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Power Ranking: Optimism vs. Pessimism

Introducing Shaky Ankles’ very first Power Ranking feature—a weekly breakdown of interesting, list worthy NBA related news. This section will undoubtedly be toyed with as the season progresses, but for the most part it should read as a typical Power Ranking, which is something that’s always so much fun to scroll through!

In our inaugural post, we end this week with our Top 8 cases of pessimism vs. top 8 cases of optimism. Pretty self-explanatory: These are issues that inspire hope or reek of failure. Enjoy!

Top 8 cases of Pessimism:

8) The Orlando Magic. The situation in Orlando is awkward right now. Dwight wants to leave. The team wants him to stay. The fans are crying. SVG is hungry. Just…SO awkward. I won’t discount the effort Dwight Howard is putting into his craft right now, but the product simply isn’t at the consistent level we’re used to. He’s posted a few superstar gems, most notably his record shattering snoozer in Golden State, but dropped a couple uncharacteristic duds also. For Orlando, Howard’s pending free agency is like sipping a really expensive, really fine whiskey all knowing it’s eventually going to deliver the most insufferable hangover imaginable.

7) The Atlanta Hawks’ era of mediocrity. When the rest of Al Horford’s season was put on thin ice thanks to an injured shoulder, Atlanta’s thrashing era of unpredictable mediocrity may have fallen through. The Hawks are no longer contenders for this season (though finding the few who believed they were even with a healthy Horford is an Easter Egg hunt of its own) and it may be in their best interest to finally move away from this bland team building strategy and start all over. They’re old, predictable, and boring. Joe Johnson’s contract makes him a two ton block of solid cement halfway stuck in the ocean’s floor, but moving an attractive young athlete like Josh Smith for a draft pick and a couple young, cheap contracts, then amnestying the likes of Marvin Williams, would give this team the possibility of one hopeful future. (I still think amnestying Johnson is the smartest financial play, but paying all that money for him not to suit up is a bit ridiculous in the real world). Despite being in a clear and obvious “seller” position, the Hawks should be an active team before the trade deadline if looking out for their future is what they’d like to do. Building around Teague, Johnson, and Horford isn’t a bad foundation.

6) Stephen Curry’s ankle. Before hurting his ankle, Curry wasn’t the incredible untradeable asset we’ve been hearing all offseason. His points, assists, and 3PT% were all slightly down from last season at a time when they should’ve been rocketing towards the sky. What this particular injury does is call Curry’s value—both to his team and on the open market—into question. Will he ever be healthy? Will this forever diminish his abilities as a playmaker and instead turn him into a more stationary modern day Ray Allen? Scary things to think about if you’re a Warriors fan.

5) Russell Westbrook. This season Westbrook hasn’t been as catastrophic as most have made him out to be. Comparing the first few games to what he did last season, he’s actually improved upon his decision making in attacking the basket situations (last year he had 21% of his shots at the rim assisted while this year it’s 31%. Also, last season he was shooting 60% from point blank range while right now it’s up to 66% on about one fewer attempt a game.) He’s having fewer shots blocked and more And 1′s per possession, so that’s good. But two diminished stats have really stood out regarding Westbrook’s role in the offense: His assists per game are way down, and so are his free-throw attempts. I want to say the magnificent breakout season that James Harden is having may play a role in this, but it’s too small a sample size to produce any definitive answer. And these aren’t the worst of his troubles. The jump shooting has been a disaster. Westbrook’s numbers have recently risen to the level we’re accustomed to seeing them at, but as the league’s second most scrutinized player, this is certainly something to keep an eye on.

4) Houston’s defense. Houston has no consistent big man down low, and they seem to have no solution as to masking the weakness. With Courtney Lee injured, they have no solid perimeter defenders outside of Kyle Lowry. They’re giving up 1.08 PPP which is second to last in the entire league. Opponents are registering a 52.12 eFG%, good for third worst in the league. They’re also fifth worst at forcing turnovers. Houston’s defense should improve as their schedule gets a bit softer, but it’ll never hit above average levels with the personnel and effort limitations we’ve seen so far. They weren’t a super fantastic group of stoppers last year, but they weren’t garbage either.

3) Washington Wizards shot selection. The list of deplorable associations one can make with this Wizards team is endless, but regardless, here’s a rundown of a few favorites. Washington is 29th in points per game, last in TS%, and 29th in %AST (translation: selfishness). While the league averages .997 points per possession, Washington delivers .884. With precisely one win on record, everyone knows they’re an embarrassing basketball team, but sometimes it just feels like they’re doing it to themselves. Even if they played as a well-oiled, fine piece of machinery, due to a lack in talent and experience they still wouldn’t crack the eight spot, but they also wouldn’t be near winless either. They’ve attempted the third most shots in the league from 16-23 feet (while ranking 16th in makes from that range), the fourth most attempts from 10-15 feet (22nd in makes from that range), and 29th most threes attempted (28th in makes). Right now 10.1% of the team’s offensive production comes by way of Nick Young and Jordan Crawford launching mid-range jumpers. I understand that’s a huge part of Young’s game, and he isn’t atrocious at it, but when 1/10th of your team’s shots have a 1/3 chance of going in, other options should be explored.

2) Eric Maynor’s knee injury. Eric Maynor was as much a safety net for OKC as a backup point guard averaging 15 minutes per game can possibly be. Watching him play the game as a stoic floor leader, when it came to making plays off the dribble he appreciated opportunistic angles while Russell Westbrook drove through them like a monster truck. Their divergent approach to the point guard position gave the Thunder a change of pace and tempo every champion desires. As Zach Lowe points out in his analysis of the situation, Maynor led the team’s third most used lineup (alongside James Harden, Daequan Cook, Nazr Mohammed, and Nick Collison) towards the light of incredible efficiency. That group of five averaged 1.29 PPP which was not only best on the Thunder, but led the entire league among lineups that’ve logged at least 50 minutes together. If you bet your life savings on the Thunder emerging from the Western Conference, there’s no need to light yourself on fire just yet. Maynor’s injury forces a rookie into spelling Russell Westbrook whenever he needs a breather, but it also increases ball handling opportunities for James Harden. For every door that closes, a window is propped open.

1) Dwyane Wade’s foot. The Heat need a healthy Dwyane Wade in order to remain championship favorites. To beat Chicago, and fend off the likes of Boston, Orlando, Indiana, and Atlanta, he’s crucial. The most obvious worst case scenario should this issue prolong itself would be what happened to Tyreke Evans last season. Evans, so dependent on his dynamic ability to slash defenses en route to the basket, plays the game with the same fearless tendencies as Wade. In his second season, the lingering foot injury forced him into the role of afterthought, and he’s just beginning to break free now. Wade’s much older, with many more miles on his tires. He may be playing in regular season games right now, but come playoff time if that foot begins to flare up and he’s robbed of his usual explosive tendencies, the Heat are in a world of trouble. And in the big picture, the championship race will blow wide open.

Top 8 cases of Optimism.

8) Andrew Bynum. On Thursday night, Charles Barkley and Shaquille O’Neal brought the topic of “League’s Best Center” into a legitimate debate for what feels like the first time in about half a decade. Despite Shaq barely making sense in his toilet paper thin argument, the fact remains that what was once a foregone conclusion has become a realistic conversation. Who’s better? Bynum or Howard? Most will say Howard, and most will be correct, but the mere fact that we’re entertaining the possibility is quite intriguing.

7) New York Knicks’ Defense. Before last night’s shellacking at the hands of Rudy Gay and O.J. Mayo, the New York Knicks ranked 7th in the entire NBA in Defensive Rating. If not for it summoning a clear forewarning of apocalyptic atrocities, Mike D’Antoni would be thrilled with this development.

6) Keith Smart. In his first four games as Sacramento’s head coach, Keith Smart has broke even with a solid 2-2 record. The wins came against some pretty crappy teams, and the losses against two that should make the playoffs. More telling, however, is the way his mercurial big man has performed. DeMarcus Cousins has put up 19-15, 16-10, 17-10, and 21-19 point-rebound performances. So far it’s been a very positive on court maturation. We’ll see how long it lasts.

5) Gary Neal. Last season, Gary Neal started one game. He was a surprising rookie with no expectations and a three-point stroke that dictated whether or not he’d make money in this profession. Thanks to Manu Ginobili’s early hand injury, this year he’s already started four, and in them he’s been fantastic, shooting 40% from deep, 50% from the field, and averaging 12.5 points in just 22 minutes. He seems comfortable in Popovich’s offense and remains one of the game’s more potent floor stretchers.

4) Minnesota Timberwolves: The 5th best net differential between positive and negative eFG% in the league is a tad surprising, but not nearly on the same level as Ricky Rubio. Too many words have been used to describe this splendid Spaniard’s supreme play, so I’ll just say he’s leading the pack on ROY voting, and it’s his award to lose. Should be an All-Star too. The minor scab on this young team is how badly the Jonny Flynn pick has come back to bite them. Now more than ever before, it should be pointed out that if Minnesota had taken Stephen Curry with the sixth pick in the 2009 draft, we’d have a near title contender on our hands in just a few seasons. For all intensive purposes we’ll allow Derrick Williams to remain apart of the nucleus; that’s Williams, Rubio, Curry, and Love making up one of the league’s most complimentary offensive lineups. While the future looks bright for the actual roster, playoffs, like Curry, don’t factor into the situation’s reality at the moment.

3) Andrea Bargnani. Right now Bargnani is off to the fastest start of his career. He’s been both more aggressive and efficient in shots at the rim while taking the same amount of attempts as last year; he’s making half of his shots from 16-23 feet while attempting them within the flow of the offense instead of as a ball stopper (while attempting the exact same amount as last year); and while not unbelievable, his rebounding numbers have been the best we’ve seen since he entered the league. His shooting from deep has been a bit off, but from as great a shooter as he is that isn’t a particular area of worry. What we should focus on as being optimistic with Bargnani is his career high 6.1 free-throws per game. He’s slowly shedding the soft skin. Perhaps too slow, but slow metamorphosis is better than no metamorphosis. The Raptors former No. 1 pick is nowhere near being a franchise carrying superstar, but he’s made significant strides to be the best he can be this season. Also, he’s my mom’s favorite player.

2) Philadelphia 76ers, Denver Nuggets, Indiana Pacers, Portland Trailblazers.  These four teams are defying the NBA’s age old adage to compete without a superstar isn’t to compete at all. They’ve replaced two to three supreme talents with nine to ten symbiotic puzzle pieces and the early results have been unbelievably positive (Although it’s tough to include Portland here—LaMarcus Aldridge is a phenomenal two way All-Star). I’d like to believe these teams can sustain their brilliance well enough throughout the regular season to receive home court in a first round playoff series. Beyond that it’s tough to say what the limitations are for each group, but watching the teamwork vs. talent battle take place this spring should make brilliant television.

1) James Harden. With noticeable increases in minutes, USG%, TS%, and a significant decrease in %AST, through 10 games it’s looking like James Harden has locked up the 6th Man of the Year trophy for 2012, and maybe more for the future. He’s getting to the rim by way of his own creation now, and shooting 76.5% upon arrival. He’s made more free-throws this season than Kevin Durant while also maintaining the three-point shot as a potent weapon. Right now he’s playing like one of the NBA’s 20 best players, and with the injury to Eric Maynor opening up more ball handling opportunities (as was mentioned earlier) in that second unit lineup, he could climb even higher before this season’s through.

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