Updated NBA Title Odds, Post-Derrick Rose Injury
It's amazing how much of a seismic impact one injury can have on the overall NBA landscape.
When Derrick Rose went down with a torn meniscus against the Portland Trail Blazers, an injury suffered on a non-contact play late in the third quarter with the score tied at 68, the Chicago Bulls watched their championship hopes and dreams go by the wayside. All of a sudden, their title odds plummeted, leaving the No. 3 spot in the Eastern Conference wide open.
The news was officially reported by K.C. Johnson of the Chicago Tribune, and not a single NBA fan should have dry eyes upon hearing it. You'll hear more about the injury itself when you get to Chicago's slide.
It doesn't matter if you root for the Bulls or one of their rivals, as Rose was a likable, humble superstar who in no way deserves to endure a second big knee injury just a handful of games into his return campaign from the first.
This story didn't need to repeat.
So, how far down do his Bulls fall? Who takes their place behind the Indiana Pacers and Miami Heat?
Those are just a few of the questions tackled in this article.
On each slide, you'll see a record projection and a set of title odds. Don't make the mistake of thinking they're heavily correlated, as there's a big difference in the two numbers. A team can jump over many other squads with better projected records if it has more upside or a roster more suited for competing in the postseason.
30. Milwaukee Bucks
You have to feel bad for the Milwaukee Bucks.
They wanted to be mediocre so badly, but they just haven't been able to stay healthy enough to do so. And instead, they've sunk all the way to the bottom of the Eastern Conference with an offense that is only scoring 91 points per game.
Despite a 38-spot from Caron Butler, the Bucks could still only muster up 107 points in a game that went to overtime against the Philadelphia 76ers, the not-so-proud owners of the worst defense in the NBA, according to points per game.
With Larry Sanders and Brandon Knight—and they only just got back Ersan Ilyasova—there's been minimal talent in Milwaukee. But hey, at least John Henson has been looking pretty good when he's on the court.
And that Nate Wolters guy is good too.
OK, I'm out of positives.
Projected Record: 18-64, No. 15 in the Eastern Conference
Title Odds: 400-1
29. Utah Jazz
The Utah Jazz are just awful.
A 1-13 record is bad enough, but it's made even worse by the fact that the team is being outscored by 11.1 points per game. And how about if we look at per-possession stats?
According to Basketball-Reference, the Jazz have the No. 30 defensive rating in the NBA, and they also rank dead last in offensive rating. That's an unfortunate combination, to put it lightly.
Although the Jazz have the worst projected record in the NBA, they actually have better title odds than the Milwaukee Bucks. Why? There's significant upside here thanks to the wealth of young players with lofty potential.
On that note, let's just acknowledge that Trey Burke is back and then move on quickly before anyone gets too depressed.
Projected Record: 14-68, No. 15 in the Western Conference
Title Odds: 350-1
28. Sacramento Kings
The Sacramento Kings just can't play defense.
As much offense as Isaiah Thomas and DeMarcus Cousins have been able to provide, they're still allowing 107.4 points per 100 possessions, per Basketball-Reference. And that's just not going to get the job done, as only a handful of teams have been more porous during the pre-Thanksgiving portion of the 2013-14 campaign.
But hey, there are two major positives in Sleep Train Arena.
First, no fans in any sport have been able to produce a louder noise in an indoor arena. That's something to yell home about, assuming anyone has enough vocal power left to do so.
Secondly, Boogie is living up to the deal he signed during the offseason. The big man is averaging 21.5 points and 9.9 rebounds per game thus far, putting up a 25.54 PER and asserting himself as one of the truly elite centers in all of basketball.
He's still clearly a building block, even if the right pieces aren't around him yet.
Projected Record: 25-57, No. 14 in the Western Conference
Title Odds: 300-1
27. Philadelphia 76ers
The Philadelphia 76ers are better than we thought they'd be. There's no point in denying that any longer.
Michael Carter-Williams already seems like a shoo-in for Rookie of the Year, Evan Turner and Spencer Hawes have emerged as quality starters and the rest of the roster seems determined to prove its value in the NBA.
However, there's no way that this success is sustainable.
Not only are the percentages going to continue falling back to earth, but the Sixers aren't even pretending to play defense. They're allowing 109.6 points per game, and that number may continue to rise once Brett Brown's movement-heavy schemes wear the younger players down.
On top of that, general manager Sam Hinkie isn't going to continue letting this team win. That isn't the plan.
If the victories continue piling up, you can bet on either Turner or Thaddeus Young—or both—finding a way out of Philadelphia via trade. A better record is fine, but better title odds just ain't happening yet.
Projected Record: 23-59, No. 13 in the Eastern Conference
Title Odds: 250-1
26. Phoenix Suns
Led by Eric Bledsoe, the Phoenix Suns are better than just about anyone expected.
They've been masters of the fourth quarter, showing heart and tenacity as they struggle to fight back into games. It's a recipe for excitement, but not sustained success in a long and grueling campaign that can wear down even the most fit NBA players.
Fortunately, the Suns don't have to win games in order to have a successful season. As long as players emerge as long-term keepers, it's all good.
And that's exactly what seems to be happening with Bledsoe, Miles Plumlee and Markieff Morris. Especially Bledsoe.
He's been one of the best point guards in basketball thus far, and he's already put together one heck of a highlight reel when the game is on the line.
Again, long-term evaluation is more important than winning. And with the number of draft picks Phoenix might have in the 2014 selection process, it's not even that bad for this tanking team to win a few more contests than expected.
Projected Record: 30-52, No. 13 in the Western Conference
Title Odds: 225-1
25. Charlotte Bobcats
Despite the fact that the Charlotte Bobcats are one of only two teams failing to score 90 points during the average outing, they're still hanging right around .500 during the early portion of the season.
That'll change. Both parts of that sentence will.
With Al Jefferson starting to mesh next to his new teammates, the offense will begin looking a little more competent. But the 'Cats will eventually fall a little back from their 6-7 mark as the inability to put up gaudy point totals will come back to bite them.
So, how are they doing it so far?
Defense, defense, defense.
Led by Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, this is a unit that will scratch and claw no matter how much of a physical toll it must endure. The 'Cats are boasting one of the best defenses in basketball, and it doesn't appear to be fluky, although giving minutes to Jefferson over Bismack Biyombo will cause a bit of a decline.
These aren't your daddy's Bobcats. Well, that's probably not possible since the franchise itself hasn't been around long. So maybe we should just say these aren't the Bobcats you've watched (or avoided watching) over the last few years.
Projected Record: 35-47, No. 10 in the Eastern Conference
Title Odds: 220-1
24. Orlando Magic
The Orlando Magic have emerged as an interesting team, but they still aren't going to be all that competitive throughout the 2013-14 season. Without boasting a consistently solid offense or defense, it's tough for them to develop a go-to calling card that can carry them in close contests.
Of course, it's not like the Magic need to be competitive.
This clearly isn't a team full of veterans ready to hang around in the playoff race, but rather a collection of talent that is missing that one standout piece. Nikola Vucevic has continued to look like one of the better centers in the NBA, and Arron Afflalo is on fire, but that's about it.
Victor Oladipo has struggled at the start of his rookie campaign, and we still have yet to see Tobias Harris suit up even once. There's still plenty of upside for the Magic, but their early-season record still feels like a bit of an illusion, even if it came against a tough slate of teams.
Still, that upside is enough to boost Orlando over a few teams with better projected records, even if the chances of making the playoffs remain a massive long shot.
Projected Record: 21-61, No. 14 in the Eastern Conference
Title Odds: 200-1
23. Boston Celtics
Even before Kelly Olynyk sprained his ankle, he was failing to live up to the lofty expectations set upon his shoulders. To be fair, he produced them himself by dominating the competition during summer league and preseason action.
Now the Boston Celtics are still struggling to find a working frontcourt rotation. Vitor Faverani has declined after his torrid start, and Jared Sullinger is beginning to emerge as a quality option. But are any of them long-term keepers?
Fortunately, there have been positive developments for the C's, though.
Jordan Crawford looks like a quality starter, scoring well and flashing some nice facilitating skills. And Jeff Green continues to play like a potential standout, even though his efficiency is suffering due to a lack of protection in the lineup.
Rajon Rondo will eventually be back, but is there enough offensive talent in Beantown for that to push the team over the top and into playoff contention? It's tough to say yes right now.
Projected Record: 30-52, No. 12 in the Eastern Conference
Title Odds: 150-1
22. Toronto Raptors
The Toronto Raptors offense is troubling, even though the team has been able to use a solid defense en route to a solid start to the 2013-14 campaign.
Each of the top three scorers has just been massively inefficient thus far.
Rudy Gay—he of the 37-shot outing—is second on the team with 20.2 points per game, and he's shooting only 38.1 percent from the field. It's DeMar DeRozan who has emerged as the top scorer, but he's putting up his 21.2 points per contest on 41.9 percent shooting.
Coming in at No. 3 is Kyle Lowry, averaging 12.4 points per game with a field-goal percentage only slightly higher than Gay's.
There's poor shot selection, and then there's whatever you want to call what's happening north of the border. Yikes.
Until Toronto begins to take good shots, it'll be tough for the team to score enough points that it remains competitive.
Projected Record: 37-45, No. 9 in the Eastern Conference
Title Odds: 125-1
21. Cleveland Cavaliers
At what point do we start getting concerned about the Cleveland Cavaliers?
Although I'd hesitate to place any faith in Andrew Bynum becoming a key contributor for the team, it's way too soon to press the panic button for a team with Kyrie Irving on it. Even though he struggled again against the New Orleans Pelicans, shooting inefficiently and turning the ball over too often, Irving has shown flashes of greatness.
Every 21-year-old goes through rough spells, and it's not like Irving has been absolutely awful. He still left the Pelicans game with a 19.30 PER, courtesy of ESPN.com. Once his shot starts falling...
Cleveland just needs to get it going on offense in general, especially because the defensive efforts have been solid. Given the youth and new feel of this team, it's too early to give up on the Cavs.
And unlike the Brooklyn Nets, they've actually shown signs of a turnaround. But they also don't have as much upside, hence earning a better projected record and a worse set of title odds than their Eastern Conference counterparts.
Projected Record: 38-44, No. 8 in the Eastern Conference
Title Odds: 105-1
20. Brooklyn Nets
Go ahead and flock to the comment section and fill it with vitriol aimed directly at me. But if you're going to do so, at least try to come up with a reason that the Brooklyn Nets will turn things around after a 3-9 start that has left them getting outscored by 7.3 points per game.
And don't use the lame "they have too much talent" excuse. That's tantamount to saying, "I have nothing else to work in my advantage during this argument."
The Nets can't play offense. That would be all right if they could play defense. But they can't do that either.
According to Basketball-Reference, they left the game against the Minnesota Timberwolves ranked No. 24 in offensive rating and No. 29 in defensive rating. Ouch.
On top of that, Jason Kidd is inept as a head coach, key players can't stay healthy and Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett both look like corpses. There just aren't any positive signs pointing toward a turnaround.
Dan Favale and I tore them apart in a podcast, and that was before they lost to the Charlotte Bobcats and were blown out by 30 points against the Timberwolves.
Sorry, but I just don't see it. At some point, it's time to accept that a team just isn't very good. And hey, at least the title odds outpace the projected record because there is still a great deal of talent in the starting five.
Projected Record: 34-48, No. 11 in the Eastern Conference
Title Odds: 100-1
19. Chicago Bulls
Without Derrick Rose, the Chicago Bulls don't have a shot at winning the championship. Sorry, it's just true.
Now that the former MVP has torn his right meniscus, as reported by K.C. Johnson of the Chicago Tribune, the Bulls' chances have just limped into the locker room, just as Rose did after going down on a non-contact injury against the Portland Trail Blazers.
We have no idea how long it will take Rose to return, and Johnson brings up the dreaded possibility of him missing the entire season. Tim Grover, who trained Michael Jordan, Dwyane Wade and Kobe Bryant, said the following on Twitter:
Couple ways to deal with a meniscus tear. Take it out, you return faster but can shorten your career. Reattach it, miss maybe 4-6 months.
If you read this article about Rose's upcoming surgery, written by B/R's Will Carroll, you get the sense that Rose won't be missing out on the entire season.
But at the same time, it's tough to avoid assuming the worst. Rose took well over the typical time frame to recover from his torn ACL, and he was playing poor basketball in his 2013-14 return. What makes us think he'll be a key contributor once he comes back from this one, if he comes back at all?
The Bulls' ensuing decline is about more than just the lack of quality options at point guard (Kirk Hinrich and Marquis Teague, who ShamSports.com's Mark Deeks still thinks belongs in the D-League). There just isn't anyone in the Windy City who can create offense for himself, and that's going to make an already-struggling unit even worse.
The Bulls fought their way to a 45-37 record last year, and it's tough to see them look even that good without their best player and leading source of offensive production on the court. This is a weaker roster than the one that was deployed in 2012-13, as offensive spark plugs like Nate Robinson and Marco Belinelli have left for greener pastures. And while Mike Dunleavy is a great shooter, he can't replace that production.
Sad as it is, and strange as it is given the elite defense boasted by Tom Thibodeau's squad, it'll be a struggle for these Bulls to even make the playoffs without Rose.
Projected Record: 41-41, No. 7 in the Eastern Conference
Title Odds: 95-1
18. Dallas Mavericks
Not many teams are more fun than the Dallas Mavericks.
Between Dirk Nowitzki's one-legged flamingo fadeaways—a move that LeBron James has stolen from him—and Monta Ellis' efficient play, this team has the makings of an offensive juggernaut.
Ellis has been particularly impressive, passing up bad shots from the perimeter in favor of bursts to the hoop. That's why he's been able to average 23.5 points and 5.7 assists per game while shooting 48.9 percent from the field. It's easily the best he's ever looked.
However, defense is going to be a problem in Dallas.
Although they've gotten off to a stellar 9-4 start, the Mavs are allowing 106.5 points per 100 possessions, according to Basketball-Reference. That ranks them No. 23 in defensive rating, and that won't cut it for a team trying to emerge from the pack of middle-tier teams in the competitive Western Conference.
While Dallas is rebounding the ball well and forcing a lot of turnovers, the gambles are making it too easy for the other team to score. The Mavs rank near the bottom of the league in terms of effective field-goal percentage allowed and foul rate.
Unfortunately, nothing points toward that changing.
Projected Record: 44-38, No. 9 in the Western Conference
Title Odds: 85-1
17. Los Angeles Lakers
Maybe Pau Gasol needs to pretend that he's playing for charity every night.
After promising to donate $1,000 for every point he scored against the Golden State Warriors, Gasol exploded for 24 points, giving him his first true standout performance of the 2013-14 season. He'd already gone 20 and 10 twice before, but neither outing was as efficient.
If the Spanish 7-footer starts clicking, that's great news for the Los Angeles Lakers.
Even without Kobe Bryant, this team has remained somewhat competitive in the Western Conference, although its defensive woes mean it has been outscored by 3.5 points during the average game. That's something Kobe won't fix, and it still remains to be seen how much of an impact the Mamba will have when he returns.
But once he does, this is a different ballclub. Gone will be the free-wheeling, fast-paced, ball-moving offensive system, and in it's place will be an isolation-heavy mentality that lets Kobe control the rock quite a bit.
If the Lakers can make the playoffs, Kobe could push them over the top. But it's going to be tough to get there in the first place.
Projected Record: 41-41, No. 11 in the Western Conference
Title Odds: 80-1
16. Washington Wizards
The Washington Wizards had to be thrilled about their 96-88 loss to the Toronto Raptors, even though it was, well, a loss.
John Wall finally looked like the point guard who flashed his brilliance at the beginning of the season before back problems made him take a turn for the worse. Not only was his jumper working during his 37-point outing, but he was also explosive and attacked the basket.
Even though the Wizards lost, that's a positive development and bodes well for their eventual turnaround. Marcin Gortat is still adjusting to his new home, and Randy Wittman might eventually be replaced by a better coach. Between that and improved shot selection, there's a lot to look forward to.
This is still a playoff-caliber team, even if the 4-8 record doesn't make it look like one. That said, it's also not one capable of winning a title. While a solid record is well within the realm of realistic possibilities, the lack of upside and frontcourt depth doesn't bode well for the postseason.
Remember, the Wall-Bradley Beal combination is still present in the nation's capital, and it'll be more effective than ever once Wall is fully healthy. But beyond that, where is the upside coming from?
Projected Record: 43-39, No. 5 in the Eastern Conference
Title Odds: 75-1
15. Denver Nuggets
Don't look now, but the Denver Nuggets are climbing back into the playoff picture in the brutally difficult Western Conference.
Ty Lawson and a whole lot of depth. The Nuggets are consistently using one of the deeper rotations in basketball thanks to the emergence of players like Timofey Mozgov, Evan Fournier and Jordan Hamilton, and that's before they eventually get JaVale McGee and Danilo Gallinari back in the lineup. Remember, those are two players who were pegged as starters before the start of the season.
As for Lawson, he's averaging 20.9 points and 8.5 assists per game. But as much as he's handling the ball, he's still coughing it up less than three times each contest, helping him put together a 22.52 PER that's leaving little doubt about his status as an elite floor general.
Let's also not overlook Kenneth Faried, who has been playing like he was insulted by the trade rumors.
There's a lot to like in the Mile High City, and it's still incredibly difficult to come into the Pepsi Center and escape with a victory, as the Chicago Bulls learned during a blowout loss.
Projected Record: 45-37, No. 8 in the Western Conference
Title Odds: 65-1
14. Detroit Pistons
The Detroit Pistons have struggled almost as much as the Cleveland Cavaliers to start the season, but at least they've been able to score points fairly consistently.
And despite boasting one of the worst defenses in the league on a per-possession basis, there's no way that will remain the case for much longer. According to Basketball-Reference, Detroit is allowing 107.4 points per 100 possessions, a mark that leaves it at No. 25.
Josh Smith and Andre Drummond are both standout defenders, and they just aren't used to working together quite yet.
Once they do, opponents will fear going into the paint when they come to Motor City.
There's no reason to panic yet. Although things haven't gone smoothly—and Smoove needs to stop lofting up so many three-point attempts—this is a situation where more time is needed.
Plus, the depth of the squad will help, especially when Kentavious Caldwell-Pope settles into his role and Chauncey Billups returns to the lineup.
Projected Record: 42-40, No. 6 in the Eastern Conference
Title Odds: 50-1
13. New Orleans Pelicans
The New Orleans Pelicans are a different team when Ryan Anderson is in the lineup.
He debuted against the Philadelphia 76ers, raining in six three-pointers en route to a 135-98 victory over the overmatched competition. And since then, NOLA has yet to drop a game, also taking down the Utah Jazz and Cleveland Cavaliers.
Yes, that's a weak set of competition. Why bother denying that?
But there are obvious differences when Anderson is on the court. Floor spacing actually exists, and that allows the dynamic trio of guards to go to work attacking the basket without fear of the defense completely collapsing around it. It's not coincidence that Tyreke Evans has finally started playing well at a time that coincided with the stretch 4's return.
On top of that, there's this guy named Anthony Davis. You might have heard of either him or his unibrow.
During his sophomore campaign, he's averaging 20.7 points, 11.0 rebounds, 1.7 assists, 4.0 blocks and 1.9 steals with a league-leading 29.9 PER. I guess that's pretty solid.
Projected Record: 43-39, No. 10 in the Western Conference
Title Odds: 50-1
12. Memphis Grizzlies
Losing Marc Gasol to an MCL injury hurts. Whether it's torn or sprained, that's not good news for the Memphis Grizzlies, who still rely heavily on one of the league's best centers.
In Gasol's stead, Zach Randolph has to become the primary defensive player and go-to offensive stud in the frontcourt, and that's not a burden that should rest on the shoulders of the 32-year-old power forward. He has enough trouble jumping already.
As a result, the biggest challenge for the Memphis Grizzlies will be just getting into the playoffs. There's a huge clump of teams in the middle of the Western Conference, extending from the Grizz (No. 12 with a 38-44 record) to the undisclosed No. 7 team, one projected to earn 47 wins. That's a gap of only nine games, and six teams are squeezed into it.
If Memphis can make the playoffs, Mike Conley, Z-Bo, Gasol and the rest of the squad can make some noise. But given the struggles to adapt to Dave Joerger's new system and the absence of the Spanish 7-footer from the lineup, can the Grizzlies actually make it past the 82nd game of the season?
I had my doubts before Gasol messed up his MCL. Now I have even more of them.
Projected Record: 38-44, No. 12 in the Western Conference
Title Odds: 45-1
11. Portland Trail Blazers
While the Portland Trail Blazers have played a remarkably easy schedule during their shocking nine-game stretch of undefeated basketball, they're still legit.
That much is clear, and you can read my full thoughts on the subject here.
Thanks to improvements from Damian Lillard—on both ends of the court—and LaMarcus Aldridge, there's enough star power in Rip City for them to hang with the many elite teams in the Western Conference at the beginning of the season. And thanks to the added depth, it may actually be sustainable this season.
Portland still doesn't feel like a true title contender, but it's a team built to win games in the regular season. Dynamic point guard play, a steady dose of turnaround jumpers from Aldridge and a defense that is surprisingly effective on defense will do that.
Until the Blazers consistently beat good teams, though, it's hard to view them as a collection of players capable of getting past teams like the Golden State Warriors, Houston Rockets, Los Angeles Clippers, Oklahoma City Thunder and San Antonio Spurs in a seven-game series.
Projected Record: 50-32, No. 6 in the Western Conference
Title Odds: 40-1
10. Minnesota Timberwolves
Believe it or not, it's not all about the Kevins for the Minnesota Timberwolves.
Yes, Kevin Love has been absolutely fantastic, averaging 30 points and 20 rebounds per game (that's an exaggeration, but sometimes it doesn't feel like it). And yes, Kevin Martin is shooting 160 percent from beyond the three-point arc while averaging over 20 points per game (also an exaggeration that doesn't always feel like it).
But there's this Ricky Rubio guy too. And he's pretty good even when he's not scoring.
This is a deep team that's clicking on both ends of the court. There are plenty of quality pieces, and any decline that the red-hot Martin experiences will be mitigated by corresponding improvements from Nikola Pekovic.
As long as Rick Adelman keeps this squad playing good defense and rotating incessantly under the basket to cover up Love's shortcomings, the 'Wolves will make the playoffs. And once they get there, they have the offensive firepower to hang with anyone. But it's still not a sure thing, as the Western Conference is brimming over with teams that deserve to earn one of the coveted playoff berths.
Projected Record: 47-35, No. 7 in the Western Conference
Title Odds: 35-1
9. New York Knicks
Unlike the Brooklyn Nets, the New York Knicks are actually displaying signs that point toward hope for a turnaround.
Not only is this team much better with Tyson Chandler in the lineup—and he'll eventually return from his leg injury—but J.R. Smith will also start heating up at some point. You can't point toward old age or a declining set of skills when talking about this particular shooting guard. He's simply gone cold at the start of the year, likely a result of sitting out at the beginning of the year.
Does anybody actually expect the reigning Sixth Man of the Year to keep shooting 31 percent from the field and 28.9 percent from beyond the arc?
I hope not...
On top of that, the way Carmelo Anthony is playing will become beneficial at some point.
'Melo is passing the ball better than ever, even if his teammates aren't hitting the shots he creates for them. As a result, he's having to force up shots at the end of the shot clock, even though he's making more of an effort to play unselfishly than ever before.
According to NBA.com's SportVU data, Anthony is averaging 7.7 assist opportunities per game (passes that would result in an assist if the teammate makes the shot). That's actually more than Paul George, even though the Indiana Pacers superstar is averaging 0.5 more dimes per contest and has a reputation as a premier passing forward.
As long as 'Melo is on the roster, there's some shot at a title.
Projected Record: 44-38, No. 4 in the Eastern Conference
Title Odds: 30-1
8. Atlanta Hawks
The Atlanta Hawks shouldn't be one of the three elite teams in the Eastern Conference, but they've also asserted themselves as the best of the next tier, and Derrick Rose's meniscus injury pushes them into the cream of the crop.
Under Mike Budenholzer, who should now be considered one of the favorites for Coach of the Year, Jeff Teague has emerged as one of the best point guards in the NBA, and everyone is moving the ball well.
In fact, the Hawks are recording assists on 66 percent of their made shots, according to NBA.com's statistical databases (subscription required). To put that in perspective, only the Miami Heat beat that mark, and no one else in the NBA is on the right side of 65.
Although that number will likely go down with Lou Williams back in the lineup, it's still positive that this offense has operated at such a high level in the combo guard's absence. And a lot of the credit has to go to Teague, who is displaying a new attacking mentality that has him looking a lot like Tony Parker.
It's the Coach Bud effect, and it has the Hawks rolling along right now. Don't take this team lightly.
There may not be a ton of star power in Atlanta, but star power isn't always necessary in the quest for home-court advantage and a deep run into the playoffs. It's hard to imagine the Hawks being eliminated before they have to face either the Indiana Pacers or the Heat.
Projected Record: 47-35, No. 3 in the Eastern Conference
Title Odds: 25-1
7. Los Angeles Clippers
First the bad, then the good.
That means we have to start by talking about the defense. Err...the lack of defense.
The Los Angeles Clippers have surrendered 105.1 points per game, giving them one of the worst point-stopping bunches in the NBA. And things are just as bad when adjusting for pace, as Basketball-Reference gives them a 107.8 defensive rating that is better than only the Utah Jazz and Detroit Pistons.
While Griffin has been playing like the guy so many hoped he would be after his sensational rookie season, CP3 has firmly cemented his status as the league's best point guard. He's recorded a double-double in points and assists during each and every one of the Clippers' games, and it doesn't look like anything but an off night will prevent him from doing the same every contest.
Paul is a master in this offensive system, and he's finally surrounded by the perfect supporting cast.
There's no guarantee that CP3 and Griffin will decline, but there's a chance Doc Rivers can eventually turn around the porous defense. He'll have to if LAC hopes to become a true contender in the West.
Projected Record: 53-29, No. 3 in the Western Conference
Title Odds: 16-1
6. Houston Rockets
Did anyone expect this out of Jeremy Lin?
When the 2013-14 campaign began, he was in a competition with Patrick Beverley for the starting spot. And now that he's serving as the sixth man for the Houston Rockets, he's absolutely thriving. The man who sparked Linsanity is actually averaging 16.3 points and 4.9 assists per game while shooting over 50 percent from the field.
So, why are the Rockets falling in the wrong direction? Why are they in danger of dropping out of the top five teams in the Western Conference?
Until James Harden plays something that even resembles defense, Houston isn't going to be able to stop teams from racking up gaudy point totals. And it's hard to win consistently when you're getting into shooting wars each and every night.
Of course, it would help if Dwight Howard started looking like his old self as well. He's taken some serious steps backward on both ends of the court and is in danger of losing his stranglehold on the "best center in basketball" title.
But still, how can you deny the title potential of this team? So long as Harden and Howard are surrounded by this type of supporting cast, they're more than capable of winning it all.
Projected Record: 52-30, No. 4 in the Western Conference
Title Odds: 15-1
5. Golden State Warriors
The injuries keep piling up for the Golden State Warriors.
Stephen Curry's concussion was bad enough, but then Andre Iguodala just had to go and injure his hamstring. This is a depleted squad right now, which hurts its chances of earning a top record in the Western Conference.
But that doesn't change the elite title odds.
When all the pieces are together, the Dubs are quite difficult to beat. They boast four elite scoring threats who complement each other nicely, and the Mark Jackson-Andrew Bogut combination has everyone playing great defense. According to Basketball-Reference, Golden State trails only the Indiana Pacers, San Antonio Spurs and Chicago Bulls in defensive rating, and it checks in at No. 11 in offensive rating.
It's Klay Thompson who could end up pushing this team over the top, even though Curry is still quite clearly the best player on the roster. He's averaging 20.5 points per game while making over half his shots from the field and leading the NBA in three-pointers made.
Not too shabby.
Projected Record: 51-31, No. 5 in the Western Conference
Title Odds: 12-1
4. Oklahoma City Thunder
Their only two losses came on the road, once at the hands of the Los Angeles Clippers and once to the Golden State Warriors. Neither of those should cause the Thunder to hang their collective heads, especially since they came by a combined nine points.
Because of that, it's tough to imagine just how good this team could be when Westbrook actually gets rolling. He's still shooting only 41.3 percent from the field and has yet to look like vintage Russ.
It'll happen, and it's not like Durant is going anywhere. Eventually, the league's leading scorer will start to put up the remarkably efficient numbers we've come to associate with him.
However, the lack of depth is still problematic for OKC. Despite the emergence of Steven Adams as an option to start at center over Kendrick Perkins, the Thunder still have an unproven second unit filled with inconsistent scorers.
There's just a little too much pressure on the aforementioned superstars.
Projected Record: 55-27, No. 2 in the Western Conference
Title Odds: 9-1
3. Indiana Pacers
The Indiana Pacers have looked absolutely fantastic thus far, especially on the defensive end of the court. But let's not anoint them as the favorites in the Eastern Conference quite yet, even if they've put together the league's best record through a dozen games.
They just haven't been tested enough. According to Basketball-Reference, no team has played an easier schedule, and the Pacers need to knock off more quality teams before they truly arrive among the uber-elites.
That said, their record will still be uber-elite, and the maxim "defense wins championships" could very well ring true for this squad.
Along with the Chicago Bulls (to a lesser extent) and the Miami Heat, the Pacers are just in a class of their own in the East, and they're going to feast on the multitude of mediocre teams. Especially if Paul George continues to play like a leading MVP candidate.
Projected Record: 62-20, No. 2 in the Eastern Conference
Title Odds: 8-1
2. San Antonio Spurs
How's this for scary?
The San Antonio Spurs have the best record in the NBA, and they've been nearly unbeatable despite getting non-Tim Duncan efforts out of Tim Duncan.
Is age finally catching up to The Big Fundamental? Going into his eight-point outing against the Memphis Grizzlies, he was averaging 12.1 points, 7.3 rebounds and 3.4 assists per game while shooting 37.5 percent from the field.
It's terrifying to think of what Tony Parker and Co. could do if he picks it back up. Given the depth and talent of this team, it's hard to imagine anyone in the stacked Western Conference actually hanging with the Spurs when Gregg Popovich truly unleashes everything.
The only reason that San Antonio is winning "just" 62 games is the lack of desire to do anything more. With this many veteran players, why risk injury to rack up a few more victories?
Until anything points to the contrary, the Spurs have the best chance of emerging from the Western Conference. They'll have the best record and still boast a team that's built to win in the playoffs. But can they beat the Heat this time?
Projected Record: 62-20, No. 1 in the Western Conference
Title Odds: 5-1
1. Miami Heat
Miami's offense is just too good.
Even though their pace ranks in the bottom half of the league, the Heat have been able to score 107 points per game, which is right up there with the NBA's top offensive units. Basketball-Reference gives them an offensive rating of 114.7, 4.4 points higher than any other team.
And that's been done while Dwyane Wade sits out three of the Heat's first 12 games to give his knee a chance to heal. LeBron James is that good.
Basketball is almost getting too easy for him at this stage of his career. Even though he's a leading candidate for the scoring title, LeBron has one of the best field-goal percentages in the league, a 60.1 percent mark that trails only Andre Drummond and Jordan Hill among all qualified players.
Plus, any guesses who's ranked fourth on that leaderboard? This guy named Chris Bosh.
The defense is also starting to work its way into shape a little bit at a time. Given the inordinate amounts of quality depth Miami has accumulated, it's only a matter of time before Erik Spoelstra gets everyone to put it all together on the less glamorous end of the court.
And when that happens, it'll take a miracle to dethrone the two-time defending champions. Even though they've lost more than expected to start the season, they're still the favorites.
Projected Record: 65-17, No. 1 in the Eastern Conference
Title Odds: 4-1