Believe it or not, nearly every NBA team has already played a quarter of its games. While the rest of the sports world was fixated on Auburn's storybook run, the latest melodrama at FedExField or the United States' Group of Death draw at the 2014 World Cup, the Association has been chugging along ever so quietly.
Christmas is usually the day reserved for when the casual fan first checks in with the NBA. The league puts on a showcase of games that oftentimes trumps the NFL's Thanksgiving slate—David Stern sure as hell wouldn't make you watch the Lions every year—and it's a convenient time on the sports calendar to skip out on the 82-game slog.
Well, Christmas arrived early this year. Sunday evening not only saw the Social Media Event of the Year that was Kobe Bryant's return after more than seven months on the sideline, it also saw the Sacramento Kings and Toronto Raptors pull off the first major roster shakeup of the season. As first reported by Yahoo! Sports Adrian Wojnarowski, Toronto sent forward Rudy Gay to Sacramento as part of a massive, seven-player deal.
It was a banner night for the NBA—one that for most of the night overshadowed college football's bowl game announcements. I'd say that's a fair enough point to welcome our more casual brethren to the fold, no?
So let's welcome those who haven't checked in with the Association in a while by checking in with where all 30 teams stand through the first six weeks.
1. Indiana Pacers (18-3)
After getting off to a red-hot start against a schedule filled with the dregs of both conferences, the NBA reared its ugly head against Indiana at the start of December. The Pacers began the month with a back-to-back against the Clippers and Blazers and will play five of their first six December contests against legitimate title contenders.
With just one of those games remaining (Tuesday night vs. Miami), it's safe to say Indiana proved any doubters it had were misguided. The Pacers were eviscerated last night in Oklahoma City, but I can't knock them for finally succumbing to the schedule gauntlet.
As a team, the Pacers aren't ever going to be an elite offensive team—that they rank 13th in offensive efficiency is a testament to just how good they've been this season—but Indiana makes up for it by being easily the league's most dominant defensive unit.
Indiana allows just 93.2 points per 100 possessions. That number is around three points better than their league-leading rate in 2012-13 and dwarfs the entire league at the moment. I'd bet the mortgage on Roy Hibbert winning Defensive Player of the Year, Paul George is an MVP candidate, and there is no more complete starting five in basketball.
We're only a quarter of the way through the season, but Indiana strangely feels like the safest co-conference finalist bet at this point.
2. Miami Heat (16-5)
There are quite a few teams that could easily be put at the No. 2 spot without anyone batting an eye. Want to reward the Blazers for their hot start, the Spurs for ability to adapt to any situation or the Thunder for clobbering the Pacers? No arguments here.
But the defending champs are 16-5 despite Dwyane Wade not playing in back-to-backs and Chris Bosh compiling his lowest usage rate since his second year in the league. More than ever before, the Heat are reliant on the night-to-night whims of LeBron James—and he's come back this season better than ever.
James has for much of the season flirted with a 60-50-80 line, the type of individual offensive efficiency you can't even get with NBA 2K14 LeBron. He's gotten so efficient that you often worry that he's too worried about making the right basketball play. That LeBron's pride in his efficiency is slowly taking away from his "attack mode" acumen.
If that's the case, it sure hasn't hurt Miami. The Heat, Blazers and Rockets have jostled to lead the league in offensive efficiency all season, and Miami is already defending at a top-10 rate—a must for a title contender. The East may be a two-team conference, but it has the two most complete teams I've seen this season.
3. Oklahoma City Thunder (15-4)
Is it weird that a team with three star players either 25 or under is starting to feel like old hat? After an early scare in regard to Russell Westbrook's knee injury, the Thunder have returned the same, with the same huge plusses and the same warts.
Kevin Durant and Westbrook are two awesome, awesome players. Franchise cornerstone, Hall of Fame-level players. Both players are quietly struggling by their lofty standards from the field, but those kinks worked themselves out in a big way against Indiana. The Thunder duo combined for 62 points on 25-of-40 shooting against the best defensive team in the league.
Oklahoma City's deficiencies are still glaring, though. Scott Brooks is too dependent on his two-star ecosystem to make the offense work, Kendrick Perkins is still prominently involved in the rotation, and the Thunder are still one trade for a scorer away from having true roster comfort. Still, it's hard to be upset with a system that has won more than 70 percent of its regular-season games the past two seasons.
4. San Antonio Spurs (15-4)
At what point does the superglue Gregg Popovich has on the Spurs' spot atop the Western Conference start chipping away? Does Tim Duncan have to actually join the AARP rather than just be a card-carrying member of the NBA's version? Does Manu Ginobili finally have to bite the bald-man bullet and shave his head?
I'm not sure. Because San Antonio isn't even close to fading out of contention yet. The 2013-14 Spurs statistically grade out much like their predecessors. They play top-five defense, top-10 offense and some of the best team basketball you'll ever see. If you want to test whether a person's opinion on basketball is relevant, ask them if the Spurs are boring. If the answer is "yes," never, ever listen to that person again.
On the negative side, though, the wheels are starting to look creaky on Duncan. He's been better of late but got physically outworked by the Pacers on Saturday even after a lengthy rest. There's no need to worry yet—again, it's December—but the Spurs need Duncan to have that extra gear in the playoffs.
5. Portland Trail Blazers (17-4)
I understand the skepticism with Portland, because some of it is grounded in truth. The Blazers aren't going to finish with the best record in the Western Conference, and I'd honestly be surprised if they wound up any higher than the No. 5 seed. A trade for a certain seven-foot Turkish center could change that, but Portland isn't solid enough defensively as currently constituted to sustain a 60-win pace.
But the idea that Portland is due for a nosedive, though, is totally misguided. The Blazers are a playoff team. They're the most efficient offense in basketball at the moment, take a very solid six corner three-pointers per game and are marvelous from the mid-range. The fact that Portland leads the NBA in mid-range attempts would normally be a problem, but that high attempt rate is mostly due to LaMarcus Aldridge—one of the best mid-range shooters in the game (if not the best).
The Blazers will regress, and they might even be a .500 team the rest of the way. But you know what a .500 record gives them? About 57 victories.
6. Houston Rockets (15-7)
The Rockets quietly have the fourth-best net rating in basketball. For all the hand-wringing about James Harden's terrible defense, Dwight Howard's struggles on the post and the rash of injuries currently afflicting its roster, the numbers say Houston has played championship-worthy basketball.
There are plenty of other reasons for optimism. They're still an Omer Asik trade away from being the team they'll be in April, which could either be a good or a bad thing. Most expect the Rockets to target a stretch 4 in the Ryan Anderson mold (but not Anderson) or a top-tier defensive wing (Iman Shumpert?), but even a disgruntled Asik is a better backup for Howard than no Asik at all.
Remember, Houston is five points better defensively with Howard off the floor than when he's playing. That somewhat the Asik effect and somewhat the fact that the Rockets' second unit is better defensively as a whole. Houston is still a fringe title contender, but the next few weeks will be awfully interesting to watch.
7. Los Angeles Clippers (13-8)
Speaking of teams a trade or two away, the Clippers probably aren't good enough defensively to win a title, but they're slowly getting there. After a miserable start that saw DeAndre Jordan and Blake Griffin confirm all the worst fears about their defensive acumen, Doc Rivers has his team playing elite-level defense of late.
Over the Clippers' last 10 games, they've given up only 96.5 points per 100 possessions. That's equivalent to being the third-best defense in basketball in that stretch. Los Angeles bigs are doing a better job of covering pick-and-rolls, the wings are crisper in their rotations and Rivers is making some progress implementing the ballyhooed Tom Thibodeau system.
Sure, it helps when you play weak offensive teams. Only one of the Clippers' last 10 opponents are currently top 10 in offensive efficiency. Odds are, the Clippers will look much worse when they play teams like San Antonio and Golden State later this month.
For now, kudos on the progress.
8. Golden State Warriors (12-9)
It's starting to feel like the Warriors are treading water until Andre Iguodala comes back. They're 4-4 since he went down with a hamstring injury and have lost six of their last 10 going back to Iggy's last two games in the lineup.
The Splash Brothers are on pace to have the best three-point shooting season for teammates in league history, but Golden State isn't the world-beating team you'd expect offensively. The Warriors only rank 10th in the league in offensive efficiency, and they've cratered this year when Stephen Curry sits.
No, really. They completely fall in themselves. Golden State is averaging 113 points per 100 possessions with Curry on the floor this season, which would be the best rate in the entire league. The Warriors plummet to 86.9 with him on the bench—a league-worst rate by a country mile.
The lesson: Stay healthy, Stephen Curry.
9. Denver Nuggets (12-8)
So much for Brian Shaw's "traditional" system, eh? The Nuggets head coach took the job with the expectation that he'd use more standard positional roles and slow down the team's pace, bringing with him the type of offensive structure that won playoff series during his stops with the Lakers and Pacers.
That didn't last very long. Although there are some key differences between the system run by Shaw and his predecessor, George Karl, Denver's recent run of victories has been as a direct result of marrying the two outlooks. Over their last 10 games, the Nuggets are actually playing at a far slower pace than the one they opened the season with.
But Shaw has also embraced the crazy shot-creation of Nate Robinson and the jitterbug stylings of Ty Lawson. There are still some kinks to be worked out here, but the worries about the Nuggets missing the playoffs might have come too early.
10. Dallas Mavericks (13-8)
The Mavericks are a collection of mid-30s veterans, aging parts that no one wanted and Dirk Nowitzki. When Mark Cuban went against the grain and capped his team out rather than tanking this summer, it was only fair to wonder what in the blue hell he was doing. You're not winning a championship with Nowitzki, Monta Ellis and Jose Calderon as your three best players.
OK, that last part is still true. Yet the Mavs are humming, their offensive efficiency is for real and Rick Carlisle deserves Coach of the Year consideration for what he's done with Ellis. Long the league's most enigmatic microwave scorer, Ellis is flashing the efficiency he hasn't shown since his second and third NBA seasons. He's playing under control, making a ton of mid-range jumpers and has only had a couple #MontaGames thus far.
It'll be interesting to see whether Ellis can keep it up. We know what Calderon, Nowitzki and a majority of the rest of the cast will bring. The Good Monta vs. Bad Monta matchup might determine the Mavs' playoff chances.
11. Minnesota Timberwolves (9-11)
The Timberwolves have Dallas' number, but they've been pummeled this year by elite competition. They have a 3-9 record this season against teams currently considered the league's 10 best by these rankings. Minnesota has lost by double-digits to Miami, Oklahoma City, Indiana, Houston and Golden State.
That's the bad news. The good news is that the Timberwolves have played the league's second-hardest schedule, and they're about to hit a little reprieve. Seven of their next 10 games are against teams ranked outside the top 10, and Minnesota has made its nut this year pummeling on such squads.
Don't be surprised at all if you hear about the "red-hot" Timberwolves in the next couple weeks. It will seem like they're getting better, but the reality is their schedule is finally done throwing them down a flight of stairs on a nightly basis.
12. Atlanta Hawks (11-10)
If you follow me on the Internet Tweetbox, you know I'm a card-carrying member of the Paul Millsap Should Fire His Agent Fan Club, or PMSFHAFC for short. (Acronyms, apparently, aren't our strong suit.)
Millsap isn't a great defender nor is he prone to improve all that much at 28, but his two-year, $19 million deal has quickly turned into one of the summer's biggest bargains. He's averaging his customary 16-eight nightly line, is trying harder defensively than at anyone point in the last two years and generally looks happy in Atlanta—as most people who travel to Atlanta wind up being.
Odds are that Millsap gets traded sometime between now and next February. That deal was signed to be dealt, and teams will be calling Danny Ferry off the hook to check Millsap's availability. With the Hawks stumbling into the No. 3 spot out East by default, though, Ferry might want to wait until summer and see how this plays out.
One injury and you could be looking at a conference finalist.
13. Detroit Pistons (10-11)
Any time you throw Josh Smith and Brandon Jennings on a team there are going to be inherent problems. Most of those problems will be related to shot selection. Smith has tapered off from his ridiculous start to the season, but he's still shooting 27.4 percent from beyond the three-point arc while taking 4.5 per game. Jennings, who is actually an underrated three-point gunner, continues to be below-average from just about everywhere else.
Both players have their plusses, but it doesn't look like a change of scenery is changing their basketball outlook. The Pistons aren't going to win a championship with this core, or come all that particularly close.
That's OK for Joe Dumars, though, because he's made the team good enough to make the playoffs—and possibly save his job. Andre Drummond is an All-Star in the making. Greg Monroe is a brilliant offensive talent who might be the most intriguing trade chip in the league. Rodney Stuckey has suddenly returned to not-terribleness.
It all adds up to mediocrity, but I guess that's better than the lottery.
14. Phoenix Suns (11-9)
The Suns aren't going to the playoffs; let's just get that out of the way now. They won't even come particularly close, nor do they want to. Phoenix doesn't have the talent to sustain this pace over an 82-game sample. Only the Raptors assist on a lower percentage of their baskets, Phoenix is a bottom-half rebounding team, and Miles Plumlee can't be the best defensive big in your rotation.
Not exactly a winning formula.
That said, the Suns' season-starting run has been fun to watch. Only three teams (Rockets, Knicks, Lakers) shoot more three-point shots per 100 possessions, and their up-and-down style lends itself to schedule victories against tired teams. Phoenix will continue being better than anyone expected in the preseason, but expecting Jeff Hornacek to make a .500 miracle out of a roster built to tank is unrealistic.
15. Washington Wizards (9-10)
Like the Pistons, the Wizards are well on their way to succeeding in their goal for a first-round playoff exit. The roster built (falsely) under the guise of "teaching" John Wall how to win at the NBA level is banging its way right to the .500 mark.
Washington has surprisingly kept itself propped up after the loss of Bradley Beal, winning four of its first six games without the second-year guard. But with Martell Webster also gimping around, the Wizards are hemorrhaging wings and even had to dust off No. 3 overall pick Otto Porter.
It did not go well. I repeat: It did not go well.
So we'll have to monitor the Beal and Webster situations and adjust accordingly, but Wall has been playing well enough for me to stick them smack dab in the middle of the league.
16. Los Angeles Lakers (10-10)
Mike D'Antoni did his part of the deal. The Lakers team—this ragtag group of misfits, low-salaried role players and Pau Gasol—lived up to its end of the bargain. It kept the purple-and-gold ship afloat while the No. 24 cavalry came to save the day.
Now it's up to Kobe Bryant to see whether he can. Sunday night's loss the Raptors isn't even a remotely fair barometer to begin a judgement. We need to see how Kobe responds to back-to-backs, whether he has any plans on playing defense this season (he didn't last night) and whether he's even remotely the same offensive force.
Everything is kind of in a holding pattern until then. Luckily, the Bad News Purple and Gold held things together well enough that their star will have the time to do so.
17. Memphis Grizzlies (9-10)
In six games since Marc Gasol went out with a knee injury, the Grizzlies have scored 99.6 points per 100 possessions. For the season, they're averaging exactly 100. That's not much of a drop off, especially considering how much panic was going around the greater Tennessee area. Gasol makes the spacing-cramped Grizzlies better by playing a ton of time at the elbows, catching and shooting or facilitating for others inside the offensive framework.
So why is Memphis 2-4 since losing its seven-footer? Defense. The Grizzlies have allowed 105.9 points per 100 possessions over the past six games, equivalent to the third-worst rate in basketball prorated over an entire season. Pick coverage is sloppy, rotations are late and Memphis has struggled mightily out there without Gasol barking out commands and directing traffic.
That's a death blow for a team predicated so much on its defensive acumen.
18. New Orleans Pelicans (9-10)
Anthony Davis and Tyreke Evans going down over the past week-plus puts assessing this Pelicans core on an indefinite hold. Ryan Anderson's return on Nov. 13 got the ball rolling on seeing how Monte Williams' rotations would work, how the Anderson-Davis duo would defend in the frontcourt and whether the five New Orleans "stars" can play meaningful minutes together.
We barely got a chance to find out before the team became an infirmary.
Davis' injury in particular is a disappointment, because he was well on his way to All-NBA consideration. The second-year forward is still learning how to defend the NBA pick-and-roll and is still prone to easy-to-correct mistakes (e.g. ball watching), but Davis was already leaps and bounds above where he was at this time last year.
Now that progress—along with his surprising offensive explosion—just sits there on the bench for the next month or so. Kevin Love proved just how much a hand injury can affect a player last season. Let's hope that doesn't happen with Davis.
19. Chicago Bulls (8-10)
Ugh. This team is such a bummer I don't even want to talk about it. The Bulls are 2-5 since Derrick Rose went out with a season-ending knee injury and have lost seven of their last nine if you include Rose's last two pre-injury games.
You can't even really say anything else because there is nothing to say. Rose's injury ended Chicago's season. There is no Nate Robinson this season to randomly explode on some Wednesday night or Marco Belinelli to provide sneaky-good handles. The Bulls just have no one who can create a shot for themselves or others, and Rose isn't walking through that door anytime soon.
20. Charlotte Bobcats (9-11)
The Bobcats are the third-best defense in basketball. I'm not sure you heard me the first time: The Charlotte Soon-to-be-Hornets-Again are allowing only 97.2 points per 100 possessions.
Let me remind you that Charlotte finished dead last defensively last season. And the season before. The Bobcats were a yearly wasteland of defensive principles, and their biggest offseason move was adding Al Jefferson. We could go through Mr. Jefferson's defensive history, but rest assured it's much like his new team's.
The moral of the story: Steve Clifford is very good at his job.
21. Boston Celtics (10-12)
The Celtics have defeated the Heat and Hawks on the road and the Nuggets in Boston. They're one game away from having their second four-game winning streak of the season. They've also already had two losing streaks of at least four games.
I have no clue what to expect from the Celtics on a nightly basis, and I'm beginning to doubt Brad Stevens does, either. Boston isn't a contender by any stretch, and those three aforementioned victories are the team's only ones against teams .500 or better. But the C's play hard for Stevens every night, ranking ninth in the league defensively.
If you'll excuse me, I'm going to go try figuring out the nuclear code Stevens found to make Jordan Crawford a usable NBA guard.
22. New York Knicks (5-14)
What an embarrassment. That's the only way to describe this roster at this point. Losing to the Celtics at home is one thing; the defending champs did the same thing. Being the subject of a massacre matinee in Manhattan (#alliteration) is another.
It wouldn't shock me in the slightest to see Mike Woodson get fired before Christmas, and at this point it'd be hard to blame James Dolan. The meddlesome Knicks owner has built a deeply, deeply flawed roster, but the roster is so flawed that switching the coach is just about the only available move. An Iman Shumpert trade would have been workable had the organization not spent the first month-plus torpedoing his value.
New York is the fifth-worst defensive team in basketball, its most reliable big man is Andrea Bargnani, and Woodson seemingly refuses to realize the Knicks are better with Pablo Prigioni.
And guess what? I still think they'll win the Atlantic. Feel free to hit me with a shovel if you're within a 150-mile radius.
23. Brooklyn Nets (6-14)
There's still a salvageable basketball team, but it's currently being led by a blind mouse of a head coach and dealing with injuries all over the floor. You can't totally write the Nets off until Deron Williams and Andre Kirilenko return.
Williams is set to return soon, but there's still no timetable on Kirilenko, the type of versatile athlete this stiff roster so desperately needs. The Nets will be better when everyone gets to 100 or even 75 percent. One has to wonder whether it will be too late by the time they do.
24. Sacramento Kings (5-13)
Rudy Gay is not a good professional basketball player. Nearly everything about his game engenders mocking. Once a very solid, young wing, Gay has regressed into a low-efficiency black hole—the absolute worst version of Carmelo Anthony on an every-night basis. He's a $19 million spit-shine from an owner desperate to add some pizazz to his rusty clunker of a franchise.
That said, Sunday night's snarkbuster seems like a win for both sides. The Raptors shed Gay's player option for next season and get a whole heaping pile of shrug-worthy players that will help in Masai Ujiri's attempt to punt the 2013-14 campaign to win the Andre Wiggins sweepstakes.
The Kings get a player in Gay who is still only 27 years old, whose career might be salvaged by the rigidity of Mike Malone. If not, they literally gave up nothing of consequence, unlocked Isaiah Thomas to enter the starting lineup and didn't muck up their salary structure long term.
25. Orlando Magic (6-14)
For a team that's lost more than two-thirds of its games, there sure is a ton to be optimistic about.
Arron Afflalo is atoning for his first mediocre season with the Magic by performing at a borderline All-Star level, skyrocketing his trade value exponentially with every 20-point evening. Nikola Vucevic isn't the best center from last summer's Dwight Howard trade—that's still Howard, overzealous D12 haters—but he's a double-double machine and has my favorite nickname in the entire NBA (#VucciMane). Victor Oladipo is having a very good, if unspectacular overall, rookie season.
Rob Hennigan has done a fantastic job at building a young, talented core of players. Now it's up to Jacque Vaughn to begin molding them into something that resembles a basketball team.
26. Cleveland Cavaliers (7-13)
Mike Brown is under contract for four more years at $16 million. That was the No. 1 takeaway I had after watching this team live the Wednesday before Thanksgiving. Good luck with that, Cavs fans.
27. Toronto Raptors (7-12)
The Raptors started the post-Gay era at the Staples Center looking like a team freed from basketball prison. Amir Johnson suddenly became an All-Star, DeMar DeRozan nearly fainted at all the extra isolation shots he's going to get, and Super Important Prospect Jonas Valanciunas started actually feeling like a super important prospect.
Ujiri isn't even close to done maneuvering, though. Kyle Lowry seems like the obvious next candidate for a jettisoning, with his relatively cheap contract expiring after the season. The Raptors want a lottery pick, and they aren't going to allow the rest of the Eastern Conference to out-awful them.
It's a sound strategy. Toronto has no history of landing marquee free agents, so building via the draft and having flexibility to take on other teams' assets is the only way to construct a winner.
28. Philadelphia 76ers (7-14)
The free-wheeling, fun-loving Sixers of the first week of the season are gone. In their place is a team that still plays at the league's highest pace and does a bunch of fun things that make metrics gurus swoon, but one that can't execute those plays. Philly has dropped to No. 25 in offensive efficiency, and the numbers have dropped precipitously as the season has gone along.
Brett Brown just doesn't have the talent to execute the nifty things he's implementing. Michael Carter-Williams is a lot of fun and probably the Rookie of the Year at this point, but he can't shoot. The NBA's new SportVU stats measure Carter-Williams as a 28.3 percent pull-up shooter on 6.6 shots per game. Only J.R. Smith and Derrick Rose are worse among players who attempt at least five pull-ups per game.
Having one bad shooter—especially one who possesses all of Carter-Williams' skills—is fine. The Sixers are filled to the brim with bad shooters. They're shooting just 31.9 percent from beyond the arc.
Oh, and it also doesn't help that the Sixers are a putrid defensive squad. Add those things together and you tend to get a losing team.
29. Milwaukee Bucks (4-16)
30. Utah Jazz (4-18)
These two teams are so bad I'm just to list the good, bad and ugly things about both—mostly because I wanted to have more than one thing in the "good" column:
Good: #GreekFreak. John Henson Freaky Arms Alert. Derrick Favors. Trey Burke (at least he's better than Jamaal Tinsley.)
Bad: Gordon Hayward-Paul George comparisons. Larry Sanders' four-year contract extension.
Ugly: Everything else.
*All stats are courtesy of NBA.com
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