Let’s clear something up before we move forward: any sort of NBA power rankings column that you read from October through mid-February is complete garbage. I apologize if that statement bums you out since you have presumably spent a good amount of time over the past few months reading the aforementioned types of columns, but that’s just the truth. Think about it, before mid-February there is really no way to tell what the league will look like down the stretch. For the first three months of the season teams could, theoretically, blow their entire roster up, makes moves to improve or damage their position in the league, and completely alter what we thought of them at any given point leading up to that particular time. Now, after the post All-Star Break trade deadline, these are the teams we’ll be watching, for the most part, for the stretch run of the NBA season.
Ranking teams in a traditional 1 through 30 manner is a chore, and to be honest, it never really encapsulates what the point of power rankings are. Power rankings are, in the simplest and most direct sense, a guide that helps us see and understand the landscape of the league as a whole. Putting a number aside every team might make it appear as if the job has been done, but what really is the difference between the 7th and 4th best teams in the league? Some years the distance between those two teams might be ten miles apart. Other seasons the distance is virtually unrecognizable.
Today you’ll be reading a power rankings column that focuses on the actual hierarchy of the NBA; one that doesn’t assign number values or traditional rankings to each team, but instead places each team in a tier that more accurately describes their status at this moment in the 2015-16 NBA Season. Buckle yourselves in … we’re going on a tour of the NBA!
In a Sad League of Their Own: Brooklyn Nets
The popular question readers will ask – why put the Nets below teams that are actively tanking, including one that has been tanking for, hold on, let me get a calendar … three years now? The answer: Philadelphia and others are actively tanking, meaning there is some semblance of an ass-backwards plan in place. I don’t know what the fuck the game plan is in Brooklyn. Do they even understand that they’re playing a game. They mortgaged their future to acquire Deron Williams, Joe Johnson, Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett and are still paying for it, and will still be paying for it a few years down the road. Did you know the Nets don’t have a 1st Round Draft pick until 2019? Did you know players aren’t going to want to play for unstable organizations that go through coaches and GM’s like I go through a large popcorn during a three hour movie and are owned by individuals who may or may not be affiliated with the Russian mob and more likely than not don’t have a damn clue how to run an NBA team? The Nets are so bad and so poorly managed they deserve their own tier.
Lottery Favorites: Philadelphia 76ers, Los Angeles Lakers, Phoenix Suns and Minnesota Timberwolves
Even though the Lakers could lose their pick to Philadelphia if their selection doesn’t land in the top three of the 2016 Draft Lottery, they’re included in a group of teams that are in various stages of rebuild. The Sixers rebuild has comically lasted three years, and it’s not a certainty if they’ll ever try to fast track the process that Sam Hinkie has implored fans to trust in, but at least some pieces are in place, like a competent front court duo (which is possibly a trio if Joel Embiid can find his way on the floor), a legitimate NBA point guard and a coach that at least projects out to be league average. Even in the improving Eastern Conference, Philadelphia is only a year away from becoming a Playoff team.
The three Western Conference teams on this tier are each in a very different predicament. The Timberwolves have two of the fifteen best young building blocks in the league in Karl-Anthony Towns and Andrew Wiggins. Towns is a total stud and the runaway winner of the Rookie of the Year Award. Wiggins took home that hardware last year, and even if he never evolves into the #1 scoring option many anticipated he could, he probably won’t ever need to if he continues to play alongside Towns. If the Wolves, who currently have the 5th worst record in the league, are the beneficiaries of some good luck and win the Draft Lottery for a second straight year, then we’re staring straight into the eyes of a team that will be the eventual predecessor to the Golden State Warriors as the alpha dog in the Western Conference.
The outlook in Phoenix isn’t nearly as bright. Two years ago the Suns were a free-wheeling bunch of overachievers playing for a rookie Head Coach. Just 24 months later the Suns are one of the biggest disasters in the league, and there are barely any indicators that the 48 win team that nearly made the NBA Playoffs ever existed. That fun roster has been gutted and the team that rebuilt itself too quickly for their own good has to start over again. For the last month the Suns have been the worst team in the league, gunning hard for the 1st overall pick in the Ben Simmons Sweepstakes.
And then there are the Lakers, who have catered their entire 2015-16 season to the farewell tour of Kobe Bryant. Los Angeles will have cap space, a young nucleus and the appeal of Hollywood and a Laker legacy that has an undeniable appeal to try to win over free agents this summer (Kevin Durant included). Even all things break right for the Lakers, it will more likely than not be a slow rebuild in LA.
Postseason Optimists: Denver Nuggets, Sacramento Kings, Milwaukee Bucks, New York Knicks, Orlando Magic
All five teams included in this tier are still on the outskirts of the playoff picture, but a more likely fate for all five, save for the Knicks, involves watching ping pong balls bounce around in mid-May. For what it’s worth, the position that these five teams are in is annually the worst spot to be in the entire NBA (well, except in the rare occasion where a team is in as rough of shape that the Brooklyn Nets are in). Not one of the five worst teams but not a playoff team either … basically, you’re just conceding irrelevancy for the near future. All five of these teams should be extremely active over the summer, and since I’m a nice guy I’ve even came up with some awesome trades for all five teams. I mentioned the all-too-logical Carmelo Anthony for Blake Griffin deal in my Trade Deadline Challenge column two weeks ago, but how about this doozy?
Don’t ask me who that trade helps or hurts. I just know that none of those four teams work as presently constructed and they all need to be shaken up in a major way.
Postseason Realists: Washington Wizards, Detroit Pistons, Charlotte Hornets, Chicago Bulls, Indiana Pacers, Atlanta Hawks, New Orleans Pelicans, Memphis Grizzlies, Dallas Mavericks, Portland Trailblazers, Houston Rockets, Utah Jazz
I know what you’re thinking … “Wow, I can’t believe Shane McMahon came back to WWE!” Oh shit, this isn’t a wrestling column!d I’ll have some of those coming towards the end of March leading up to WrestleMania 32. What you’re thinking is “Wow, that’s a lot of teams in one tier!” and you’re absolutely right. Right now the NBA’s middle class is inflated, stocked with teams that are both competitive and interesting, yet varying degrees of flawed as well. There are only seven teams in the entire league that feel like locks to make the Playoffs (and as you’ll soon see, one of the teams in the Fringe Contender tier isn’t included in that group of seven) and it’s already the end of February. That means that for the next month and a half there will be more meaningful regular season games than we’re accustomed to seeing … teams jockeying not only for Playoff seeding, but also their Playoff lives right down until the final days of the regular season. Before we move forward, I have a few notes on some teams in this tier:
- There are 12 teams on this tier and they’re separated by only ten games in the standings. This is what I was talking about early when I mentioned distances between teams in traditional power rankings. The best team in this tier is the 9th best team in the league and the worst team is the 20th best team in the league. The difference between those two teams is minimal. The difference between the 9th best team in the league and, say, the 6th best team in the league is massive. This is a perfect example of why tiers work better.
- At the moment Memphis has the best record of all teams in this tier, yet Marc Gasol‘s broken foot makes the prospect of a Grizzlies playoff appearance feel just as shaky as any other team on this tier. Utah is the Western Conference team in this tier with the worst record, and I’d be much more scared of seeing the Jazz in Round 1 than the Grizzlies.
- Did you see Anthony Davis eviscerate the Detroit Pistons the other night? 59 points and 20 rebounds? Freaking incredible. New Orleans is only 5.5 games out of 8th place in the West, but Anthony Davis is the sole reason why the Pelicans aren’t in a lower tier than this.
- Isn’t it a refreshing change of pace to see Eastern Conference teams actually competing for the last few Playoffs spots rather than stumbling into them? Eastern Conference games used to be unbearable to watch. Now Detroit and Washington and Indiana and really every team on this tier is a fun watch every single night.
Fringe Contenders: Toronto Raptors, Boston Celtics, Miami Heat, Los Angeles Clippers
Four teams that, in theory, should avoid being ousted in the 1st Round of the Playoffs. The seeding might not shake out that way, particularly in Miami’s case. As was the deal last year, Miami’s fate is linked to the health of their best player (Chris Bosh), the player that most Heat fans think is their best player (Dwyane Wade) and a hot-head whose success I brilliantly forecasted back in 2010 (Hassan Whiteside). If Miami can get those three on the floor for the stretch run of the season they’re in good shape; good enough shape where you could make a strong case that, with all due respect to the Celtics and Raptors, the Heat pose the biggest threat to the heavy Eastern Conference favorite Cleveland Cavaliers.
With that said though, you can go ahead and slot Miami “8th” in a traditional power rankings column, right behind Toronto, Boston and Los Angeles (the Clippers variety), if you’d like. As presently constructed (aka minus Bosh) the Heat won’t be able to navigate their way to the Eastern Conference Finals. I’m dubious that Dwyane Wade can string together a month long stretch of basketball good enough to carry the Heat through two rounds of Playoff basketball, and as much as I enjoy the hardwood workings of Whiteside and point guard Goran Dragic, Miami won’t advance past Round 2, or maybe even Round 1, without the Boshasaurus.
Boston and Toronto are in similar spots, one that is drastically different than the Clippers are in. The Clips are in year five of Western Conference contention and now more than any other year over the past half of a decade there is a clear cut pecking order out West, and the Clips happen to fall outside the top three of said pecking order. If things stand Los Angeles will play Golden State in a 1/4 Round 2 matchup, a series that the Clippers CANNOT win. Yeah, that was capitalized, emboldened AND italicized. I’m not fucking around when I say that the Clippers can’t beat the Warriors in a Playoff series. And even worse … they probably couldn’t knock out the Thunder or Spurs either.
As for the Celtics and Raptors, one of the two will more likely than not have the opportunity to knock off Cleveland in the Conference Finals. The Raptors are up on the Celts in the standings, but Boston just feels friskier than Toronto does. The Celts have a better coach and a deeper roster … the Raptors have Drake. Eh, maybe Toronto has the leg up in this hypothetical series after all.
The Last Line of Defense: San Antonio Spurs, Oklahoma City Thunder, Cleveland Cavaliers
At this point in the NBA season we should be damn close to having a top four established, and our NBA Finals pick should be one of those four teams. History says so. Since 1980 only three teams (the 1995 Houston Rockets, the 2004 Detroit Pistons and the 2006 Miami Heat) haven’t finished with one of the four best records in the regular season. Every other time it was one of the four best teams throughout the 82 game marathon. This year San Antonio, Oklahoma City and Cleveland join Golden State in that proverbial Mount Rushmore … only the Warriors are getting their own monument elsewhere.
The Dubs are overwhelming title favorites and that’s for good reason; they’re 50-5 and have only two losses that don’t make sense (at Detroit and at Portland … all three of their other losses are explainable). The Spurs, Thunder and Cavaliers are the last line of defense, the only three teams that could represent a road block on the Warriors path to claiming GOAT status, and the Warriors will likely have to go through two of those three teams to claim the Larry O’Brien Trophy. As prolific as the Warriors have been this year (and for all of last year as well) the above trio of teams on this tier shouldn’t be pushovers in a seven game series. Cleveland took Golden State to six games last year and they were without Kevin Love and Kyrie Irving. San Antonio breezed their way to a title in 2014 and bounced the then inexperienced Warriors out of the Playoffs in 2013. Oklahoma City can claim to have two of the five best players in the league and the best chance of all three teams in this tier to hang with the Warriors in a track meet series. I don’t know, maybe I’m just talking myself into the idea that what happens in June isn’t a foregone conclusion.
The Overwhelming Favorite: Golden State Warriors
Tomorrow my girlfriend and I leave for Belize for a week, but first we’ll be making a pit stop at American Airlines Arena to see the Golden State Warriors play the Miami Heat. I have a lot of things I could say about the defending NBA Champions, but I feel like it’s only right that I wait until after I’ve seen the beast in person before I dive too in depth on what makes this team the devastating juggernaut every NBA fan has fallen in love with. Now if you don’t mind, I need to go pack for paradise.