tactic.
26. Orlando Magic
The Orlando Magic are capable of the odd on-night, but this team is just too talent bereft to say out of the cellar.
Credit to Orlando for coming back on the road against Detroit (the Celtics couldn't manage that), and credit them for generally playing hard. It's just difficult to see how anyone on this roster even becomes anything close to an All-Star.
At least the Magic are giving young center Nikola Vucevic a chance to test his mettle. The 22-year-old is playing 31 minutes a night and making strides along the way.
25. Toronto Raptors
The Raps got ripped to shreds by Boston's offense, right before Boston went off and lost to Detroit. That's a bit concerning.
When Oklahoma City got a first-round draft pick from Toronto, it didn't look like much of a get. The Raptors were a trendy preseason playoff pick, and Dwane Casey had significantly improved their defense.
Well, with Kyle Lowry out with a sprained ankle, Toronto looks quite vulnerable. Jonas Valanciunas hasn't been an impact player, which is excusable considering his age (20).
24. Phoenix Suns
The Phoenix Suns actually have a player or two, just nobody great. Goran Dragic, Marcin Gortat and Luis Scola is halfway to NBA competence.
Dragic especially has been good, which makes his 33.5 minutes-per-game schedule mysterious. Scola and Gortat have been quite offensively productive, but defensively ineffective. It's hard to find an above-average performer besides the three aforementioned names.
23. Indiana Pacers
The Indiana Pacers have played incredible defense so far, and yet, they're one of the NBA's more depressing stories. With Danny Granger out and Roy Hibbert seriously struggling, it's hard to find light at the end of the tunnel for this once-mighty squad.
Though the Pacers managed to slow down the Knicks to a mere seven out of 25 threes, they were once again sold out by an anemic offense. With the aforementioned Granger and Hibbert issues dogging Indiana, it is difficult to divine where the points will come from.
22. Golden State Warriors
The Warriors don't know when Andrew Bogut will be back, and it's starting to look like yet another GSW season undone by injuries.
Golden State played improved defense with Bogut present, and the team will surely suffer on that end should he remain out. Offensively, the Dubs have forgotten how to shoot, with Klay Thompson, Stephen Curry and David Lee caught up in some nasty slumps.
On a brighter note, Harrison Barnes has looked good in recent games, often using his strength in the post against weaker wings. Since Barnes isn't much for ball-handling, this could be the key that unlocks his offensive game.
21. Charlotte Bobcats
The Bobcats switch from their old, hideous uniforms to these slick teal jobbies and suddenly they're a real basketball team.
Kemba Walker had a buzzer-beater to remember when he crossed up the Timberwolves and evoked the sweetest of UConn memories.
If Walker keeps up his scoring pace, he's up for Most Improved Player consideration. Quietly, Michael Kidd-Gilchrist has been great, despite not being able to hit a jumper.
The Bobs are exciting this year. Catch the fever.
20. New Orleans Hornets
Anthony Davis is incredible. Though six games, he's at a 25.8 PER and looks to be improving offensively by the minute.
In the 19-year-old rookie's last game against Milwaukee, Davis went for 28 points on a mere 14 shots with 11 rebounds. When I was 19 years old, I was subsisting on Cheez-Its and playing FIFA all day.
Ryan Anderson looks worth the contract, and he's been lighting it up to the tune of nearly three threes per game.
So why are the Hornets 3-5? Well, the defense is shoddy, and they have no guards. New Orleans is still a threat to make the playoffs, but it'll be difficult to do so without either defense or ball-handlers.
19. Denver Nuggets
Thanks a lot for letting us nerds look bad, Denver. The Nuggets were a popular pick among the numbers-friendly set on account of having such a deep, talented squad.
So what's happened since? They've had this strange issue of not being able to draw free throws, combined with underwhelming play from the newly signed Ty Lawson. Andre Iguodala was supposed to strengthen an iffy defense, but the Nuggets currently rank in the bottom third of teams on the defensive end.
It's hard to pin down exactly what went wrong with Denver, but I have a few theories. Perhaps they miss the spacing that sharpshooting Arron Afflalo allowed. Perhaps Iguodala's perimeter defense can't compensate for bad frontcourt defensive play.
I still expect this team to make the playoffs, but my faith in their quality is certainly rattled.
18. Portland Trail Blazers
This is the story of Blazer success when times are good. They have a young, unselfish and efficient core, capable of creating and spreading the wealth. The issue is that their bench might be the worst in basketball, and the starters' defense is suspect.
17. Houston Rockets
The Houston Rockets have embarked on a strategy of launching threes and avoiding long twos. It's sound math, but they might want to tweak the calibration just a bit.
With the neon green light to chuck, James Harden has lost his old, efficient three-point stroke. He's averaging over six attempts per game but only hitting 27.9 percent of them.
Houston is only 23rd in three-point percentage this season while registering as No. 1 in attempts. The Rockets might do well to stop shooting treys off the dribble.
16. Chicago Bulls
This Bulls team might be Tom Thibodeau's Waterloo. With Rose out and the old bench players gone, continued success might be asking too much of the roster.
Chicago has lost three of the last four, with the win coming against Phoenix in overtime. The defense didn't look especially on point in any of the games, and the Bulls have fallen from No. 1 in defensive efficiency to a tie for eighth in a week span.
The Bulls have almost no hope of generating offense with their current players. If the defense struggles, it's death.
15. Utah Jazz
Free Derrick Favors. The kid's too defensively talented to be riding pine for the slow-footed sake of Al Jefferson.
Well, perhaps Big Al can stay on the court. In a game against the Wizards, Utah experimented with its "Big Lineup" of Favors, Paul Millsap and Jefferson.
The trio played very well together last season, so Utah should be looking to this approach more often. The Jazz have a deep, physical frontcourt. They should be looking to get as many minutes as possible from it.
14. Atlanta Hawks
So, the Hawks claim to be against swapping Josh Smith for Pau Gasol. Fair enough, but they should compel Smith to stop taking terrible shots in the meantime. He is averaging 26 percent on the five long twos per game he's taking (via HoopData).
Meanwhile, Jeff Teague has been fantastic, albeit in brief minutes. Why is Teague averaging 27.5 minutes per game while dishing out 6.3 assists and shooting over 50 percent? You tell me, Atlanta. The Hawks have a lot of talent, often undermined by strange decisions.
Still, a core of Teague-Smith-Horford is as good as you'll see in the Eastern Conference outside of Miami. If Atlanta can curb some mistakes, this could even be a 50-win team.
13. Philadelphia 76ers
They've been grinding, fouling off pitches as they await Andrew Bynum's return. Then Bynum injures his knee while bowling. The ranking would be higher if it weren't for that bit of bad background news.
Jrue Holiday is holding the fort in Bynum's absence and might actually turn out to be the franchise guy Philly always wanted. His offense has finally caught up to his defense, if recent trends hold.
And if you're a true optimist, Evan Turner finally had a good game. Yes, it was against Cleveland, but Turner optimists need all the fodder they can grab.
12. Boston Celtics
"Boston's looked a lot better than they did at the very beginning. You can't fault them much for losing a close road game against Brooklyn, sans Rondo."
That's what I planned to type before the Celtics got blown out by the lowly Detroit Pistons and Rajon Rondo hunted for his assist streak in garbage time. Yeesh, what a debacle.
With all that said, Jason Terry has come to life, and Jared Sullinger is fresh off a good showing versus the Raptors. It's possible that the bench is rounding into form after its initial struggles.
The defense remains an issue, as Boston is far from a top-10 unit. Adding Sullinger, Terry and Jeff Green can take a toll on your frontcourt D. The trick will be getting enough offense from these players to justify that price.
11. Dallas Mavericks
This might be too high for Dallas, but I'm banking on Dirk Nowitzki coming back and helping. The Dallas we see isn't necessarily the Dallas they'll be.
The Mavericks have been scarfing on bad teams while losing to anyone who puts up a fight. The exception is when they got waxed by the Indiana Pacers, a team currently in a downward spiral of terrible.
So why are they at No. 11? Well, I'm not going to hold the Pacer performance too heavily against Dallas, not when the Mavs went 2-of-13 on three pointers. So long as the Mavs hover around .500, I'll cut them some "wait for Dirk" slack.
10. Minnesota Timberwolves
Oh, Minnesota, you were doing so well. But then you had to go and lose at home against the Warriors.
I still maintain that Andrei Kirilenko is playing some of the best basketball in the Western Conference, but it should be noted that Harrison Barnes blew right past him twice. That was a confusing sequence, considering how AK-47 has been Minny's defensive rock this season.
The T-Wolves look to get a lot better when Kevin Love returns. So far, they've done their job by just holding the fort until he comes back. If Ricky Rubio gets added to the mix, this could become a scary playoff team (emphasis on "could").
9. Brooklyn Nets
So why are the Nets ranked below the Bucks when both have the same record? Well, the last five Brooklyn wins come against the Magic, Magic, Cavs, Celtics (Rondo did not play) and the Kings.
You can only play the scheduled teams, and credit to BK for winning while Gerald Wallace recovers from injury. I just need to see a bit more from a Brook Lopez-led defense.
Speaking of which, Lopez has been awesome. His much-maligned defense has led to at least three blocks in each of the last five games. He could be a good defender yet.
8. Milwaukee Bucks
At 6-2, Milwaukee's been the good team that nobody cares about. I care about you, Milwaukee. I care about you.
I care because your bench tandem of Ekpe Udoh and Larry Sanders is a defensive thrill. I care because Brandon Jennings is skewering opponents, much like he did at the beginning of last season. I also care because I'm not exactly sure what's wrong with Ersan Ilyasova, or why Scott Skiles stockpiles so many shot-blockers.
The Bucks are as fun a League Pass follow as you can find right now, even with Monta Ellis jacking up ill-advised shots throughout the game. Lucky for Milwaukee, they're carried by defense and should continue to be over the course of this season.
7. Los Angeles Lakers
So now Mike D'Antoni goes from being the savior to the guy vested with just not screwing it up? Quite a turnaround for the Lakers. They've quickly returned to .500, and Dwight Howard looks increasingly comfortable—both physically and among his teammates.
Los Angeles looked offensively indomitable at home versus Houston. Traditionally, this type of team hurts the Lakers (pick-and-roll guards, three-point shooters), but L.A. just poured on points and never looked back.
The best Laker by far has been Kobe Bryant. With fewer shots and increased efficiency, he might be having his best season of the millennium, right after he had his worst one.
6. New York Knicks
There is no shame in losing to Memphis on the road, even if it's a blowout. The Knicks are going to have these games every now and again—it's the nature of shooting so many threes (a high-risk, high-reward strategy).
On the balance, New York's three-heavy strategy works more often than it doesn't. They possess the capability of beating anyone in a playoff series, should they catch fire from deep.
I do wonder about how playing Rasheed Wallace and Jason Kidd will work out down the road. Right now, both have been incredible, relative to expectations. But you have to assume that the Knicks' middle-aged additions will come back to earth eventually.
5. San Antonio Spurs
Why the huge fall? Well, let me confess something to you: The top six teams in the league could go in almost any conceivable order.
San Antonio lost at home last week, and the margin of error is thin at the top level of these power rankings. My opinion on this squad hasn't changed since last time. It's just that the Grizzlies and Clippers have really impressed since then.
Tim Duncan has quietly (it's always quiet with Duncan) been having a resurgence. His per-36-minute numbers are on par with some of his best seasons. With Manu Ginobili perpetually banged up, the Spurs might need this souped-up Timmy to truly contend.
4. Los Angeles Clippers
The Clippers have been vaulted another level by the play of DeAndre Jordan and Eric Bledsoe. Jordan might be getting the hang of helping a defense outside of blocks, and his offensive game looks more refined this season. Jordan is less a surprise than the latter Bledsoe, a hyper-athletic point guard who had never really grasped how to play offense until now.
The added Bledsoe value is his ability to pressure opposing guards. EB's lateral mobility is unparallelled, and his hands are just as quick (per 36 minutes, Bledsoe is tallying 3.1 steals). He's one of the league's few good backup point guards. And he's only getting better.
3. Oklahoma City Thunder
Confession time: It's nothing personal; he's a good player, but I really hate Kevin Martin. He's been fantastic on the Thunder so far, exceeding even the most optimistic of expectations.
My only issue with Martin is his incredibly annoying style of play. K-Mart makes a habit out of careening into defenders, jumping backwards and pretending he was hit. He has Harden's most galling tendency, but amplified to a screeching pitch. For reasons that elude me, referees tend to give the spindly flopper his foul.
So, Martin has given much of what OKC lost in Harden, but I can't help but wonder if such a style is sustainable under the glamor-team microscope. If it is, I pity the league.
2. Miami Heat
Is Miami better off with out Dwyane Wade? No, of course not. But Miami is certainly better off without the Dwyane Wade who limped through a 2-of-10 outing against the Clippers.
The Heat need D-Wade, but his absence gives them a nice counter option. With Wade out, LeBron can perpetually be surrounded by four three-point shooters, which provides desired spacing.
The trade-off is that some of this spacing can't guard the opponent. Ray Allen is getting set ablaze on a near-nightly basis, and the Miami defense as a whole has suffered. Erik Spoelstra must get creative in deploying Allen, because Ray's offense might not be worth the worsened defense.
1. Memphis Grizzlies
If I were to tell you about a center who averaged 15 points and seven boards while shooting less than 50 percent on field goals, you'd have no idea how great Marc Gasol has been. He provides subtle value as a superior passer and defender at his position.
The Spaniard is currently leading a deep, ferocious Grizzlies team that has likely played better than anyone else. Their demolition of the then-unbeaten New York Knicks was quite the announcement.
The Western Conference is more wide open than Kendrick Perkins at the three-point line. So, why not the Grizzlies?