March NBA Power Rankings

Somebody should do a totally serious TV mini-series featuring grouchy old-school players complaining about how easy players have it today. Really, it would be high comedy to watch Oscar Robertson complain about how Stephen Curry can’t actually shoot and watch other old-school players moan about how LeBron couldn’t have averaged twenty ppg thirty years ago.

Do players have it easier today than past generations in the sense they are more pampered and higher-paid? Of course! Were players forty years ago more likely to assault other players? Yup. Is the modern NBA the end of the world? I don’t think so, but apparently Oscar Robertson disagrees. Also, it needs to be noted that NBA basketball players have become much better, bigger, and more athletic relative to past generations. If you don’t believe me go watch tapes of games (or even just slam dunk contests) from a few decades ago.

Originally, I was going to write a thousand words complete with YouTube clips to prove my point, but why waste my time. If you want to live in the past, who am I to stop you. We all have friends who dwell endlessly on ex-girlfriends and boyfriends. So, if you want to make the 1970s NBA your ex-girlfriend, go for it! She’s all yours. In the meantime, here are my March NBA Power Rankings.

1) Golden State Warriors (55-5)- If I was a Western Conference team serious about contending, e.g. the Thunder, Spurs, Clippers, etc. I would draft one rookie or sign a young player this off-season, and try to mold him into a Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson stopper. If you want to beat the Warriors in a seven-game series at the level they are playing right now I don’t think you have another choice.

2) San Antonio Spurs (52-9)- I think someday we will forget how truly great Tim Duncan was. He simply doesn’t have the same flashy highlights or controversial personality that some of his peers have. Sure, he when he talk about great players he will be mentioned, but I think it will be more of an after-thought. Alas, if only he been arrested or created a fake cheesy public persona!

3) Cleveland Cavaliers (42-17)- I already wrote about this, but I still don’t see what Channing Frye brings that Kevin Love doesn’t. Even more befuddling is that the Cavaliers are, barring a catastrophe, going to win the Eastern Conference and face either the Warriors, Thunder, or Spurs in the finals. So, wouldn’t it have made more sense to acquire another top-notch defender to match up with Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson, or Russell Westbrook and Kevin Durant? Big men who shoot three-pointers well are not a rarity in the modern NBA, so why spend one of your very few assets acquiring one?

4) Oklahoma City Thunder (42-20)- Coaches, just like players, can get better, so I don’t think all is lost for Billy Donovan. However, some of his rotation decisions have been, to put it kindly, puzzling. The question is if he will continue making the same mistakes. Do you remember how everybody used to make fun of Ron Rivera? To be fair to everybody, Ron Rivera made some pretty dubious play calls  and decisions early in his head-coaching career, but he improved and almost won the Super Bowl last season.

5) Los Angeles Clippers (40-20)- I know it’s hard to be underrated as a superstar in Los Angeles, but I think Chris Paul is. He’s probably the best two-way player alive and he makes his teammates so much better. I know he always falls short in the playoffs, but the third-best player he has played with in his career is probably DeAndre Jordan, a guy who should give a portion of his paycheck to Paul for making him so much better. It also needs to be noted that he’s spent his entire career in the much tougher Western Conference, which has to count for something.

6) Toronto Raptors (40-19)- Sometimes the best move is not making one at all. It’s impossible for us to know what exactly the Rockets wanted for Dwight Howard or what the Hawks wanted for Al Horford, but from everything I’ve read I gather that it was quite high. So, I think it was a wise move of the Raptors to not surrender a significant asset(s) to acquire a big man in his thirties with an injury history about to hit free agency and get a max contract.

7) Miami Heat (35-26)- I know that Hassan Whiteside has a temper that sometimes results in untimely technicals and cheap-shot flagrant fouls, but so did Hakeem Olajuwon  and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. His own future hall-of-fame teammate Dwayne Wade  has a lengthy history of dirty plays that’s earned him multiple suspensions. I know that Whiteside’s Kings  stint was an unmitigated disaster, but he’s worked very hard to turn himself into an outstanding two-way player since then. So, unless the Heat know something about him that we don’t, I have no idea why they wouldn’t resign him to a max-level contract. Yet, it seems like every week I read something trying to cast doubt on whether the Heat should resign him or just let him walk.

8) Boston Celtics (37-25)- Frankly, I don’t think Danny Ainge  gets enough credit for the brilliant job he has done running the Celtics. He managed to build one championship team and with those players nearing the end of their careers he flipped them for enough assets to build his team into a real contender a short while later. He had his championship-winning coach force his way out because he didn’t want to coach a rebuilding squad and got an upgrade. Best of all for the Celtics is that he still has a stockpile of future assets (thanks Billy King!), and he didn’t get any of these players or picks by tanking or constructing a team so bad they lucked into Kevin Durant or LeBron James. Yet somehow he almost never gets talked about when we discuss top-notch NBA GMs.

9) Memphis Grizzlies (36-24)- Chris Andersen is averaging almost seventeen minutes per game and playing decent basketball. On a personal note I am super pumped by the return of the Birdman. Combine that with the relatively strong return play by Lance Stephenson, and P.J. Hairston shooting much better than he did in Charlotte (not exactly hard, but whatever), and life isn’t too shabby in Memphis.

10) Portland Trailblazers (33-29)- We’ll see if the Meyers Leonard surge is just a mirage as the season goes on. If not, the Trailblazers are going to be a very tough out in the playoffs.

11) Atlanta Hawks (33-28)- Did you know that Al Horford blocks more shots per game than Andre Drummond? I couldn’t think of anything else to write about the Hawks, so that’s your Chris Linnan NBA fun fact of the month.

12) Dallas Mavericks (33-29)- I can still recall David Lee being the sole bright spot for some terrible and unlikable Knicks teams, but then he left and ended up in Golden State where he morphed into an extremely overpaid one-way player. I thought his Celtics stint would rejuvenate him, but obviously that didn’t work out. On the bright side Rick Carlisle  normally gets the most out of his players.

13) Indiana Pacers (32-29)- Speaking of perennially underrated GMs, Larry Bird  made another great draft pick this past summer when he picked Myles Turner. Again, it’s another outstanding example of a GM who has managed to obtain top-notch talent without losing on purpose and getting lucky, and it’s another GM we don’t talk about a lot.

14) Chicago Bulls (30-30)- If the Chicago Bulls were a stock I would not be buying. Pau Gasol has had a brilliant season, but he’s nearing retirement. Meanwhile, I loved watching Derrick Rose growing up, so much so that I almost always drafted him in NBA 2K, but it just doesn’t look like he will ever really recover from all his injuries. Jimmy Butler is great, but if this team is going to be anchored by a Butler-Nikola Mirotic-Bobby Portis trifecta it’s not a bright future.

15) Detroit Pistons (31-30)- Andre Drummond is currently shooting 36% from the free-throw line, so I have a question that I have spent years wondering about. There are plenty of NBA players who have drastically improved their free-throw percentages during their careers, most notably Karl Malone, so there must be some type of coach who can make Andre Drummond (and other comically terrible free-throw shooters) a decent free-throw shooter (right?). He doesn’t have to become Stephen Curry, but becoming even just a mediocre from the charity stripe would make him infinitely more valuable to the Pistons.

16) Houston Rockets (30-31)- The Rockets have a lot of issues, but the biggest one is that if I was a NBA GM I would be absolutely terrified of signing Dwight Howard this off-season. Centers with extensive injury histories whose games are almost totally predicated  on their athleticism tend not to age very well. Is that really somebody you want to give a max contract with the salary cap set to jump into the stratosphere? You also have to bear in mind that he has now played for three different NBA teams and had major problems with his fellow star players, coaches, and management in all three places. A young Dwight Howard was worth the risk, but the current version that suits up for the Rockets is probably not.

17) Charlotte Hornets (32-28)- I spend a lot of time wondering about Kemba Walker’s value to a basketball team. On one hand he is definitely a very good player, right? On the other he is his team’s starting point guard, but he isn’t even his team’s leading assist-man as he only averages about 5 assists per game versus 20 points per game on 42% shooting. So, I think there is a limit how good he can be unless he has other-worldly teammates.

18) Utah Jazz (28-32)- It seems like this Jazz team never changes. Every year they have a group of young above-average, but not great, players that lead them to a mediocre record. Then members of this mediocre core hit free agency after their rookie contracts expire, and the Jazz are forced to make tough decisions of wildly overpaying them or letting them go for nothing.

19) Washington Wizards (30-30)- The good news is that Markieff Morris is enough of an upgrade at power forward that he might be able to help them sneak into the playoffs. The bad news is even if they accomplish that, they will just become a newer version of the Gilbert Arenas-led Wizards who used to get crushed every spring by the Cavaliers.

20) Sacramento Kings (25-35)- Regardless of how you feel about DeMarcus Cousins or Rajon Rondo I think a much more pressing issue for the Kings is their lack-of-depth on the wings as they start Rudy Gay at small forward, who is one of those players who puts up decent stats and commands a significant chunk of salary cap space, but doesn’t actually seem to make his team better. Their starter at shooting guard is Ben McLemore who is in his third year in the NBA and seems to be regressing.

21) Orlando Magic (27-33)- Now that the trade deadline has passed and we got to see a variety of other deals I still don’t understand how the Magic got such a meager return for Tobias Harris. In light of other trades, in which inferior power forwards were dealt for first-round draft picks I remain befuddled. The only way that trade made any sense is if they were trying to clear cap space for this off-season. The problem is that excess cap space is less valuable than ever given how many teams will have it soon. On a more positive note for the Magic, Mario Hezonja  got his first start a few nights ago and proceeded to dunk four seconds into the game.

22) New York Knicks (25-37)- Carmelo Anthony rewrote history to a certain extent after he forced his way from the Nuggets to the Knicks. He pushed very hard for a trade instead of just waiting half a season to sign with the Knicks in free agency, presumably because being traded before the deadline allowed him to sign a more lucrative contract with the team he really wanted to play for, the Knicks. The result was that the Knicks basically gutted their roster to acquire him and then spent a significant chunk of their salary cap room to resign him. That’s fine, as he has every right to put money over winning. Many of us do the same thing in our own professional careers, so I do not think it makes him innately evil or something silly like that.

However, in the aftermath of the Nuggets-Knicks trade, history was revised in the sense it was all pinned on James Dolan, an easy and favorite media target, and everybody seemed to forget Carmelo’s central role in forcing the trade. I bring this up because now that the Knicks are falling further and further behind in the Eastern Conference playoffs race I can only imagine the litany of articles that we will be treated to this summer (it’s already started) about how unhappy Carmelo is and how much he wants to be traded.

23) New Orleans Pelicans (23-37)- At least Anthony Davis gets to live in New Orleans!

24) Milwaukee Bucks (25-36)- Everybody makes dumb decisions, especially when they’re a NBA GM. Once upon a time I was convinced that Corey Brewer was a future NBA all-star and once upon another time I thought Derrick Williams was going to be a very good NBA player. So, I understand when teams make bad draft picks and free-agent signings. However, with that having been said, I think that it was extremely obvious that the Bucks’ decision to sign Greg Monroe was not going to pan out when they made it, especially given the Bucks’ lack of shooting at other positions.

25) Denver Nuggets (24-37)- Injuries aside, I still really like the Nuggets’ future. They have some question marks, most notably said injuries and certain players such as Emmanuel Mudiay, but I’d much rather much rather have their roster than that of most of the teams immediately ahead of them in this month’s power rankings.

26) Minnesota Timberwolves (19-42)- I’m a little befuddled why they have not had a better year. It’s not like I expected them to make the playoffs, but they only have two more wins than the Nets. Of course, they have a very bright future, but it’s a little disconcerting that they haven’t taken a bigger step forward this season.

27) Brooklyn Nets (17-44)- It took Billy King totally sabotaging the Nets’ future to do it, but it appears that the Nets have finally wised up to the fact that trading away all your first-round draft picks for players past their primes is not a good idea. Maybe Sean Marks is a good GM or maybe he is a bad one, but he can’t be worse than Billy King.

28) Phoenix Suns (15-46)- The good news is that they finally got rid of Markieff Morris, and surprisingly got a real asset and salary cap relief in return. The bad news is that their roster is full of overpaid and oft-injured players who don’t mesh very well.

29) Los Angeles Lakers (12-50)- NBA players’ (and most other professional athletes’) interactions with the media tend to be fairly mundane and scripted. Of course, if player X says the wrong thing, e.g. he doesn’t like his coach, he is in grave danger of starting a narrative that he is a coach-killer and liability to his team. If player Y takes an unpopular political stand then he is inviting scorn on social media, from the media, etc. The result is that most NBA players have public personas akin to robots. Of course, occasionally the façade is lifted and we are treated to classic comments like Jordan Clarkson warning D’Angelo Russell to “not say anything crazy” when the latter was asked a leading question about current coach Byron Scott during All-Star Weekend.

30) Philadelphia 76ers (8-53)- Once upon a time NBA teams drafted players purely based on need instead of actual talent level. That led to some comically historically bad draft picks and acquisitions. So, teams wised up eventually and now the trend is reversed, but it’s gotten to the point where some NBA teams are doing the polar opposite and only draft based on talent level instead of need. I bring this up because the 76ers group of big men is Exhibit 1B (Exhibit 1A was the Suns attempting to acquire as many ball-dominant guards as possible and then trading the best one away for a very late first-round draft pick). During the “Trust the Process Era” the 76ers have spent very high draft picks on Nerlens Noel, Jahlil Okafor, Joel Embiid, and Dario Saric.

None of these picks are terrible in the sense you could have justified drafting all of them in a vacuum. Unfortunately, this is a basketball team, so players’ skills have to complement each other and fit together. Imagine you are opening a high-end restaurant and your budget allows you to hire four top-notch employees. Would you hire four top-notch pastry chefs and then hire your irresponsible sixteen year-old nieces and nephews to staff the rest of the restaurant? Probably not, as your customers might rave about your desert, but their overall meal would be subpar and the service would be terrible, so they are unlikely to come back. Worse yet, at least some of your amazing pastry chefs will end up quitting because they would feel overqualified for the job since very few kitchens need four highly-qualified pastry chefs. So, why would you do this to a basketball team like this?

Luckily for the 76ers, Sam Hinkie seems to have inherited his former boss Daryl Morey’s magic gift for convincing the national NBA media that if you’re really vocal about using analytics then you must know what you’re doing. Even with his position being usurped by Jerry Colangelo he still has many more defenders than detractors writing for ESPN, Yahoo Sports, etc. Imagine if a GM that the media likes to pick on, e.g. Doc Rivers or Vlade Divac, spent all his first-round draft picks for players that play the same position.

Chris Linnan is currently a Fulbright Fellow in Indonesia, who has a life-long basketball and politics addiction.  If you want to receive an alert every time CLT publishes an article please send an email to clthoughts2015@gmail.com with the subject Mailing List.

 

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One thought on “March NBA Power Rankings

  1. Pingback: NBA Off-season Grades | CLT

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