Power Rankings: Worst to First
All 30 NBA teams. Plus, 10 great games before the All-Star break.
14) Denver Nuggets (18-15) – The schedule’s been tough recently, but four wins in the last 14 games has to be extremely disappointing for a team as deep as the Nuggets. Denver’s still first in points per game and second in dimes, but that 26th ranked defense is starting to harp back to the ‘Melo days, which George Karl then needs to fix quickly.
13) Memphis Grizzlies (18-15) - Started 3-6, won seven straight, dropped seven of nine and are 6-2 in their last eight. The good sign for the inconsistent Grizz is that the defense remains a strong point, ranked 10th in the league at 92.5 points surrendered, while the offense is clearly struggling without Zach Randolph. Once he returns, nobody in their right mind would want to play this squad in the postseason.
12) Houston Rockets (19-14) – The most surprising team of the year to me, especially after starting 2-6. The roster isn’t scary, but it’s full of capable guys that can fill different roles. Kyle Lowry deserves most of the accolades for his continued improved play and leadership, enabling Houston to become serious players in the division.
11) Indiana Pacers (19-12) – A win over the lowly Nets stops the five-game skid. Some more swell soft-schedule news for the suddenly struggling Pacers: In the next four games, they get NOLA twice, Charlotte again and the Warriors at home. I recommend they win those games as the following nine opponents are frightening. Congrats to Roy Hibbert on his All-Star selection, who looked like a bust early on for Indiana.
Dime: Top Ten Squads
10) Atlanta Hawks (19-13)
A defense, without Al Horford, that is giving up only 0.7 more points per game than Orlando. Didn’t expect that. I was going to rank the Hawks ahead of the Magic since they beat them on the road, except Atlanta has followed that emotional overtime victory with four weak efforts and a hollow two-point win in Phoenix. You decide if it’s a good or bad thing that 12 of ATL’s 13 losses have come against winning teams. Actually, I’ll tell you: It’s a bad thing. For a team whose main problem has been getting out of the second round, the Hawks need to increase their confidence against the better squads if they ever want to make a real push.
9) Orlando Magic (21-12)
Orlando sports the fourth best defense while winning nine of its last 12 with two OT losses to the Clips and Hawks and a smackdown in Miami. Of course, the rest of the season is completely up in the air as the trade deadline looms, but here’s to hoping Dwight Howard keeps the East power as balanced as it can be and stays in Disney. Although if the Magic do unfortunately lose their star center, hopefully they’ll get someone good enough in return to relieve the emerging Ryan Anderson, whose developed into a 20-point threat on any given night. Orlando needs to make some kind of deal before they lose Dwight for nothing, and before they’re known solely as the team that lets once-in-a-generation centers walk.
8 ) Los Angeles Lakers (19-13)
Pau Gasol has meant a lot to the Lakers over the past five years, and if L.A. does decide to keep their star PF, it’s not like their chances for the championship are going to fall apart. That being said, the Lakers need a point guard and fast, and they can get some serious value for the 31-year old Spaniard. It’d be an understandably tough call for GM Mitch Kupchak since the Lakers are nothing without their big three, but still. A good point guard, mixed with two All-Star starters gives L.A. a better chance to contend with their La-La brothers for the division and title. It’s cliché at this point, but as long as Kobe’s playing, they have a shot.
7) Philadelphia 76ers (20-12)
After going 4-3 in what Doug Collins called ‘Death Row’, the Sixers proved to me that they are legitimate. Not only capable of blowing the bad teams out of the water, but competing with the good ones as well. Philly’s league-leading D and deep bench will keep them in contention for the division all year long. However, this current three-game skid against Orlando, Dallas and Minny has exposed Philly’s main flaw: Without a go-to scorer, the Sixers’ offense goes cold at times. Philly shares the ball extremely well, ranking fifth in assists, yet are still at a disadvantage when forced to play a more slowed-down, half-court style. It’s something the hobbled Spencer Hawes could help, if he recovers from injury this year.
6) Dallas Mavericks (21-12)
The champs ain’t struggling no more. Before getting ‘Linned’ (you make up a pun, they’ve all been used already) the Mavs won six straight over six good teams, including a huge win in Philly on Friday after rallying back from a 14-point halftime deficit. Dirk finally seems to be rounding into true Dirk-form, averaging over 25 points in his last eleven games, while that championship defense is apparently doing just fine for Dallas without Tyson Chandler. The Mavs are dealing with some injuries, age and a disappointing Lamar Odom, but I have no doubt that Carlisle has his men thinking repeat now that they’ve seemingly squashed the dreaded championship layoff.
5) Los Angeles Clippers (19-11)
Clip-nation is alive and kicking now that Chris Paul has shown all of America what true basketball fans have known since college. We’re noticing much more, Chris. Not only because of CP3’s ridiculous numbers (18.3 points, 8.7 assists, 2.3 steals, 48.2% FG, 44.3% 3P, 4.12 A:TO), but because of the way he has transformed L.A.’s little brother into, arguably, the better show in town. Entertainment-wise and wins. The latter being the most important for Lob City. It will be tough holding off the Lakers all season, but the division-leading Clips have made a believer out of me. They might not get a championship this year, but it’s hard to bet against them getting one in the next five. Tough OT loss to the streaking Spurs on Saturday, but credit Blake (22/20), Paul and Co. for fighting back from a 15-point second-half deficit. I’ll just choose to ignore the letdown against Golden State for now.
4) Oklahoma City Thunder (25-7)
Kevin Durant’s probably my favorite player in the NBA. That’s because he was my favorite college player the year he was at Texas. No, it’s actually because while he indeed was my favorite college player, I never expected KD to be this good in the NBA. Is anyone shocked he just dropped 51? Nope, exactly. His offensive game is so beyond smooth, his clutch scoring matched by maybe one or two players, and this season has improved his rebounding average (8.2) to almost two above his career mark. With a sidekick like Westbrook who can drop 40 – at the same time – the young Thunder should take the Western Conference easily, at least in the regular season. Pretty amazing statement when you think about it, considering OKC’s four best players are ages 23, 23, 22, and 22.
3) Chicago Bulls (26-8)
It’s difficult to rank the NBA co-leaders at three, but when you consider the recent run of the team in front of them, you can forgive me. Now onto the good: Derrick Rose missed his fifth game in a row Saturday and that had to worry everyone in Chi-town. To Chicago and Thibodeau’s credit, the Bulls played admirably in the absence of their MVP, which you’d expect with their coaching, deep bench and great defense. Chicago is the only team in the League that ranks in the top ten in points per game, points against, rebounding and assists. Even better news: DRose returned as fresh as ever to play 35 minutes and spearhead a blowout victory over the Hawks yesterday.
2) San Antonio Spurs (23-9)
A 11-game winning streak and a 2.5-game lead in a very hard division would merit a number two ranking for any team. But ya look over, and it’s those damn San Antonio Spurs. Again. Seriously, the story just never changes. It’s no coincidence that Popovich ranked number one in my ‘Coaches Power Rankings’ last week, and I’m not shocked at all that he’s overseeing another fantastic season even though Tim Duncan is a shell of the best power forward of all time and Manu sat for 22 games. Ginobili again couldn’t escape the injury bug, straining his oblique against the Clips, so his absence will remain a big challenge for San Antonio. But with Pop, TD, some solid youth in DeJuan Blair, Tiago Splitter, Kawhi Leonard, Gary Neal, Danny Green and oh yea, an MVP-caliber season from Tony Parker, the Spurs have a title-run in them, with or without Manu.
1) Miami Heat (25-7)
I watched the ESPN 30-for-30 film ‘Winning Time’ this past week, which documents Reggie Miller’s battles against the Knicks in the mid-90’s. Even though there’s nothing in common between the documentary and the Heat’s current season, one ‘titular’ line from Ahmad Rashad stood out and made me think of Miami: “There is a time to play and a time to win. What do you do in winning time?” LeBron is having an amazing year, maybe his best ever. The Heat possess the best record in the League. DWade and Bosh are doing their thing. It’s, as expected, another easy regular season for the big three and Co. This is their time to play. But what do you do in winning time, Miami? The question that remains can only be answered in June, and that will remain the case until they get this championship done. Nothing else can mask it at this point.