Essay: ‘Power’ Ranking the Middling, Mediocre, Mid-tier Malaise…
…that comprise the NBA’s playoff teams with little chance of even sniffing the Larry O’Brien Trophy.
The unlucky truth of the matter is that 29 teams are going to end their season in disappointment whenever they’re eliminated from the playoffs or playoff contention this spring. Of those 29, only four–and that’s stretching things a little bit*–are actually title contenders. The rest are composed of lottery teams, and the squishy in-between spot where a team’s not good enough to really scare the top four in the playoffs, but they’re not so bad that a first round draft choice won’t immediately improve their roster and their chances to improve moving forward. So you’re stuck with the mid-tier, where moving up into one of the top teams in the league is a lot less likely than the inevitable drop to a lottery franchise.
We see this all the time, and right now there are 12 teams with very little chance of either making a Conference Final, or drafting a player that will get them into the Conference Finals in the ensuing years. That’s not to say they’re incapable of bettering themselves in free agency (Houston has a lot of cap room; so will Atlanta if they don’t sign Josh Smith to a max contract; Utah is an enigma, and no one can figure out why they kept two front court players whose contracts expire this summer), but after eliminating the Heat, Thunder, Spurs and Clippers** you’re left with a coterie of mid-tier teams trying to play up to those four. Here they are ranked by their current talent level, their record this season, their overall play on offense and defense, and the possibility for future improvement with the right draft picks, free agency moves and refinement of their roster’s current skill set.
***Offensive rank: 19
Defensive rank: 2
They’ve already unloaded Gay, and others to get under the salary cap. This provided them some wiggle room, but Z-Bo isn’t getting any younger and neither is Marc Gasol. Both those players are still taking a pounding down low every night, even as Gasol drifts further into his brother Pau’s territory at the elbow or on the wing. Mike Conley Jr. is a good, solid starting NBA point guard, but he’s not going to be getting into the lane as much as a Chris Paul or a Tony Parker, and so the offensive creativity that Rudy Gay brought to the table is now missing. Tayshaun Prince fits perfectly with this defense-first group that has some trouble scoring, and even though he’s shooting better than 42 percent from beyond the arc, he’s still only attempting a little over an attempt a game. In fact, Memphis is almost like a late 90′s basketball team in the way they avoid the 3-point shot: they’re dead last in the league in attempted and made 3-pointers and rank 23rd in 3-point shooting percentage. Simply put, they have to work tremendously hard to get bucket and that goes double if Mike Conley, Tony Allen and Prince aren’t forcing turnovers in the back court that lead to easy transition buckets.
Currently, the Grizz are 4th in the Western Conference, 5 games behind San Antonio and 1.5 games ahead of Denver. They’ve integrated Prince into their team, and it’s almost weird that he hasn’t been playing for them the last couple of years as they’ve over-achieved while failing to score very much (hello early-aught Pistons). They desperately need shooters, and J.J. Redick or Vince Carter would have been a boon for them at the trade deadline, but they’re all locked in now, and it remains to be seen if they can score with the big boys of the West, while continuing their top 2 defense. They’re probably—at best—doomed to repeat their glorious 2011 season, when they upset the Spurs in the first round of the playoffs and pushed the Thunder to a deciding seventh game; consequently, they’ll probably fall short of the Conference Finals, and if Denver figures out a way to limit their turnovers and defend their home court like they’ve done most of the season, there’s a risk Memphis gets upset in the first round. Does this really matter, though? The new ownership group, lead by principal owner, Robert Pera, slashed the payroll and traded Gay, which was bizarre since their initial salary dump (trading Speights, Ellington and Selby in late January for basically nothing) squeezed them under the cap. This leads many to believe they’re content to be contenders to the throne, and they’re unwilling to risk the luxury taxes they’d incur to grab a shooter or two to take some of the offensive pressure off their front court and possibly catapult them into serious title discussions in the West. Right now though, they’re the top mid-tier team in the league based off their excellent defense, and their dominance in the post with Gasol and Z-Bo. They’re the opposite of the 2011 Mavericks, in that they play incredible defense, but need more offense to be a title threat; then again, Dallas buckled down on the defensive end that spring and look what happened? Memphis could repeat what Dallas did that year with some timely shooting, but I wouldn’t hold my breath.
Offensive rank: 6
Defensive rank: 13
Unlike the two of the top three on this list, the Denver Nuggets don’t struggle very much to score. George Karl’s more uniform roster after dealing Carmelo can run just about anyone off their home court, but they’re currently stuck behind Memphis in the 5 spot in a loaded Western Conference; it’s a tall order to get past first Memphis, and then either Oklahoma City or San Antonio in the second round when they’re playing the majority of their games on the road (where they’re just 14-19 so far this season). Their defense, once a Karl speciality, is a large reason why. Part of the problem is their inability to snag rebounds; they’re 23rd in the league in defensive rebounding percentage, according to NBA.com, but they’re top 10 at home and 27th on the road. Overall, they give up more second chance points than anyone else in the league.
A lot of Denver’s defensive woes can be attributed to the second highest pace in the league, and it’s true they give up more 3-pointers and overall field goals than just about anyone not named Golden State, but that doesn’t excuse their inability to snag defensive rebounds, when they rebound so well on the offensive end (particularly the Manimal). They’re also turning the ball over a lot in their up-tempo system, and that’s giving opponents a lot of easy looks in transition, where they’re currently ranked 24th in the league in transition points allowed. Part of their defensive woes stem from their cluttered 5-spot, with JaVale McGee, Timofey Mozgov and Kousta Koufos splitting time at the center position. McGee is still a head scratcher, where teams outscore the Nuggets by over 5 points per 100 possessions, according to 82games.com, but with Koufos they outscore opponents by over 9 points per 100 possessions (NBA.com/stats has McGee closer to even with his on/off spreads, and they’re more up-to-date, but Koufos still has a net rating over 8 when he’s on the court). But neither one of them has shown they can defend the pick and roll really well, and they still struggle to grab defensive rebounds.
Ty Lawson’s return to last season’s production is a bright spot over the last month. Since shooting 40 percent in the earlier part of the season, he’s upped his field goal percentage to almost 45 on the year and his confidence in his jumper is visible to anyone watching. McGee has shown flashes of offensive brilliance, especially when Andre Miller is tossing him oops and taking advantage of his breathtaking length. Danilo Gallinari has also improved his shooting, but he’s still connecting on just 42.5 percent of his field goals this season (he was at 40 percent on January 1st), and a respectable 37.3 from beyond the 3-point line. But offense isn’t Denver’s problem, it’s the defense that will limit them when they’re playing on the road in Los Angeles or Memphis or San Antonio, and until Karl can get his gang to hustle back on defense, rebound when they’re there, and limit the turnovers on offense, they’ll continue to flouder in the mid-tier and have little hope of advancing further than the second round.
Offensive rank: 20
Defensive rank: 1
Here’s another team that struggles on offense and is only ranked this high due to their offensive play over the last two weeks combined with their continuing to play a league-leading defense, which has them in the number 2 spot in the Eastern Conference rankings (though New York is breathing down their neck). But really, as Indianapolis Star columnist, Bob Kravitz, already wrote after their loss to the Clippers on the last night in February, they’re not good enough to beat the Heat in a seven game series. Yes, they’re good, and they’ve had some success already against the Heat this season, but they don’t score enough to really thwart LeBron and Wade when they amp up their defense and go off on one of those huge streaks in the fourth quarter.
George Hill is a dependable point guard, but shirks real responsibility for getting their offense moving. Paul George has become the all-star many believed he’d become after a stellar rookie season, but a disappointing sophomore follow-up; although, there are times when he dribbles too much and that puts Indiana’s fragile balance at risk. David West is still a tough match-up for most NBA power forwards, and his elbow jumper is tremendous. Getting Danny Granger back with enough time to ingratiate him into their offense is a big plus, but still, their offense lacks a tried and true go-to scorer. George isn’t there yet, and Hill isn’t the type of player to step up like that when they need him. Lance Stephenson has cut down on his turnovers recently and he’s developed a nice long range shot as he’s over 35 percent on 3-pointers now this season. Roy Hibbert isn’t looking as awful as he did to start the season (after signing that long term deal), but his 42 percent shooting from the floor has to improve if the Pacers are to have any chance in the spring. It remains to be seen whether the Pacers as a roster can really contend in the Eastern Conference with Miami looming over everyone. New York won’t be an easy win, either, and if the season ended today, they’d likely face the Knicks in the second round.
Right now, the Pacers are the number 3 seed in the East, even with New York at 6.5 games back of Miami. But they’ve won two more games and lost two more games than the Knicks. The Pacers have all their starters locked up through next season, except David West, who is making $10 million this year. Granger still has another year making borderline max money ($14 million), and Paul George is still underpaid after his rookie option was picked up, but he’ll probably command near max money after his option is (most assuredly) declined before the 2014-15 season. The Pacers have an identity though. Head coach Frank Vogel has them playing team defense, and watching them defend the pick and roll with George, Hill and Stephenson jumping out on the screens while Hansborough, Mahimni, West, and Hibbert communicate closer to the hoop and call out switches for that hard roll is a pleasure for any defense nerd. It’s unlikely though that even with a rebounding edge against a team like Miami, Indiana has the offensive firepower to really get past LeBron and Company. If George turns into a superstar, which he’s already on the cusp of, maybe that will change, especially if Granger can come back to near full strength, but that’s a lot of ifs. And lets not forget West will need to be re-signed next year if they’re gonna want to continue their upward trajectory in the lesser, Eastern Conference.
Offensive rank: 25
Defensive rank: 4
Chicago is ranked above the Knicks because Derrick Rose may come back; although, Lee Jenkins’ recent piece for Sports Illustrated casts a pallor over that hope in Chicago. Rose was initially supposed to come back in late February, and that hasn’t happened, so it’s anyone’s guess when he’ll return, or more importantly for their title aspirations this season and next, whether he’ll come back this season at all. But in his steed, Tom Thibodeau’s bunch has managed to limit opponents offensive opportunities while relying a bit too much on Nate Robinson’s three-point game, even though they’re close to dead last in three-pointers made. In short, they’re an offensively-challenged squad that needs Derrick Rose back in order to be legitimate contenders. Even with Rose back, it’s hard to take a one-man offensive show seriously, like many of us did when they made the Eastern Conference Finals in 2011.
With Joakim Noah, Luol Deng (hopefully playing less), Carlos Boozer (hopefully shooting less) and either Jimmy Butler or Rip Hamilton, the Bulls have a pretty solid starting team. Bring in Taj Gibson and they get that much better defensively. Kirk Hinrich is an excellent back-up for Rose, and can perform in the backcourt in place of Rip/Butler too. They have a really nice team combined with Thibodeau’s defensive brilliance, and Rose’s (let’s hope) offensive brilliance, they could give Indiana, New York or even Miami a run in the Eastern Conference. Of course, all this hinges on the return of Rose, and that appears to be a window that’s slowly closing this season. The longer we wait, the closer he comes to just sitting out the remainder of the season while he tries to get his brother to shut up. The Bulls could amnesty Boozer next year or drop Rip, but Rose is the fulcrum by which their decision-making rests, and they’ve treated his convalescence like he’s Peyton Manning circa summer of 2012. He’s already said he’s not coming back at less than 110 percent, which is bizarre even for someone that struggles with math like I do. But the Bulls will need him if they’re to have any chance in becoming one of the top teams in the league again. Joakim Noah can’t block 10 shots every night.
5) New York
Offensive rank: 3
Defensive rank: 15
Welp, Melo’s knee is problematic, but that opens things up for Amar’e, and if you include the Knicks’ comeback against Cleveland after ‘Melo went down (literally and figuratively), they’re 2-1 without their ostensible star after barely losing to Oklahoma City on March 7th. Which begs the question: are the Knicks good enough to win sans ‘Melo? I think they are, but only if Chandler plays every minute with defensive dunderhead Stoudemire. Amar’e seems to have regressed on defense, consistently playing the pick and roll like a confused rookie and finding himself out of position on back line rotations.
Amar’e is done for the forseeable future, necessitating all those strikethroughs, and ‘Melo was back in the embarrassment at Oracle Arena right before I finished going over this. Amar’e was the the weak point in an already weak Knicks D that’s surviving primarily because of Chandler’s brilliance against opposing front court players and his ability to protect the rim when the Knicks septuagenarian back-court gets beat. Amare’s loss just means the Knicks bench lost their offensive leader, but not much defense. The knee surgery after an MRI was heartrending for a guy that busted his ass to get back onto the court and find his groove—which he definitely had done offensively—but even more so because of Melo’s own knee issues.
J.R. Smith has cooled off after a hot start and he was his usual erratic self against Oklahoma City (even on a night when his jumper kept them in the game). Jason Kidd has only recently gotten back to knocking down three’s after a month of insecurity in that department (and it re-surfaced in a big way tonight). Pablo Prigioni never met a pass he wouldn’t throw and this comes despite his shooting better than 40 percent from beyond the 3-point line on the season. Pablo’s antipathy towards his own shot is offset by Smith’s same feelings towards a pass. They’re the inverse of each other. Tyson Chandler is a revelation and his continual battling on the block just adds that much more to his growing resume as the Knicks only consistent defensive player. Color me impressed because when the Knicks signed him away from the then-just-crowned champion Dallas Mavericks in the summer of 2011, I thought it was a mistake. So did Mark Cuban—it would seem—but with a new emphasis on defense by Mike Woodson and Chandler’s healthy contributions, the Knicks are winning more than they’re losing despite being middle of the pack on defense. Cuban has now let Steve Nash and Tyson Chandler bounce when they near 30. As a thirty-year-old this offends me even as I can barely walk after snowboarding.
The Knicks’ offense isn’t a problem, but if they really want to compete with Miami to represent the East this June, they’ll need to jump into the top 10 defensively, and with the grind of the season at it’s fullest in these soggy pre-spring months, that’s a tall order for a team that’s more interested in knocking down 3-pointers than in defensive rotations after Chandler challenges a penetrating guard. They’re the oldest team in league history, and defense is primarily a young man’s game. When you’re busting your ass on offense, you usually lose your legs on the defensive end, and defense is as much about hustle and intelligence as it is about talent (just ask Bruce Bowen, Shane Battier and Chuck Hayes). The Knicks will only go as far as their defense takes them, and it’s looking more likely that’s a second round defeat at the hands of Indiana or Boston than it is a trip to their first Eastern Conference Final since Jeff Van Gundy was making McQuaid jokes on the Knicks bench. I probably could have saved you the trouble of writing that wandering write-up and just said, “man, I miss ‘Sheed more than I should.”
6) Golden State
Offensive rank: 9
Defensive rank: 17
The Bay area crew has been in a bit of a tailspin after being the darlings of the NBA’s first half. They’ve continued to score at a top 10 rate, but even after limiting the Kings to under 90 points, they’re in the bottom half on the defensive end. Their match-up tonight against the high-scoring Rockets (who are next on this list) will go a long way towards showing us what coach Mark Jackson has done to improve their pick and roll defense.***** Andrew Bogut is back in the lineup (for the time being, at least) and that should help them in the long run, but even with Bogut patrolling the paint, they’ve been incredibly bad/lazy at giving open looks to 3-point shooters. They’ve held team’s to a bottom 10 3-point shooting percentage, but their pack the paint philosophy also means they’ve given up the most 3-point attempts this season and only four other teams have given up more total 3-pointers by opponents. They also foul a lot and that leads to foul trouble and more points for their opponents. Defending the pick and roll gets harder if you’re constantly worried about getting whistled for a foul as you’re fighting over a screen. The Warriors don’t force many turnovers, which would allow them an easier time for transition buckets. Basically, this is just a roundabout way of saying their defense needs some work, and that’s putting things lightly.
But man, their offense can be really fun to watch, especially when Stephen Curry (who Warriors brass smartly kept over Monta last season) is shooting lights out like he did in the Garden last week. Klay Thompson hasn’t made the cliched “leap” this year, but he’s still an above-average shooter. David Lee is an all-star, but struggles to defend in the half-court and can be a liability on the offensive glass. Carl Landry is a revelation every time I watch him, and I’m surprised he doesn’t get more PT even if he’s a bit under-sized on the defensive end. I could ramble on about how much fun this team is to watch when Jarrett Jack and Curry share back-court duties and either Thompson or rookie, Harrison Barnes play the 3, with Bogut and Lee in the front court and Landry waiting in the wings. They pass and move the ball really well when they want too, but if they don’t improve their defense they’ll continue to flounder in a very good Western Conference. Still, it beats updates from Marcus Thompson of the Oakland Tribune on Curry’s ankles, and they’re gonna make the playoffs…we all hope. They’re just not going to do much damage once they’re in.
Offensive rank: 4
Defensive rank: 24
Daryl Morey might be a genius, even if I’m loathe to use that word as much as some others on the Internet. But his deal with Sacramento was exquisite, even if Houston now has a paucity at the power forward slot. They’re in the driver’s seat to improve the most over the next two seasons, and with franchise player, James Harden, center Omer Asik, Jeremy Lin at off-guard and Chandler Parsons on his rookie deal, they’ve already got a nice nucleus for the future. But, like the team just ahead of them on this list—and coincidentally the team they’re playing the day I’m finishing the first draft of this piece—they can’t defend for s__t. Like Boston and KG, when Asik sits, they’re awful on defense, giving up 107.4 points per 100 possessions, which is worse than every team but Charlotte and Sacramento. When Asik plays, they’re at a much better 102.5 points per 100 possessions, so they have to figure out a way to give Asik a breather and not get blown out.
Part of that is the maturation process of young players like Harden, Parsons and Lin. Once they figure out a way to defend the pick and roll without the buffer of Asik protecting the rim, they’ll be better off. All of the players mentioned have a tendency to ball watch, and that’s why they’re a bottom five team in terms of giving up both 3-pointers and regular field goals. Once these players mature defensively, and McHale teaches them that defense requires just as much–if not more–energy as they’re offensive exploits, they’ll be in a much better position to attack the West’s elite teams. Until then, Houston fans should revel in their brilliant GM, who has a lot of moves he can make to shore up their defense this off-season, but hopefully without neglecting their top 5 offense.
Offensive rank: 12
Defensive rank: 16
Woe is Brooklyn. All that money and they’re stuck with an injured Deron Williams, who seems to have caught the Stephen Curry ankle syndrome, and Joe Johnson who is still Joe Johnson (flashes of brilliance wedged between mediocre–at best–play on both sides of the ball). Brook Lopez has been a nice surprise, but Marshon Brooks has regressed a lot since his rookie year, and Kris Humphries isn’t even on their roster anymore.
I’m not gonna lie, Brooklyn’s somnambulant pace has kept me from watching them as much as my other current town team, the Knicks, but when I do catch them at the bar, I grimace at their methodical approach to scoring and their inability to get out on the break for easy buckets. Brook is an underrated big man even though a lot of people were freaking out that he might not make the all-star team this year. But Deron’s ankles (which I’m wondering might be attached to his weight gain over the summer) prevent us from really knowing how good this team can be. If it weren’t for some late-game heroics from Johnson and Brook’s dominance in the half-court sets plus some improved play once Deron got time to rest his ankles, they’d be even further down on this list and in danger of losing home-court in the first round. With a ton of money tied up already, there’s very little chance the Nets will improve moving forward. They might squeak by an Atlanta or a Chicago minus Derrick Rose, but there’s very little chance they can overcome an Indiana or Miami in the second round. That’s taking the optimistic view, too. With the Knicks, the NYC basketball fan’s go-to team (even in Brooklyn, where I live), Mikhail Prokhorov and Billy King have twisted themselves into a knot that means they’ll be in the middling mid-tier for the next half decade unless some real changes occur for the personnel they’ve already signed.
Offensive rank: 22
Defensive rank: 5
The Boston Celtics aren’t making it to the NBA Finals without Rajon Rondo, but I’m glad Ainge kept their core intact instead of blowing everything up during an eerily quiet trade deadline. Garnett and Pierce will be valiant in defeat this spring, and might surprise a team in the first round (as long as that team isn’t Miami), but anything beyond that would take a demoralizing injury to an opposing team, so betting on the Celtics to make a second-straight Eastern Conference Final isn’t safe. Pierce has become like a 1990 Magic Johnson: limited athleticism, but the smarts and the know-how to put up similar stats as earlier in his Hall of Fame career. Garnett, likewise, but he’s not going to be able to contribute much more than 30 minutes a night, and if Doc ups his PT in the playoffs, watch out for him wearing down when the Celtics need him the most: getting stops in the final minutes of the game. When Garnett sits, the Celtics don’t seem to have much in the way of protecting the rim since Chris Wilcox on his best day is no Kevin Garnett on his worst, and the numbers back that idea up. According to NBA.com, the Celtics give up 103.8 points per 100 possessions in the 1168 minutes Garnett has sat this season. That’s worse than the Warriors and only slightly better than the Lakers this season. But when Garnett has been on the court (at a little over 30 minutes a game this season), they’re only giving up 96.2 points per 100 possessions, which is better than every team but the league-leading Pacers. So Garnett would need to play a lot more in the playoffs and down the stretch of this season if the Celtics are to have a legitimate chance in the playoffs.
That being said about Garnett, Avery Bradley is incredibly fun for someone like me (a defense nerd) to watch. His hounding of opposing ball-handlers should thwart those observers who feel Rondo is an All-NBA defender, when he really isn’t. But the triumvirate of Bradley, the disappointing Jason Terry, and Courtney Lee, can’t make up for the loss of Rondo on offense. Pierce can’t carry them like he used too, and Garnett doesn’t play enough. Bradley doesn’t have a pro shot just yet–although he’s getting better on the corner three–and Jordan Crawford is still Jordan Crawford (it’s always weird to watch Garnett rush to help Crawford up when I’m simultaneously imagining him smacking him around in the locker-room). Jeff Green has come on of late, and his scoring has helped them go 12-5 without Rondo, but he’s not really a go-to offensive player despite his improved jump shot and health.
There just isn’t very much here to help the Celtics put the ball in the bucket, and until we get a full season with this current group and Rondo (hopefully sharing the offensive duties a bit more next season), I can’t envision them doing much damage in the playoffs. The next thing to do is blow the whole thing up, which Danny Ainge would have no qualms doing. But he’ll probably wait a year to give Rondo, KG and Pierce one more chance for a title next season. If they’re stuck where they are now, near this point next season, there’s no way another trade deadline is passing without him dealing Pierce’s expiring contract and Garnett (who is slated to be paid through the 2014-15 season, but would probably retire if dealt to anything but a championship contender). I love this current group: they play great defense and team ball on the offensive end, but without “National TV” Rondo, they’re pretenders in the playoffs this year despite their stretch after he went down.
Offensive rank: 10
Defensive rank: 23
Why on earth are both Paul Millsap and Al Jefferson both still wearing Jazz jerseys? The decision not to trade either of their front court players at the NBA’s trade deadline left many observers befuddled since both are on expiring deals, and Derrick Favors plus a trimmed-down Enes Kantor make them expendable. Most agree they should keep Millsap, he’s a slightly better defender (Big Al is awful on pick and rolls), and offers more of an all-around game than the low-post scoring threat of Jefferson. Yet, they’re both in Jazz uniforms and both might walk this off-season if they can’t agree on a new contract with GM, Kevin O’Connor.
Gordon Heyward still has a couple years left on his rookie scale contract, so they’ll keep him, and the aforementioned Kanter and Favors are in the same boat. But everyone else is up for grabs. Marvin Williams would be foolish if he didn’t pick up his player option for $7.5 million next year because even though he’s shown an ability to cut to the rim for easy buckets, he’s barely cracking 40 percent shooting, and he’s below the league average for 3-point percentage (though he’s pretty good on the shorter, corner three’s).
Right now, the Jazz are just 1.5 games ahead of the Lakers, and they’re the best bet to drop out if–or when–the Lakers make a push to become the final seed. They’ve just been passed by Houston for the 7-seed, but regardless of which seed they get, there’s no way this current roster is going to get past either San Antonio, Oklahoma City or even the Clippers in the first round. It’s just not happening. So maybe tanking, or dumping games isn’t so far out of the purview of the front office. A decent lottery pick could help matters especially since Kanter and Favors are already on such great rookie deals. Luring possible free agents will be tricky (which is why their no-show at the trade deadline is even more confusing) since Utah isn’t exactly South Beach. Unless the Jazz can sign a legitimate star (which is pretty far outside the realm of possibility), they’re going to continue to flounder in the post-Sloan post-Deron and (probably) post-Millsap/Jefferson era. Get excited about more mid-tier madness Utah fans!
Offensive rank: 15
Defensive rank: 10
Al Horford is the personification of an embattled player not receiving enough DAP for his play before the all-star break then going out and destroying those GM’s who passed him over for a bench slot in the NBA’s annual February extravaganza. He’s been better than a 20 and 10 guy since the break, and after deciding not to trade Josh Smith at the deadline, the Hawks have been pretty good. Sure, they lost to the lowly Suns on March 1, followed up by losses to the Lakers and a hot Nuggets team, but they won four straight before that, and Horford has consistently been shooting over 55 percent from the field while his 4-5 not-really-pick-and-roll with Smith has been killing teams when the Hawks need a bucket. Another big plus for Horford, who is finally healthy, is the fact he’s locked in through the 2015-16 season, which combines him with Lou Williams’ borderline amazing deal through 2014-15 season as the only two Hawks contributors signed beyond this year.
GM, Danny Ferry, is in the same position as the next GM on this list, the Bucks’ John Hammond, because the decision to offer Smith max money this summer will severely diminish their ability to sign more free agents to improve even if a ton of money is coming off the books at the end of the year. Perhaps it’s unfair to claim Smith isn’t a max player, but he’s never made an All-NBA team or an All-Star team and he’s in his eighth season since coming out of Virginia’s Oak Hilly Academy in the summer of 2004. But Smith isn’t the only player Ferry will have to decide on. Jeff Teague has been playing extremely well, and that doesn’t bode very well for Ferry and Co, who failed to reach an agreement on an extension before the November 1st deadline; so Teague will be a restricted free agent this year and could command high 7 figures per year if someone lacking a point guard offers him what he might be worth.**** Thankfully, Devin Harris’ abysmal $8.5 million deal comes off the books this summer as does another $16 million or so when Zaza Pachulia, Kyle Korver, Johan Petro and Dahntay Jones all come off the books. The Hawks have the cap space to make a serious run at Dwight, who grew up in the Atlanta area, but it’s anything but a foregone conclusion he doesn’t sign an extension with LA since they can offer him more money.
The Hawks were probably smart not to deal Smith at the deadline if they couldn’t even get a first round pick out of the deal, but Ferry has a lot of decisions to make with more than half the roster becoming free agents this summer, and only Horford and Williams locked in for next year. It should make for an interesting off-season for Hawks fans, and a big signing (aside from Smith) might mean a jump to the top of the rankings here.
Offensive rank: 21
Defensive rank: 11
Monta Ellis could shoot 60 percent the rest of the season, and I’ll still consider him a low efficiency player. I continue to hope he opts out of his deal this summer, and gets a lot less than the $11 million he’d make if he opted in for that last year. Maybe he’ll get something like a 3-year deal at $30 million, but I just don’t think he can continue to shoot as effectively as he has the last four games while striving to play borderline mediocre defense. I’m not sure Brandon Jennings is worth the max he’s likely looking for this summer when he becomes a restricted free agent, either, but I’d take Jennings over Ellis every day of the week and twice on National TV Sundays.
Larry SANDERS! as Grantland’s Zach Lowe has coined him, is a force in the paint and Kirk Goldsberry’s recent summary showing just how effective he has been at protecting the rim is a must-read for “quants” and casual fans alike. After Scott Skiles threw his hands up and walked away from his job as head coach, Jim Boylan has created an interesting team that spreads the floor with Monta, Jennings, recently acquired J.J Redick, Ersan Ilyasova and Mike Dunleavy off the bench with Sanders patrolling the post when those perimeter and wing guys guys inevitably get taken off the dribble or fail to defend the pick and roll (although, Redick is an excellent team defender after the tutelage of Stan Van Gundy in Orlando).
Milwaukee should make sure they know what they’re trying to do this off-season with decisions looming for their back-court of Jennings and Ellis, but they’re going to be stuck on the precipice of the lottery if they continue to fork millions over to not-quite all-stars like this back-court, and that’s a problem (see also, Toronto offering an extension to Rudy Gay under the chimera that he’s a star). But they’re fun to watch and they should make a serious effort to re-sign Reick this off-season since he’s matured into a legitimate rotation player on a title contender. I have no idea if Jennings can make the leap to all-star point guard, but I know Monta will continue to reign hell on the team’s efficiency from the midrange. Lots of questions, but if they draft wisely and pick the right guard to offer a deal to this summer, they could be moving up.
The Lakers are totally different from this group, which is why I didn’t include them. They possess a LeBron/Durant level player with Kobe, and once all the Dwight distractions simmer down, they could be better than all these teams. Or they could self-destruct. Who the hell knows, but for the purposes of this power ranking, they’re not yet in the playoffs, so I held off on them. Same goes for Dallas and Portland. All things considered, only the winner of Memphis/Denver and Indiana look like legitimate threats to the top of each conference. Miami might go “Fo’ Fo’ Fo’” in the East though if they keep playing like they have since the ASB. These twelve are the most fascinating teams to watch though, since they’re always on the cusp of entering the upper echelons of the league, or dropping out of the discussion entirely. I still don’t think the Clippers belong with San Antonio, Oklahoma City or Miami, but everyone else does and I don’t want to keep repeating my Chris Paul hasn’t ever made a Conference Final spiel ad nauseum to an audience of zero.
*I really don’t consider the Clippers a threat to San Antonio or Oklahoma City’s reign at the top of the Western Conference. I know Chris Paul is God, and they’ve played extremely well when he hasn’t been out, but Tony Parker negates his influence a bit–at least in a seven game series–and I think Duncan has at least one more year where he can school a player like Griffin, even with his incredible athleticism around the basket.
**Again, the Clippers are an intriguing team, but CP3 has never made it out of the second round of the playoffs, and Chauncey Billups plus Grant Hill don’t make up for the fact that DeAndre Jordan can’t hit late game free throws. Lamar Odom is still coming back from his last year and a half of irrelevance. Matt Barnes is a nice complementary player, especially if he can knock down the corner three with any frequency, and Jamal Crawford is a site to behold on offense, but he’ll always be the defensive weak link that someone like Popovich can counter with a Manu, Danny Green or Kawhi playing with the second team.
***All numbers via NBA.com/stats for points scored per 100 possessions and points allowed per 100 possessions as of the morning of March 8, 2013.
****Not really sure about the details associated with qualifying offers for rookies, but Larry Coon does.
******They lost, but played good enough defense to hold the Rockets below 100 points. So, you know, take that for what it’s worth since they came right back and lost to Milwaukee by 10 before blowing out New York at home.