NBA Power Rankings: Where Every Team Stands Heading into Week 8

Ethan Sherwood Strauss@SherwoodStraussNBA Lead WriterDecember 17, 2012

NBA Power Rankings: Where Every Team Stands Heading into Week 8

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    Now that we're roughly more than a quarter of the way through, the league is settling into some kind of order. If your team is bad now, they're likely going to stay that way. If your team is good, you can take comfort in their probable continuation of the trend ("Woo! Probable continuation!" says no fan). 

    But what about the muddled middle? Between squads like Dallas, Minnesota, Milwaukee, and Houston, it's hard to know how the lower playoff seeds will shake out. It will take a bit longer to learn about these kinds of teams, especially the ones that have slogged through without the help of a superstar. 

    The Lakers continue to present a challenge to prognosticators, in part because they hail from the muddled middle. L.A. is also complicating the scene because of the talent it boasts. It's hard to tell a sleeping giant from a dead one. 

30. Washington Wizards

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    They almost beat the Lakers, but I'm probably being generous with the "almost." Nene came back, but he's in and out, plagued with plantar fasciitis.

    By the way, remember how Tony Parker and Tim Duncan used to struggle with plantar fasciitis? Now they don't. But Nene does, which might indicate, if I'm being unfair, that Washington's medical staff could be behind the times.

    By the way, John Wall's knee injury was supposed to keep him out eight weeks. We're on Week 11 and counting.

    It's so difficult from the outside to judge a team's medical staff, especially if you lack medical training (as I do). But the wacky machinations in Washington lead me to feel that something is amiss. When your team has injuries other teams don't, when your team gives overly optimistic progress reports, well, I start to doubt your team's medical competence.

29. Cleveland Cavaliers

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    It's nice to see Kyrie Irving back playing basketball. He was brilliant while playing in a Phantom of the Opera mask. Though his 41 points on 25 shots weren't enough to beat New York, the game was a loud reminder of the bright future Cleveland might have.

    "Might" should be emphasized because so much else has gone wrong since LeBron James left. The defense performs so badly that's it's hard to know whether it's a coaching issue or a simple lack of quality players. This is what happens on terrible teams: It becomes difficult to know where the poor talent ends and the poor management begins.

    On the downside of up, Tristan Thompson and Dion Waiters both look at risk of failing to play like first-round picks. Oof.

28. New Orleans Hornets

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    As Tony Montana might say, "C'moooooooonnnnnnnn Pelicans!" New Orleans has lost seven in a row, despite getting a nice offensive season from free-agent pickup Ryan Anderson. Now if the Hornets could just incorporate Anderson into some semblance of defense, they'd really be cooking with gas.

    OK, cooking with logs. But still, cooking.

    Austin Rivers showed unexpected signs of life against the Timberwolves. The until-now-disappointing rookie notched 27 points on 14 shots, pouring in five three-pointers. I'm not sure if this signals a massive shift in production, but at least we now know that he is capable of such a good game. That's big.

27. Charlotte Bobcats

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    The Bobcats were fun before they became themselves again. Bismack Biyombo is getting more playing time, probably because Mike Dunlap is searching for some semblance of defense. Despite boasting lengthy, defensively talented players like Michael Kidd-Gilchrist and Biyombo, Charlotte's been awful on D.

    On offense, there just isn't enough accurate perimeter shooting to open up the floor, and only Kemba Walker can create his own shot (Note: He often misses that shot).

    It looks like Charlotte will be in contention for another top-three pick this season, if that's any consolation to its notoriously competitive owner. For now, based on his in-arena reactions, Michael Jordan doesn't seem happy.

26. Toronto Raptors

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    I sure like the Ed Davis Raptors a lot better than I like the Andrea Bargnani Raptors. The Raps have won two in a row with Bargs out. Against the Mavericks, the Raptors held their opponent to a scant 39.1 percent shooting. Against the Rockets, the Raps held Houston to 41 percent from the field.

    I'm starting to think that "lack of Andrea Bargnani" can make a run at Defensive Player of the Year.

    As for the other Raptors, there's still a meager talent level, and Kyle Lowry is still perpetually banged up. But the youthful combination of Jonas Valanciunas and Davis should be fun, especially without Bargnani around to muck things up.

25. Sacramento Kings

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    We were long overdue for an Isaiah Thomas sighting. In a loss to Oklahoma City, the miniature point guard claimed 26 points on 13 shots. That's pretty impressive, but here's the coolest part of that stat line: He did it in a mere 16 minutes.

    I fear that Thomas' talent isn't optimized in Keith Smart's offense. The Sacramento coach has an aversion to pick-and-roll, and pick-and-roll is usually where a speedy point guard can thrive. It's all part of Sacramento's broader approach to squandering as much talent as possible.

    After six years of mediocrity, it's still hard to see a Kings draft pick turning into an All-Star.

24. Detroit Pistons

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    Is Brandon Knight developing into a good player? Over his last five games, Knight's averaged 21.6 points, 4.4 assists and 1.8 turnovers, while shooting 57.1 percent from three-point land. Obviously, he'll never hit nearly 60 percent of his three-pointers in a season, but Knight is shooting 44.7 percent from deep on the year.

    In his rookie campaign, Knight shot an an impressive 38 percent on threes and looks to be building the shot into an even more reliable stroke. This is a bit unexpected, given that he shot 37.7 percent from three at Kentucky and the college three-pointer is closer in.

    BK may never be a "pass-first" point guard, but Detroit is also badly in need of floor spacing. It would be nice to see the Pistons move away from the Rodney Stuckey era of flailing into the paint, hoping for free throws. Hopefully, Knight can exemplify the move to a new, more entertaining style of basketball in Michigan.

23. Philadelphia 76ers

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    The Philadelphia 76ers faced the Lakers at home, minus their two best players. With Jrue Holiday out with a sprained foot, Philadelphia was forced to put most of the offensive burden on Evan Turner. The results were predictably gross, with Turner going 6-for-16 as Los Angeles controlled the game. 

    It is hard to bash Philly too much for a game in which it lacked Holiday (and, of course, Andrew Bynum). But this team can be frustrating even when Holiday plays. The offense feels like something 2001 coughed up. 

    Thaddeus Young would be an ideal stretch-4 tweener, but Doug Collins told him to stop taking threes when the coach took over. The talented tweener remains a good—if not one of the best—76ers players, but he could be helping so much more if he were stretching opposing defenses. 

22. Phoenix Suns

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    The Phoenix Suns beat the Memphis Grizzlies and Utah Jazz this week. That's a strange enough happening that it bears some investigation. 

    The Suns did not dominate substantially in any statistical category in either game. Against the Grizzlies, they actually shot worse from the field and got fewer points on free throws. 

    So how did Phoenix win? They turned the ball over fewer times than the Grizzlies and Jazz did. On the year, they claim the fifth-lowest team turnover percentage. This is very post-Steve Nash: When success comes, it arrives in the most boring way possible. 

21. Orlando Magic

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    They actually might make the playoffs. There's an increasingly real chance, and I have to congratulate the nonexistent person who actually bet on them to pull this off.

    Andrew Nicholson has provided a major boost and might even make a Rookie of the Year run. The 23-year-old big man is shooting 58.7 percent from the field over the past five games while averaging 12.8 points and 6.6 rebounds in only 22.9 minutes per game. He has an 18.50 PER on a slick array of post moves and accurate mid-range shots.

    That's not bad for the 19th pick in the draft. He may not be a Dwight Howard replacement, but Orlando could be closer to building a solid frontcourt than anyone had the right to imagine.

20. Portland Trail Blazers

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    That Damian Lillard's pretty good, eh? He ended Sunday night's game against the visiting New Orleans Hornets in style, sinking a last-second three-pointer in a 95-94 win. 

    We all know that Lillard has been impressive, but hazarding a guess at his ceiling is another matter. He's not especially athletic, and he's not an incredible passer. What he is is a savvy pick-and-roll operator with a deadly shot. 

    "Chauncey Billups" was the comparison given to me by Portland Roundball Society editor Danny Nowell, and that sounds about right. Billups was overlooked and passed over for years. But Lillard plays in an era that better appreciates a scoring point guard.

    If we're seeing the reincarnation of Chauncey, the road should be less bumpy the second time around. 

19. Milwaukee Bucks

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    Does this team have an identity? I never quite know what pundits mean by "identity," but I'm referring to doing one thing especially well. The Bucks are in the bottom third on offense and aren't in the top 10 on defense. It's a gruelingly inefficient offense and a D that falls well below what Scott Skiles teams have accomplished in the past.

    This is another way of saying that they should probably make a trade or restart the rebuilding process. After the Bucks traded Andrew Bogut, they effectively parted with a foundational piece. Now they're left with building around Brandon Jennings, who probably isn't good enough to warrant such a foundational placement and probably wants to leave.

    They've also paired him with Monta Ellis, an arrangement that's already failed in Golden State. So while the Bucks aren't a horrible team, they're more directionless and hopeless than some of the worst teams in this league.

18. Indiana Pacers

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    The Pacers continue to rank near the top in defensive efficiency and near the bottom in offensive efficiency. Their games are one long holding pattern. While I pity the Indiana fans who watch such scoreless hoops, I do root for the Pacers to finish with the worst offensive efficiency and the best defensive efficiency. Without looking it up, I suspect that'd be an historical first.

    It's so hard to be the worst at one thing and the best at the other because offense and defense are somewhat connected. Steals lead to fast-break buckets; scoring allows a team to set its D on the other side.

    David West threatens to upset my whimsical wish with his plus-20 PER. If I had to bet on Indiana either improving on offense or getting worse on D, I'd bet on offensive improvement due to West's abilities.

17. Houston Rockets

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    They lost to the Raptors, but at least it was a road game. Jeremy Lin and James Harden continue to be a problematic duo. Against the Raptors, Lin had seven points on nine shots while playing alongside the ball-dominant Harden.

    In other Rockets news, did you know that Chandler Parsons is averaging 37 minutes per game? Stranger still, the 2011 second-round pick may be warranting such minutes. Parsons can play the ever-rare "stretch-4" role, thus allowing the Rockets to go spread pick-and-roll when they see fit.

    Between Parsons and Ryan Anderson, teams are showing they can get good draft value on deep-shooting "tweener" power forwards.

16. Dallas Mavericks

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    The Mavericks ran into the buzz saw of playing a Bargnani-free Toronto team, and they also went 0-of-13 from three-point range. I tend not to read too much into losses when a team misses every three-point shot, especially when said team is one of the better deep-shooting squads in the league. 

    "Is Dirk coming back?" will be the "Are we there yet?" redundant chorus when it comes to these Mavericks. Delighted as I am by O.J. Mayo's career renaissance, this team is barely worth watching until Dirk returns. Nowitzki's so central to everything that it's almost impossible to judge Dallas in his absence. 

    I can, however, judge Elton Brand. While it was nice to see him put up 15 points against Minnesota, the performance was a reminder of how little an impact he's had. I was expecting more from Brand, even if he was sitting there on the amnesty wire. It's sad that a formerly automatic shooter is now at 42.9 percent from the field. 

15. Denver Nuggets

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    The Nuggets felled the indomitable Sacramento Kings, thrashing John Salmons' mighty team by 30 points. It finally swung their point differential solidly in the positive direction, but I'm sure George Karl would prefer a little less point differential and a few more wins.

    Though the Nuggets have largely disappointed this season, the schedule has likely been a big factor in shaping their 13-12 record. Of Denver's first 25 games, only seven have been at home. Remember that when the Nuggets are racking up wins later this season and we're all cooing over a bunch of "here come the Nuggets!" narratives.

    This squad may not be as good as many of us anticipated, but it also isn't as bad as its record. 

14. Utah Jazz

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    I don't understand what Utah's doing. It has collected so many high draft picks but won't let them play. Rather than starting, Gordon Hayward comes off the bench for Marvin Williams for reasons that elude me. Derrick Favors backs up Al Jefferson, and while I get the depth chart order here, it's not one that takes defense into account.

    Enes Kanter lost a lot of weight in the offseason, but I'd almost expect him to gain it back this year. He's burning calories for only 15 minutes per game. Granted, Alec Burks hasn't been great in his time on the court, but he's also played fewer than 100 minutes this season.

    The youth in Utah is languishing, backing up a merely average team of veterans. It might be the best short-term strategy for squeezing out some wins, but I can't help but feel that the Jazz are sacrificing long-term development.

13. Los Angeles Lakers

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    What's the worst team in history to roll out two All-Star starters? This question often crosses my mind when I watch the Lakers play. Kobe Bryant and Dwight Howard will most likely represent the Western Conference in the All-Star Game, and their numbers actually justify such a distinction.

    The problem is that "numbers" almost always mean "offense." Defensively, they've both been horrible. Bryant often loses his guy or simply doesn't rotate. There are stretches where L.A. is playing four-on-five because Bryant has checked out on that end.

    Howard simply doesn't look healthy. Sometimes sluggish and flailing, his hands try to do the work that his feet once did.

    The Lakers could sort this out, but time is running out. And I mean that in terms of making the playoffs—not winning a title.

    Nice road win against Philadelphia, though.

12. Boston Celtics

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    The Celtics are giving up a lot of three-pointers and recently got clocked by the three-heavy San Antonio Spurs. Gregg Popovich's team hit 48 percent of their 25 three-point attempts. Doc Rivers' response? Blame the refs!

    Rivers harped on the three-point disparity to ESPN.com, even though his team lost by 15 points. I just don't get why he bothered; maybe it's frustration, maybe it's strategy. Refs or no refs, Boston's problems are its own. The Celtics aren't Top 10 in either offense or defense, and they're trundling along with a negative point differential.

    The good news? The Celtics often lag until later in the season. This is still a playoff team until proven otherwise.

11. Brooklyn Nets

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    The Brooklyn Nets are dipping from "good" to "average." Fortunately for them, they play in the East, where average qualifies for more than a playoff spot—probably an upper seed.

    Deron Williams' shot has become a concern lately. He's shooting 38.8 percent from the field and 29.9 percent from three-point range. I wouldn't be worried, except that Williams also struggled last season, shooting 40.7 percent from the field, 33.6 from distance.

    What happened to the guy who once hit more than half his shots for Utah? Well, for one, he's getting to the rim far less often than in the past. If Deron's athleticism is diminishing, he's not compensating with improvement elsewhere so far.

10. Chicago Bulls

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    The Bulls have the fourth-best record in the East, and I'd guess that's how the season will shake out for them. There was a chance that Chicago would pack it in for this season, electing to lay low in pursuit of a draft pick as Derrick Rose recovered from injury.

    Not so—the Bulls are going for a championship as though this season was just like any other.

    Joakim Noah will probably make his first All-Star Game, though he's probably deserved a spot before. This season, his raw numbers are better due to more playing time, though I'm not sure this is even Noah's best year. But with Dwight Howard leaving the conference, a spot has finally opened for another defense-first big man.

9. Atlanta Hawks

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    How much longer are we going to go through this with Josh Smith? How much longer are we going to watch him clang jumper after jumper as the Atlanta crowd groans. After going 1-for-12 from the field, he was benched in third quarter in Saturday's 115-93 loss to Golden State. On the season, he's shooting 44.1 percent from the field, which would be his worst since 2006-2007.

    Back in 2009-2010, it looked like Smith got it when he set a career-high 50.5 percent from the field. Check out his shot distribution chart back then:

    Now look at the current chart: 

    What'll it take to get Smith back to the rim?

8. Minnesota Timberwolves

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    Ricky Rubio's return made an otherwise nondescript League Pass night into enthralling, emotional television. He shot poorly—as he traditionally does—in Minnesota's 114-106 victory over Dallas on Saturday night, but the passing skill has not faded in his time away from injury.

    Look for Rubio to have a fantastic rapport with Kevin Love on pick-and-rolls that turn into open threes and with Nikola Pekovic on pick-and-rolls that turn into layups.

    Rubio's play last year coincided with a much-improved defense. A point guard usually doesn't have such an impact on a defense, so it'll be intriguing to see if Rubio is the key to Minny's D. It'll also just be a lot of fun to see one of the NBA's most creative players at it again.

7. Golden State Warriors

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    Is this real life? Have the Warriors really won two games for every one they lost, 24 games into the season? They're ninth in defensive efficiency?

    It seems so implausible, even though I'm watching the games. Credit to the Warriors for mitigating David Lee's negative defensive impact, thus allowing for his excellent offense to carry his value. On defense, Golden State used to have Lee (and other bigs) "show" on pick-and-rolls. Lee is poor at changing direction, so the strategy often led to easy baskets.

    Now that the Warriors have ceased this practice, their defense is decent and Lee is playing like an All-Star. The NBA isn't all about compiling talent; a strategic adjustment goes a long way.

6. Memphis Grizzlies

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    The Grizzlies are a good team, but one with a fatal flaw. I know they're the Internet's favorite squad, but people love them for the same reason they're a bit doomed: This is an unusual, unconventional roster. The Z-Bo/Gasol combo is an attempt at "going big when others are going small."

    The problem is the "going small" trend exists for a reason: Teams need to space the floor to free up an offense. Memphis has a fine defense, but its offense is compromised by this lack of space—that, and Rudy Gay taking more shots than anyone else on the team.

    Can John Hollinger fix this before the season is up?

5. Miami Heat

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    The Heat are potent offensively, but they're getting to the line less frequently this year. Last season, Miami was fifth in free-throw attempt rate. This season, the Heat are 11th in FTA. Again, Miami is still fantastic at offense; I'm just noting the change in tactics. Erik Spoelstra's team has upped the three-point attempts all the way to 20.5 per game, and they're converting at an absurd rate of 40.6 percent. 

    In Wednesday's home loss to Golden State, I didn't see much wrong with Miami. It was employing a strategy of intensely trapping and covering Stephen Curry, which opened up space for the other Warrior shooters.

    It was a gamble, and it might have paid off had Dwyane Wade played better on offense (and also not gotten smacked by David Lee). 

4. San Antonio Spurs

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    Though the Spurs easily blew out the Celtics on Saturday night, it came at a cost. Manu Ginobili went down with a quad injury, the latest of his medical travails. The Spurs are rolling and probably will continue to in the regular season, with or without Manu.

    Though it's impressive that Gregg Popovich's machine can chug along under nearly any circumstances, it's sad to see Ginobili fading from the scene.

    He's 35 years old, only played roughly half the season last year and looks to be hurt again. Before getting injured on Saturday, he appeared to be a shadow of his old, whirling-dervish self. I fear we might be close to the end of the road here.

    If so, let it be known that Ginobili is one of the greatest shooting guards of all time, a player who was equal parts effective and entertaining to behold.

3. Los Angeles Clippers

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    For the first 10 games or so, we obsessed over what was "wrong" with Blake Griffin. For whatever reason, people seem attached to the notion that young Blake is regressing or that his game lacks refinement.

    Not so; he's more than just dunks. Griffin is an active, mobile defender and a perceptive passer. Shooting isn't the only "skill." Also, let's not lose sight of the forest here. Blake has a 22.33 PER, good for tops for his position in the Western Conference (I'm not counting Tim Duncan, because the Spurs are lying about him being a power forward).

    As for the Clippers, they're one of the hottest teams in the NBA, having won their last nine. The Clips are also playing stingy defense (for once), ranking seventh in the league. L.A.'s other team is as talented as any.

2. New York Knicks

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    Carmelo Anthony and Tyson Chandler form a devastating, floor-spacing combination. Both are essential to what New York does on offense: create space off high screens and kill other squads from deep. Frankly, I'm not sure how you defend this team (especially if your team defense is as slow as the Lakers'). There are too many shooters, too much space.

    Some of the main actors on this Knicks team are old and/or injury prone. That's the only glaring flaw on this team, as far as I see it. 

    As a completely tangential aside, I would recommend J.R. Smith's Twitter feed, "@TheRealJRSmith." He trolls haters and occasionally posts pictures that may or may not be safe for work. It's all good fun. 

1. Oklahoma City Thunder

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    Kevin Durant leads in MVP-ness right now, though this made-up category is certainly subject to change as the year goes on.

    To convey how much more efficient (the already efficient) Durant has been, I present this stat: He's averaging 1.1 fewer points than he did last year, but he's doing it on 2.7 fewer shots. Overall, Durant averages 25.1 points on only 15.5 shots per game. For comparison, Monta Ellis once averaged 25.5 points on 22 shots per game.

    It's not just the incredible point productivity. Durant is averaging 4.2 assists and 8.4 rebounds. It's increasingly hard to find a flaw in this guy's game. And he's only 24 years old.

    Could this be the year Durant overtakes LeBron as the game's best? I doubt it, but I also wouldn't be shocked to see such a torch passing.

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