Get yourself a drink and something to snack on, because you’re gonna be here for a while. I promise you it will be worth it though. After trudging through the bottom fourteen teams of the league last week in Part 1 of an Impromptu NBA Power Poll, it’s time to get down to the nitty-gritty and get into the teams that actually matter; the sixteen teams that in a perfect world would be playing in the postseason in two months—more on this next week.
16: Milwaukee Bucks
Ladies and gentlemen, please welcome to the stage the pleasantly surprising and maybe not at all fluky Milwaukee Bucks! Before the season I openly wondered whether the Bucks could be the Eastern Conference version of last year’s Suns—a collection of role players, underachievers and journeymen who improbably come together to play really good basketball and collectively overachieve to such a startling degree that it doesn’t at all feel like they shouldn’t be as good as they are—and I wasn’t even factoring in the following:
- Larry Sanders completely losing his mind. And I’m not talking about the usual Larry Sanders outbursts. Sanders has only played in 27 games so far, is still serving a suspension for violating the NBA’s anti-drug program, and reportedly contemplated retirement earlier in the season.
- Ersan Ilyasova, a guy who averaged 16 and 10 in a 33 game stretch to close out the 2011-12 season, has turned into Eduardo Najera 2.0 for no good reason.
- Jabari Parker tearing his ACL and depriving us of the year-long “Wiggins vs. Parker” debate. By the way, this was in mid-December. The Bucks are 17-10 since Parker went down.
Then again, I didn’t foresee Detroit, New York, Miami and Charlotte all crapping the bed to the point where they’d either in danger of missing the playoffs or in danger of being the worst team in the league (Hi, Knicks fans). I also didn’t foresee Brandon Knight and Giannis Antetokounmpo making pseudo-leaps, Khris Middleton remaining an effective role player, or Zaza Pachulia, Jared Dudley and O.J. Mayo holding down the fort as the cagey veterans on the roster. But then again, I didn’t peg Phoenix nearly making the playoffs last year, so what do I know?
15: Phoenix Suns
14: Oklahoma City Thunder
13: New Orleans Pelicans
I won’t go into the “two of these three teams won’t make the playoffs” spiel because it’s been said plenty of times (plus, I’ll be adding my two cents to the playoff re-formatting debate next week, but that’s neither here nor there). For now, I’m just concerned about which team it will be that doesn’t get left out in the metaphorical cold.
It’s hard to imagine the Thunder missing the playoffs, but the brilliantly crafted “You go, I go” offense that Oklahoma City runs on a nightly basis is getting more stale and more predictable each night. Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook are probably two of the six best players in the NBA; Kevin Durant has won and MVP and four of the last five scoring titles. Russell Westbrook is one of the most exciting players in the league, arguably the best point guard alive, perhaps the best athlete in the NBA, and a legitimate MVP candidate this year if the Thunder can get it turned around. And yet in a six and a half year partnership, I’ve very seldom felt like Scott Brooks was using them correctly together. If we should be learning anything from the last twelve months in the NBA, it’s this: team basketball beats iso-ball almost every time. The Spurs won the NBA title with that mentality last June. The Hawks, Warriors and Grizzlies have raced off to the best records in the league with the same mindset this season. Oklahoma City just isn’t cut from that cloth.
Phoenix has been one of the unluckiest teams in the league but still come out and compete every night and make opponents run. Basically, it’s the same Suns team as last year, only with a heavy dose of Isaiah Thomas, a dash of Alex Len and a much improved Morris twin—It’s Markieff, but I’m fine with keeping it a mystery as to which one is which if you are.
Phoenix is probably better-equipped for the playoffs than New Orleans—at least they have an identity—and Oklahoma City most likely gets the spot, but the Pelicans would be the most fun. What sane NBA fan who doesn’t have a rooting interest in either of these three teams isn’t rooting for the Pelicans to nab that eight seed? Is there anyone in the world who doesn’t want to see Anthony Davis in the playoffs? Look, I could go into the supporting cast and the strengths and weaknesses of the Pellies, but ultimately it comes down to Davis, a 21 year old basketball wunderkind who is flirting with posting the highest single season PER in NBA history. That’s not a joke. He’s at 31.7 right now, and the record is 31.8. For what it’s worth, only Michael Jordan (four times), Wilt Chamberlain (three times) and LeBron James (three times) have had a single-season PER of at least 31.0.
12: Washington Wizards
11: Toronto Raptors
In a similar predicament as Oklahoma City, Phoenix and New Orleans, to me it feels like either Washington or Toronto are going to end up exiting the playoffs earlier than they’d like (i.e. the 1st Round). Atlanta is a proven juggernaut, the Bulls are steady and deeper than at any other point in the Tom Thibodeau era and the surging Cavaliers seem to have too much talent to be bounced from the playoffs as early as than round one. So as long as Chicago and Cleveland aren’t matched up in Round 1—it’s in play, but given how Cleveland has played over the last month I’d say it’s unlikely—then either the Raptors or Wizards are destined for a 1st Round exit.
Right now the Raptors are playing much better ball than the Wiz, and they have a lot going for them heading into the stretch run. The Toronto home crowd is fantastic. Their roster is solid and there isn’t really any “bad” player getting major minutes or playing a major role. Thanks to Drake, there is a little less lint than there normally would be in an NBA arena. Masai Ujiri is a crafty GM who might have a move or two to make before the trade deadline. And maybe most importantly, the Raptors might have the best throwback alternate uniforms in the whole league. I’ve got mad love for those dino-uni’s.
On the flip side of the coin, there is just as much to like about Washington. We know they have playoff chops—last year they ousted and manhandled the Bulls in Round 1, took the Pacers to six games in Round 2 and added Paul Pierce which means even more playoff swagger this year—and in John Wall they have the best player on either roster (and that’s with all due respect to Kyle Lowry). The Wizards have played below .500 basketball since mid-January, and while that may be a case of mid-season boredom or just a rough patch in the schedule—they have losses at Atlanta, at Phoenix, at Portland, home against Oklahoma City and home and away against Toronto among other losses—but even so, for the first time all season I just feel like the Raptors are not only the better team right now, but also the better team going forward.
10: Houston Rockets
One could say that the Rockets ceiling is much higher with a healthy Dwight Howard. Then again I wouldn’t consider myself “one.” I might go as far as saying Houston might be a spot or two higher in the power rankings if Dwight hadn’t already missed twenty games and if it weren’t a possibility that he misses at least twenty more, but here’s the question we might need to consider: is Dwight Howard that much of a difference maker at this point in his career?
In some years, maybe he is. And on some teams, he might be more valuable than he is in Houston. But for this team and in this year, one that can be considered a changing of the guard in some ways and seems to favor teams with chemistry and depth, maybe Dwight Howard is just another good, but not great center. That isn’t to say he isn’t valuable; a center that can get you 16-10 when healthy and protect the rim will always have value. But here’s what Dwight isn’t:
- He’s not a good teammate/locker room guy
- He’s not a good shooter
- He’s not a good chemistry guy
- He’s not a great post-up scorer
- He’s not healthy
And let’s be honest: he’s not a great defender like 2011 Dwight Howard was. By removing Dwight Howard from the equation, Houston’s ceiling is moderately altered but not drastically changed. James Harden is the linchpin of this team, and for how much he does on a nightly basis his MVP credentials are absolutely warranted. Iso-ball isn’t that much fun to watch, especially Harden’s version of it which seemingly leads to a three pointer or free throws every time, but it’s effective and it’s Houston’s identity whether it’s aesthetically pleasing or not.
9: Dallas Mavericks
I’m already 1,500 words into this monstrosity and I have 1,500 more to go, so I decided to pass this Mavericks section off onto Baller Mind Frame’s very own TJ Macias. Here’s what she had to say:
A few days ago, when Sonny told me that he placed the Dallas Mavericks at number nine in his NBA Power Rankings, I said a couple of different unladylike cuss words and shook my head. Though when I was covering the Mavericks take on the Los Angeles Clippers, I watched in horror as big man Tyson Chandler went down in the first quarter, followed by shooting guard Monta Ellis (both in the starting five), and I suddenly found myself agreeing with Sonny. Since losing Rajon Rondo after his face shook hands with Richard Jefferson’s knee, the Mavericks have been inconsistent in terms of defense as head coach Rick Carlisle takes some major risks with his lineup, but they always found solace in the frontcourt with Ellis, who is majorly clutch in the fourth quarter, and Tyson, whose well-timed lobs leave opponents breathless. Since Dallas traded away phenomenal back up big Brandan Wright in the deal with the Boston Celtics to obtain Rondo, Carlisle has been experimenting with bench players like Greg Smith (ack!) and Al-Farouq Aminu (yay!), and seems like he’s only one vodka-tonic away from starting Frodo-sized J.J. Barea at pivot. The Mavericks signed former draft pick Bernard James for a 10-day contract (the Mavs were originally going to sign Sarge even before Chandler went down until they’re able to snag Jermaine O’Neal after the All-Star break) which doesn’t help their defense much. Ellis, thankfully, was back on the court for the Mavs game against the Utah Jazz, but it was ruled that Tyson wouldn’t likely see any minutes until after the break. I believe once everyone is healthy, the Mavericks will move quickly up the ranks. Until then… yikes.
8: Los Angeles Clippers
Blake Griffin is out for at least three weeks, and that stretch coincides with an absolutely brutal portion of the schedule that features two games against San Antonio and Memphis, and one against Houston, Chicago, Portland and Golden State. And I’m being generous by assuming Griffin returns in the first week of March and thus not including a three game stretch where they’ll be at Oklahoma City, at Dallas and home for Houston in a five day span. It’s entirely possible that the Clippers could find themselves outsiders in the West playoff picture if this trip doesn’t go half-way decently.
Then again, there is a chance that the team responds similarly to how they did last year when Chris Paul missed a month of action. Blake Griffin stepped up, DeAndre Jordan solidified himself as a reliable starting center and the rest of the role players fell into place. Maybe this is a period of time where Chris Paul gets himself back into the “Best Point Guard Alive” discussion that has been recently populated by Stephen Curry and Russell Westbrook. Maybe DeAndre Jordan makes 27 rebound games a normal thing. Who knows?
What we do know is that the Clips are a frighteningly good offensive team when healthy; one that ranks third in points per game and first in offensive rating, even though there is only one consistent post scorer (Griffin) and one perimeter player who can get himself a good shot (Paul) on the entire roster. And for anyone who plans on chiming in “Well what about Jamal Crawford,” you better first consider than Crawford is shooting below 40 percent from the field this season, so he’s disqualified from this discussion.
The Clippers are flawed, but they’re still solid, and they were a couple of Chris Paul blunders away from playing in the Western Conference Finals last year. If they survive this stretch without Griffin and find health heading into the playoffs, they’ll be a tough out.
7: Cleveland Cavaliers
Slowly but surely the Cavaliers are rounding into shape and that’s bad news for the rest of the Eastern Conference. When Cleveland was hovering around the .500 mark and making what at the time seemed to be desperation moves, it just meant there was one less potential Bam Bam Bigelow—excuse me, I meant to say Beast of the East—to worry about. Now Cleveland has won 14 of their last 15 (in a moderately manageable portion of the schedule, but still) and they’re showing more than occasional glimpses of being the team so many expected them to be.
Obviously, there are still questions to be answered. Will the LeBron James/Kyrie Irving partnership remain on course, or will Kyrie revert back to bad old habits over time. Can J.R. Smith really be counted on to be the third perimeter scoring option? Will David Blatt prove to have playoff coaching chops even though he’s never been there before? And most importantly, will the Cavs find a way to effectively use Kevin Love. That last one is the million dollar question. A fully engaged and properly utilized Kevin Love could make all the difference as to whether the Cavaliers are just another Eastern Conference contender or a legitimate title favorite by the time April rolls around. The good news for the Cavaliers is that they have two more months to figure it all out.
6: Portland Trailblazers
The Blazers spot in the Power Poll is also my guess for the number of Damian Lillard Eff-You games from here through the end of the Blazers season.
5: Chicago Bulls
The Bulls might be the biggest wild card in the NBA. They’ve played .500 basketball for the last month, Jimmy Butler has hit a wall after a terrific start to the season, the Pau Gasol/Joakim Noah/Taj Gibson trio is still a work in progress, and Derrick Rose just isn’t 2011 Derrick Rose anymore. Still, the general consensus seems to be that their ceiling is still higher than any other Eastern Conference team. In a way, this makes sense; the Bulls have more roster depth now than at any other point in the Thibodeau era and that roster is constructed in a way that should make the Bulls a troublesome opponent in the postseason.
Absent in the past was a reliable low post scorer, a secondary perimeter scoring option and perimeter shooting that would make life a whole lot easier for the guys who carry the heavy offense burden. Those bugaboos are non-existent now. Pau Gasol leads the NBA in double-doubles and remains a post scoring savant. Jimmy Butler in that secondary perimeter scorer the Bulls so desperately needed; in fact, he’s surpassed Rose in that respect. And on the perimeter the Bulls have sharp-shooters Mike Dunleavy, Aaron Brooks and Nikola Mirotic.
The Bulls curiously average defense is reason for some concern, but considering the pieces in place it seems like Chicago can find that familiar stinginess any day now. In the Eastern Conference, Atlanta is the top dog, Cleveland is surging, and Toronto and Washington is solid … but the Bulls probably remain the odds on favorite to represent the conference in the NBA Finals.
4: San Antonio Spurs
I’m exercising my right to reserve my thoughts on the defending NBA champions for a point slightly later in the season. Expect it in late-March when San Antonio has won 15 out of 17 and are right back near the top of the Western Conference.
3: Memphis Grizzlies
Now this is a full-blown, downright frightening, grown-ass-man NBA title contender right here and it’s like nobody is even talking about them. The Memphis Grizzlies are really freaking good, and like the two teams ahead of them, there just isn’t a chink in the armor. The subtle improvement of Mike Conley year-by-year never gets discussed and the very public improvement of Marc Gasol was a hot topic for about a month and then forgotten about again. Under the radar, Zach Randolph is having his best season in five years and speaking of under the radar—wait, actually this needs it’s own paragraph.
Speaking of under the radar, how about the move Memphis made a month ago that could go down as one of the quietest NBA Title altering moves ever. Stealing Jeff Green and only giving up Tayshaun Prince’s carcass, Quincy Pondexter and a 2nd round pick in the process … are you kidding? At some point during the next four months that trade will become a bigger deal than it seems to be right now.
On top of all of that, the Grizzlies get a check mark in just about every other category for an eventual NBA champion: stupendous home crowd, quality back-up bigs, a serviceable back-up point guard, playoff experience, guys who can knock down opener threes, an irrational confidence veteran—don’t think that Vince Carter isn’t going to have a moment in the playoffs—and Tony Allen’s DNA infiltrating the entire team. Memphis is as close to a top two team as you can be without actually being one, but that could change.
2: Golden State Warriors
1: Atlanta Hawks
Improbably, the Hawks and Warriors first match-up this season wasn’t nationally televised. Just about as improbably, the Atlanta Hawks surpassed their pre-season over/under estimate of 41.5 wins with that victory. The Warriors still haven’t hit theirs (51.5), but they are on pace to do so sometime in mid-March.
Again, improbably, unless there is a last minute switcheroo, the second meeting between the Hawks and Warriors on March 18th won’t be nationally televised either. If they get a third, fourth, fifth, sixth, seventh, eighth and ninth meeting, then everyone will get a chance to watch basketball at its finest, and I’d be lying if I said that I wasn’t rooting for this match-up.
A Chicago/Los Angeles or Cleveland/Oklahoma City Finals would be miles better for the NBA ratings-wise. But I’m not concerned with ratings. I’m not concerned with the big names playing late into the season. Give me the small-market teams that are led by San Antonio disciples who play beautiful basketball night in and night out. Give me the underdogs.
Like 50 Cent once said, “Hate it or love it, the underdogs on top.” I’m loving it, Fitty.