February NBA Power Rankings

It’s getting closer to the All-Star Break, which means we have a large enough sample size to start making biased cases for who should win various NBA awards. So, without further ado I present the first annual “Chris Linnan’s Imaginary Mid-season NBA MVP, ROY, and COY Ballot.”

MVP

1) Stephen Curry- Let’s not try to outthink ourselves. The Warriors are by far the best team in the NBA and Stephen Curry is the straw that stirs the drink.

2) Chris Paul- This may seem like a weird number two choice for some readers, but I think his value has been demonstrated by how well the Clippers have done sans Blake Griffin. If you take LeBron James from the Cavs or Kevin Durant from the Thunder I think both teams would still be pretty strong, but Paul is crucial in so many different ways that without him the Clippers would fall apart. He is getting older, but he remains an excellent two-way player and does so much for players like DeAndre Jordan and J.J. Reddick, who struggle creating their own shot.

3) Jimmy Butler- He is a tremendous two-way player who has done an excellent job despite the constant turmoil in Chicago.

4) Kawhi Leonard- I see him as a similar player to Jimmy Butler, only with better teammates and significantly less turmoil.

5) LeBron James- He may be a coach-killer and he may have much better teammates than is generally acknowledged, but he remains the best player for the best team in the East.

ROY

1) Karl Anthony Towns- He is a legitimate two-way player, who is second in PPG among rookies, first in rebounds (by almost two per game), fourth in FG%, first in FT%, and second in blocks. I know Kristaps Porzingis has been a bigger story because he plays in New York, but that should not matter. Frankly, if the ROY voting was held today and you voted for somebody other than KAT or Porzingis there are only two potential excuses. The first is you are related to the person you are voting for and the second is you have never watched an NBA game.

2) Kristaps Porzingis- I have good news for any readers in Latvia. When I used to think about basketball there the first thing that jumped to mind was Andris Biedrins and his quest to shoot a single digit percentage from the free-throw line. Now it’s Kristaps and his freakish blend of athleticism, skill, and size. Even the biggest advocates for drafting him last year did not think he would be as good as he has been thus far.

3) D’Angelo Russell- I spent way more time than I probably should have debating with myself whether he should be number three or four on my imaginary mid-season NBA ROY ballot. In the end I think he is a more complete player at this stage of his career than Jahlil Okafor and long-term the biggest thing holding him back, his coach, is a much more fixable issue than Jahlil Okafor’s defense.

4) Jahlil Okafor- The more I see him play the more he reminds me of a young Al Jefferson. Just like Big Al he is a very gifted low-post scorer and a very poor defender. So, the question is if the 76ers can build an effective team around him to compensate for his weaknesses.

5) Nikola Jokic- Myles Turner has been on fire lately and Emmanuel Mudiay has had his moments, both good and bad; however the fifth-best rookie performer over the course of the first-half of the season has been Jokic. With the return of Jusuf Nurkic this will likely change, but thus far he has been in the top ten among NBA rookies in PPG, APG, RPG, BPG, FT%, and almost every other relevant category. In other words he is above-average at everything and bad at nothing, which is good enough for number five on this list.

COY

1) Luke Walton- 39-4 is not bad. I’m not a big fan of Steve Kerr and him sharing the COY at the end of the season (or Kerr getting credit for wins when he was not on the bench), even if the Warriors continue to play as well as they have, because that opens Pandora’s Box for future NBA co-MVPs or co-DPOYs. However, if they break the NBA record for regular season wins, they might have to.

2) Brad Stevens- No NBA coach does more with less. No worries, I will fawn on him more in my Celtics blurb below.

3) Rick Carlisle- Every year the Dallas Mavericks exceed expectations and this year is no different.

4) Dwane Casey- The Raptors are increasingly putting distance between themselves and all Eastern Conference teams not named Cleveland. It might not lead to playoff success, but the COY is a regular season award.

5) Terry Stotts- Frankly, it was a fairly uninspiring list of names to choose from for number five, but the Blazers have definitely done better than expected without LaMarcus Aldridge and several of their young players, most notably C.J. McCollum, have take major strides.

Now without further ado I present my February NBA power rankings.

1) Golden State Warriors (43-4)- I’ve run out of good things to say about the Warriors, so I want to use this space to point out that the members of their big three of Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson, and Draymond Green were drafted seventh, eleventh, and thirty-fifth overall respectively. So, let this be exhibit A that the most important element to building a NBA team is using your draft picks wisely. None of those picks were sure-fire, as the Warriors actually took a lot of heat for some of them (especially Curry), but now they have one of the best teams in NBA history barring a catastrophic injury.

2) San Antonio Spurs (39-8)- I have never been to East Europe, but I would love to go, if for no other reason than to see how it cranks out so many exceptional basketball players. The Spurs have yet again found another gem from overseas in Boban Marjanovic (32.16 PER! Granted, it’s a small size).

3) Oklahoma City Thunder (36-13)- Did you know Russell Westbrook averages 7.2 RPG and 2.47 SPG? Me neither until a minute ago! He has his faults, such as taking too many gambles on offense and defense, and sometimes shoddy shot selection (he shoots 28% on 4.1 three-point attempts per game), but when he’s on he is something else.

On a completely unrelated note I remain befuddled why the Thunder are choosing to start Andre Roberson every night at shooting guard. Since you have two extraordinary scorers (and Serge Ibaka is no slouch either), wouldn’t it make more sense to start a 3-and-D wing next to them instead of a guy shooting 27% from behind the three-point line?

4) Cleveland Cavaliers (34-12)- I already wrote about the David Blatt firing, so I don’t have anything significant to add, except that Tyronn Lue’s hiring makes me feel extremely old since I can remember watching him play and drafting him in NBA Live. Somehow Jason Kidd’s stints in Brooklyn and Milwaukee never impacted me the same way.

5) Los Angeles Clippers (31-16)- I do not think the Clippers would be better off without Blake Griffin (although their record this season without him indicates that might be true), but if I were the Clippers and got a monster trade offer from a team with a lot of assets like the Celtics I would seriously consider it. I have some doubts that Danny Ainge is willing to go all-in, and let go of all or most of his most significant assets for Blake Griffin, but you never know.

6) Toronto Raptors (32-15)- It was probably not a good idea for the Bobcats to acquire Bismack Biyombo after the Kings drafted him seventh overall, but when you can spend an early first-round pick to acquire a completely unknown foreign player who has zero offensive skills, and could be nineteen or might be twenty-five you have to do it. That having been said he has found a niche post-Bobcats as a shot-blocker and rebounder, who has gradually improved on offense. He is currently on a very reasonable two-year contract that pays him less than three million dollars a year, which I believe he can opt-out of after this season. Of course the result will probably be that he gets comically overpaid when he becomes a free agent, but for now he’s a real asset on a very team-friendly contract.

7) Memphis Grizzlies (28-20)- The Grizzlies basically field the same team every year and someday it is going to cost them, but not today.

8) Atlanta Hawks (27-21)- The trade deadline is approaching, so it will be interesting to see how the Hawks handle Jeff Teague and if the rumors are true that they have been looking to trade him. I am not a big fan of paying him a near or actual max contract when his backup, Dennis Schroder, is younger and just as talented. There are so many talented point guards in today’s NBA that it just does not make sense to devote a significant amount of cap space to one unless he truly is a difference maker. The question is if the Hawks can find a sucker willing to give up something significant for Teague.

9) Dallas Mavericks(27-22)- Obviously, we will never get a concrete answer to this question, but I will remain forever curious how good DeAndre Jordan would have been on this Mavericks team. I think it’s impossible to properly evaluate since he brings so many pluses to the table such as excellent rebounding, shot-blocking, and finishing lobs, yet so many negatives as well, such as his historically terrible free-throw shooting, poor range, and occasionally poor defensive fundamentals. Would he have carried them into the upper-echelon of Western Conference contenders or not had much of an impact. This was my what-if for 2015 and will probably be for 2016 as well.

10) Chicago Bulls (26-19)- The Bulls remind me of Bobby Cox’s Braves teams, which consistently cranked out ninety and sometimes one hundred-plus wins, but usually fell short come playoff time. They always seem to be one piece away from truly contending, but there are worse things than being 26-19 after enduring all of Derrick Rose’s unfortunate injuries, a historically nasty coaching divorce last year, and an uneven start to this season.

11) Miami Heat (26-21)- I know they are only a middle-of-the-pack team in the Eastern Conference playoff race, but I still really like them. They have an excellent starting five with a good mixture of scoring and defense, and a nice bench. They have multiple stars they can run their offense through and a decent coach, but somehow they are only sixth in the East.

12) Boston Celtics (27-21)- Frankly, I think it is impossible to quantify a coach’s impact, but I wish it wasn’t, just so we could put a number on Brad Stevens’ impact. His second-best player behind Isaiah Thomas, a point guard whose two previous teams dumped for mediocre replacements, is probably Jae Crowder. His starters at PF and C are Amir Johnson and Jared Sullinger, yet the Celtics keep chugging along and winning games.

13) Houston Rockets (25-25)- It’s been five games since he was reacquired by the Rockets and Josh Smith is averaging almost five three-point attempts per game and shooting 20%. I am no advanced statistician, but I don’t think that’s a formula for success. If J.B. Bickerstaff can’t reign him in they need to cut their losses at some point.

14) Detroit Pistons (25-23)- The Thunder took a lot of what I thought was mostly undeserved criticism for trading James Harden to the Rockets, so I remain mystified why they have not taken any for their trade of Reggie Jackson to the Pistons. I know that he had a strained relationship with Westbrook and Durant, and that the luxury tax was an issue, but the move to replace him with Dion Waiters and give Enes Kanter a max contract did not make a lot of sense to me at the time and does even less now that Reggie Jackson is thriving in Detroit.

15) Indiana Pacers (25-22)- Myles Turner has been magnificent lately and while I realize he is a rookie, I do not see how you can justify playing Ian Mahinmi, Lavoy Allen, and Jordan Hill ahead of him. The NBA is a production-oriented business and he has been the Pacers’ second-best producer for the past few weeks, so I remain befuddled why you would not reward him with an increased role.

16) Portland Trailblazers (22-26)- I did not provide a mock mid-season ballot for Most Improved Player, but if I had done so C.J. McCollum would have won it. The most impressive part of his game is not that his numbers have jumped dramatically, but that the Trailblazers are still fighting for a playoff berth this late in the season and he has been the co-catalyst along with Damian Lillard.

17) New York Knicks (23-36)- I understand that they want to make a playoff push, but I could not think of anything more disastrous than sacrificing real assets, e.g. future first-round draft picks, to acquire somebody like Jeff Teague. That makes zero sense, especially when they could have picked up somebody like Ish Smith, who could have provided 85% of Teague’s production for next-to-nothing.

18) Utah Jazz (21-25)- There is hyperbole and then there is NBA teams evaluating their own prospects hyperbole, which we got to see firsthand this week with Zach Lowe’s article about the future of the Jazz in which Jazz players and management talked up the team like they were coming off a sixty-win season. My personal favorite was Trey Lyles, who is currently averaging 5.0 PPG on 42% shooting with 0.7 APG in 18.5 MPG, having his offensive game compared to Draymond Green. They are similar in the sense they both can play power forward and can shoot, but that’s where the similarities end. Trey Lyles may end up being a great player, but his numbers and the eye-test indicate he is more likely to end up a Morris twin-like player than one of the best players in the NBA. I am retelling this story because this is the type of thinking that doomed Joe Dumars in Detroit where he gave the players he drafted and traded for contracts far beyond market value and it seems to be happening to the Jazz as their core players have become drastically overvalued by management.

19) Sacramento Kings (20-27)- Yes, they are hovering at the back of the Western Conference playoff race, but let’s try to reduce the barrage of articles about how underrated and misunderstood DeMarcus Cousins is. He remains a supremely talented player, who on some nights looks like a NBA MVP candidate and on others jacks up terrible shots as George Karl makes frustrated faces on the sideline. As Dennis Green would say, “he is who we thought he was.”

20) Charlotte Hornets (22-25)- I like Kemba Walker, and Nicolas Batum and Jeremy Lin have both had very nice bounce-back seasons. Unfortunately, their big man rotation consists of a past-his-prime and injury-plagued Al Jefferson, Cody Zeller, Marvin Williams, Spencer Hawes, and Frank the Tank III. Somehow I don’t think that’s good news.

21) Washington Wizards (21-24)- Bradley Beal’s inability to stay healthy is starting to get troubling. It is his fourth NBA season and the second-most games he has (or will) play in one is sixty-three.

22) Orlando Magic (20-25)- Hopefully the Scott Skiles honeymoon period that teams usually have before their players turn on him is not over yet because if so, that would have been an extremely short one, even by his standards. Either way it was a January to forget for the Magic.

23) Milwaukee Bucks (20-29)- I know a lot has been written about how the Bucks are an up-and-coming team full of intriguing players, but if you were in charge of an NBA expansion franchise and could select any of the Bucks’ players, how many of them would you want? I wouldn’t want Khris Middleton or Greg Monroe given their contracts. Michael Carter-Williams takes a lot of things off the table and I don’t think he’s a long-term solution at point guard. Jerryd Bayless, O.J. Mayo, and Johnny O’Bryant III are meh. So, that leaves Giannis Antetokounmpo who is very good, but not great and Jabari Parker, who we are still waiting to see how much he develops. I guess John Henson is intriguing, but he averages less than fifteen minutes per game a team that is 20-29.

24) Denver Nuggets (18-30)- He won’t win Comeback Player of the Year, but Danilo Gallinari deserves some serious consideration. After last year’s injury-plagued season he is having a career season. Between injuries and a constantly changing lineup he has been consistently excellent.

25) New Orleans Pelicans (18-28)- I hope Anthony Davis is a glass half-full type of guy because it is not getting better anytime soon. Even with a weakened bottom half of the Western Conference and an unusually healthy year from Eric Gordon it has been an unmitigated disaster for the Pelicans thus far.

26) Minnesota Timberwolves (14-34)- Andrew Wiggins is an excellent player and I bet there are at least some people in the Cavaliers organization who regret trading him for Kevin Love. That having been said, he needs to improve in several areas. The first is three-point shooting as he currently shoots less than 25% from behind the three-point line. The second is becoming a more complete player as he currently does not do anything above-average except scoring.

27) Phoenix Suns (14-34)- Yes, they traded a valuable Lakers draft pick for the right to overpay Brandon Knight, and yes none of their players seem to be able to get along, and yes their rebuilding plan seems to consist of attempting to finish ninth or tenth in the Western Conference every year, but it could be worse. They could be the next team in this month’s NBA power rankings.

28) Brooklyn Nets (12-36)- I know it is against NBA rules, but in a world where there was no limit to the amount of money you could trade for a first-round draft pick how much would the Nets be willing to trade for the right to draft Ben Simmons? $50 million? $100 million? $200 million?

29) Los Angeles Lakers (9-40)- He may have been a very good player for some great Lakers teams, but somehow Byron Scott seems to be gradually having less success at each coaching stop. His Nets team managed to make back-to-back finals, albeit it in a very weak conference before he was fired, supposedly for being unable to get along with some of his players, namely Jason Kidd. His Hornets teams made the playoffs twice in five season before he was fired nine games into his sixth season. Finally, his disastrous Cavaliers stint ended with zero playoff berths in three season before he was fired and for reasons unknown to me the Lakers decided to hire him. Now, it’s only a matter of time before the Lakers fire the coach of the worst team in the Western Conference.

30) Philadelphia 76ers (7-41)- It feels weird to type this, but Ish Smith (16 PPG, 8 APG, 1.4 SPG) has really turned their season around. They’re still bad, but at least they are not historically bad anymore. Also, we spend most of our time debating about whether Jahlil Okafor will develop his defensive and rebounding skills, will Joel Embiid ever come off the injured list, and will Dario Saric ever come over from Europe; but Nerlens Noel has quietly been playing extremely well for the past season and a half. He’s probably never going to average 20 PPG, but he plays great defense, gets steals and blocks, and is competent enough on offense that he’s not a liability.

Chris Linnan is currently a Fulbright Fellow in Indonesia, who has a life-long basketball and politics addiction.  You can contact him at clthoughts2015@gmail.com if you have questions, concerns, or thoughts.

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