April NBA Power Rankings

In a lot of ways the controversy over who LeBron James does and doesn’t follow on social media was the height of comedy. I mean, has there ever been a more heated discussion about whom a 31 year-old man follows on social media? I doubt it, but it’s not out-of-place with the way American media covers events in our country. If a presidential debate can feature the front-runner assuring the audience that his penis works “just fine” after one of his opponents made a disparaging remark about it, then I think it is safe to say we are in a new journalistic age.

So, in the spirit of living in this new journalistic age I have five thoughts on LeBron and the Cavaliers.

1) Does it matter?- Frankly, I don’t think this is much ado about nothing. In a vacuum this would be a silly story, but after a season of passive-aggressive comments, the David Blatt firing, etc. I think it is safe to say LeBron James and the Cavaliers have issues with each other. I don’t think it will have much of an effect on-the-court (remember Kobe and Shaq won all those championships when they hated each other, and how much Michael Jordan (and Phil Jackson) hated Jerry Krause). However, it matters off-the-court since LeBron has basically decided to sign one-year deals with the Cavaliers and he can leave whenever he wants. So, if LeBron leaves this off-season to form another super-team, which is a real threat given that the salary cap is about to skyrocket, nobody will be able to claim it was totally unexpected.

2) LeBron can’t leave (right?).- On the other hand I can’t imagine LeBron leaving Cleveland before winning a championship. He cares about what people say about him; otherwise he would never have gone back to Cleveland. If you thought that he received a lot of grief for his decision to bolt the first time, then imagine what people are going to say if he does it a second time. I could see him forcing the Cavs to trade for some of his superstar friends, which means they would have to get rid of Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love, but I don’t think LeBron will leave Cleveland until he wins at least one championship.

3) If he does leave, what’s the Cavs’ plan?- Even if LeBron leaves I think this is still a pretty good Cavaliers squad. They have two stars, good role players, etc. So, while LeBron James’ departure would most certainly make them worse, it would not be the end of the world for the Cavs.

4) The Cavaliers are still my pick to win the NBA championship.- Every year LeBron coasts through the regular season, and talking heads spend an inordinate amount of time sprouting out various theories about his decline and issues. Well, LeBron may no longer be in his prime, but he has appeared in the last five NBA finals and I don’t see how he doesn’t do so again this year. If NBA fans had to bet their life savings on whether the Cavaliers win the East, what percentage would bet against them? 10%? 15%?

The NBA playoffs are not structured to encourage upsets. Frankly, the only team that I could possibly imagine beating the Cavs in the East is the Heat, who have a 2-1 record against the Cavs this year. I’ve written about it before, but the Heat have the depth, the ability to compete on both ends, and the athletes necessary to slow down LeBron to win a seven-game series. Of course, I’d still put money on the Cavs, but we will see. So, assuming they win the East the challenge will be their Finals opponent.

Last year the Cavaliers took two games off a very hungry Warriors team that peaked at the right time despite the Cavs missing two of their three best players and being led by a head coach whom LeBron openly ignored and overruled. Their offense basically consisted of everybody clearing out and then LeBron trying to create something, like a church league basketball team that features one very good player and a bunch of kids who have never played basketball before. Yet, they STILL managed to be competitive in five out of six games against a fantastic Warriors team.

5) Keeping sports in perspective.- I always appreciated Charles Barkley’s argument that athletes should not be role models just because they can dunk a basketball or run a 4.4 forty yard dash. Sir Charles pointed out that there are a million guys in jail who can dunk a basketball and you wouldn’t use them as role models (note I’m paraphrasing his argument, but you get the drift). So, before we give sanctimonious speeches about how LeBron owes Cleveland and thus can’t leave, or about what an amazing guy he is, let’s remember he’s just a man who happens to be a tremendously talented basketball player. You don’t know LeBron (and neither do I), so let’s not act like his decision to stay in or leave Cleveland is some personal affront to us.

Well, let’s extend this to being fans of sports teams. Sports teams are businesses that exist to make a profit, not provide a public service. Over the past decade or so we’ve become more cognizant of the fact that providing professional sports teams with extremely large taxpayer subsidies doesn’t usually make sense, especially since many states and cities are facing drastic budget shortfalls. Unlike a lot of sports columnists I don’t think when a team like the Rams moves from St. Louis to Los Angeles it is a national catastrophe. You wouldn’t begrudge a local restaurant for closing down and moving to a new location. You might be upset because you really liked the food, but you wouldn’t write angry articles, stand in the street and protest, or issue resentful public statements that sound like something a middle-schooler who just was broken up with would say. If you did everybody else would make fun of you (and rightfully so). So, let’s calm down and remember it’s just sports. In the meantime here are my April NBA power rankings.

1) Golden State Warriors (68-7)- Remember when everybody acted like the Warriors’ refusal to trade Klay Thompson for James Harden or Kevin Love was a crime? I do, so let’s pump the brakes on the idea that the Warriors have to go all-out to add Kevin Durant. If we’ve learned anything from the past decade, it’s that teaming up big names does not automatically equal success. You have to make sure their skill sets fit together, and I think there is a legitimate question how well Kevin Durant would fit alongside Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson. So, I don’t see the point of gutting your team for one more superstar.

Of course, if the Warriors can swing some type of deal where the only player they give up is Harrison Barnes, then I could get on-board with adding KD, but preferably not on a LeBron-like deal that Durant can opt-out of after a year. Warriors have built a fantastic team around two 26 year-olds and a 28 year-old. So, it’s not like they only have a two-three year window for being a championship contender.

2) San Antonio Spurs (63-12)- This is an example of a team that added a max-level free-agent, LaMarcus Aldridge, to an already outstanding team, and didn’t have to gut their roster or give him a lot of leverage by allowing him to leave after a year.   The Spurs got who they wanted, but on their terms.

3) Cleveland Cavaliers (53-22)- The thing that bothers me the most about Tristan Thompson’s obscene contract is that the Cavs could have signed somebody like Reggie Evans for the veterans’ minimum and he would have provided the same type of production (great rebounding, no offense, scrappy defense, etc.). He could even have been the enforcer that LeBron complained was missing earlier this season; instead Tristan Thompson gets paid fifteen times that to provide the same service.

Imagine if we took that approach to other walks of life, e.g. you’re looking for somebody to cut your lawn, and you can choose between a random neighborhood gardener or your kid. If they provide a similar quality of service, you would probably choose your child, but not if you are going to be charged $300 every time they mow your lawn (plus you have to guarantee them you are going to use them the next five times you need your lawn mowed) when you could hire a local gardener for $20 whose job security is contingent on their performance. Well, the Cavs chose to hire their kid at an obscene above-market rate.

4) Oklahoma City Thunder (53-23)- If only Reggie Jackson played in the Western Conference we would have a budding Thunder-Pistons rivalry.

5) Los Angeles Clippers (47-28)- I’m a little concerned that Lance Stephenson has played so well after leaving the Clippers. The Clippers desperately needed (and still do) a wing player who could contribute on offense and lock-down the opposing team’s best perimeter scorer, but for whatever reason Lance Stephenson wasn’t it. Come playoff time it looks like J.J. Redick and Jeff Green will be filling this role, which is good news for opposing wings looking to score lots of points.

6) Toronto Raptors (51-24)- I know they are only two games behind the Cavs, but it feels like it should be more. On one hand I think that they get 100% from their roster during the regular season, which is obviously a great thing. On the other hand I doubt that 100% from this roster will be enough in the playoffs against the Cavs.

7) Atlanta Hawks (45-31)- Do you remember when you used to be able to win the Eastern Conference with a “big three” of Jason Kidd-Kenyon Martin-Richard Jefferson or a “big two” of Allen Iverson-a very washed-up Dikembe Mutombo? Well, I think the current Hawks roster could have dominated the East if we put them in a time machine and sent them back to the early-2000s, but I don’t think they have a shot against the Cavs in a seven-game series.

8) Miami Heat (43-31)- Again, this is the only Eastern Conference team that I think has a realistic chance of upsetting the Cavaliers in the playoffs. They’ve even managed to rejuvenate Joe Johnson.

9) Boston Celtics (43-32)- My biggest concern about Marcus Smart isn’t that he is shooting an abysmal 34% from the field or that he is shooting 25% from behind the three-point line. Rather, it’s that despite his poor shooting he is still attempting more than four three-pointers per game. There is most definitely always a spot for a hard-nosed lockdown defender on a NBA roster, but if that same player sabotages your offense with bad shots is he worth it?

10) Memphis Grizzlies (41-35)- I know Matt Barnes is crazy, and if you were to make a list of players most likely to instigate “Malice at the Palace Part II” or physically assault his coach, opposing players, etc. he would be number one by a significant margin, but I think he’s very underrated. Frankly, I think all of his on and off-court issues have overshadowed the positive things he does for a team, e.g. his great defense, underrated offensive ability, etc. Plus, he’s almost always been signed to team-friendly deals (I think his off-court reputation at least partially explains that).

However, most NBA fans (and all non-NBA fans) know him as the guy who brawled with Derek Fisher over Gloria Govan or somebody who is consistently featured in ESPN segments where various analysts discuss his latest incident. So, we forget how well he’s played for various contending teams and that a lot of the positive things he does for his team don’t show up on the stat sheet. It’s similar to how we view players like Ron Artest or Dennis Rodman, who will be forever remembered for the crazy things they did and said instead of what they did on the court.

11) Charlotte Hornets (44-31)- I spent the last ten minutes having an internal debate whether the Hornets should give Nicolas Batum a max contract this offseason. Frankly, so many NBA teams are going to have cap space this summer that somebody is destined to offer him whatever the max is. So, the Hornets will have to decide if he is worth that type of commitment. The pros of giving him a max contract are that he is only 27, so it’s not like he is going to decline significantly during his next contract and he’s a very solid two-way player. If the Hornets lose him it will hurt and they have only two options they can replace him with and hope to receive relatively similar production. The first is drafting a rookie wing, who will most likely take a lot of time to develop or signing an overpriced free-agent wing, which kind-of defeats the point of letting him walk.

12) Portland Trail Blazers (40-36)- The cons of signing Nicolas Batum to a max-level contract are that his previous team the Trail Blazers got so frustrated with him they were willing to trade him for Noah Vonleh and Gerald Henderson. He’s good at everything, but not great at any one particular thing and maybe he’s not going to decline significantly, but he’s also unlikely to get a lot better. Finally, I don’t recall a role player ever being signed to a superstar-level contract and the team not regretting it. So, I’m not on-board with a hypothetical max (or close to that) contract.

13) Dallas Mavericks (38-38)- Few NBA coaches get more out of their players than Rick Carlisle, but it feels like the Mavericks are just prolonging the inevitable rebuild by finishing in the middle of the Western Conference every year. That’s not the end of the world, but at some point the Mavericks will most likely have to get significantly worse before they get better.

14) Detroit Pistons (40-36)-I like what Stan Van Gundy has done a lot, but I think the Pistons need at least one more good player before they are a serious contender in the East.

15) Indiana Pacers (39-36)- Ditto for the Pacers who are at least one more good player away from being a serious contender in the East.

16) Chicago Bulls (38-37)- I am very confused how Tom Thibodeau is still unemployed. All you have to do is turn on the TV and watch a Bulls game to see how much worse the Bulls look without him to realize how good of a coach he is. Maybe he was difficult to get along with, but in a league where many head coaching positions are filled with guys who have proven multiple times they are mediocre (at best) head coaches, why not hire somebody with a proven track record?

17) Houston Rockets (37-39)- On behalf of everybody who has ever owned Michael Beasley in fantasy basketball I would like to say we feel a little bit validated that he’s played so well since coming back from China. Of course, it would have been nicer if he could have played at this level a few years ago, but I’m happy that he is finally starting to fulfill some of his vast potential.

Granted he still doesn’t seem to know that it’s legal to pass a basketball and his defense still leaves a lot to be desired, but he’s scoring a lot of points and even shooting a high percentage while doing it. No, I didn’t pick him up off the waiver wire (mostly because one and a half seasons of 5-13 shooting performances with 4 rebounds and no other significant statistical contributions soured me forever), but I’m impressed and a little peeved this couldn’t have happened a few years ago.

18) Utah Jazz (37-38)- Speaking of finishing in the middle of the Western Conference every year it’s the Utah Jazz!

19) Washington Wizards (36-39)- The good news is that the Wizards are close to overtaking the Chicago Bulls in the Eastern Conference standings, which would have been fantastic if this was one month ago. The bad news is that it’s not one month ago, so all the Wizards are doing now is decreasing the odds that their lottery pick will be higher. Luckily, they still own their first-round draft pick because they didn’t panic trade it, so they can use it to improve their team for next season. Whoops, never mind, it was traded for a disgruntled role player. My bad.

20) Denver Nuggets (32-45)- There is no NBA young player that I am more torn about than Emmanuel Mudiay. On one hand there aren’t a lot of twenty year-old 6’5 point guards with his type of athleticism. On the other hand he’s shooting 35% from the field and doesn’t seem look like a natural point guard. Players improve over the course of their careers, but I don’t think you can make an unnatural point guard into a natural one.

21) Sacramento Kings (30-45)- If Rasheed Wallace can be an integral part of a championship team then DeMarcus Cousins can too. I know the national sports media likes to pretend otherwise, but there is absolutely no correlation between being a likable person and being good at sports. So, on a semi-related note, I urge (really beg) sportswriters covering the NBA to stop trying to shove stories down our throats about what an amazing person Stephen Curry is. I love watching him play and he is most definitely the best player in the NBA right now, but his basketball skills have absolutely nothing to do with what a selfless and amazing guy he is.

We know this because we lived through the revelations that athletes like Roger Clemens, Barry Bonds, Tiger Woods, and Lance Armstrong were world-class douchebags despite dominating their respective sports. Well, once upon a time sportswriters wrote glowing stories about these athletes that made them sound like they were a mix of Rambo and Mother Teresa. Then, once the truth started coming out, the national sports media apparently made a pact to pretend these stories were never written and published. So, if you write a sports column that a lot of people read, please stop writing puff pieces glorifying athletes with whom you have very limited and scripted interactions.

22) Milwaukee Bucks (32-44)- I feel like I write the same blurb for the Bucks every month, so let’s save everybody time and make it one sentence. You can’t win in the NBA in 2016 by fielding a team that can’t space the floor and relies on old-school post-up players.

23) Orlando Magic (32-44)- I currently live in Medan, Indonesia and we have one Irish pub in a swanky mall downtown. The manager is an Irishman who looks just like Nikola Vucevic, albeit shorter. I couldn’t think of anything else to write about the Magic, so that’s your Chris Linnan NBA fun fact of the month.

24) New York Knicks (31-46)- I could write a thousand words about why replacing Derek Fisher with Kurt Rambis was a bad idea or I could just hyperlink a WSJ article.

25) New Orleans Pelicans (28-47)- I love Anthony Davis and I am sure that the decision to shut him down for the rest of the season was at least partially motivated by a desire to improve the Pelicans’ lottery odds, but I am a little concerned that he’s played four seasons and the most games he has played in any one of them is 68.

26) Minnesota Timberwolves (25-50)- My biggest long-term concern about the Timberwolves is pairing Andrew Wiggins with Ricky Rubio. In today’s NBA, having a point guard and a wing who are not very good at shooting (plus Gorgui Dieng who isn’t a shooter either) on the floor at the same time makes it very easy to play defense. Smart teams will just pack the lane and make the Timberwolves shoot jumpers to beat them, which they won’t be able to do unless Rubio or Wiggins become significantly better shooters.

27) Phoenix Suns (20-55)- I don’t care how many anonymous reports surface about how close LaMarcus Aldridge was to signing with the Suns, I just don’t believe it. Would you rather play in your home state with no income tax for the most consistently successful 21st century NBA team or play for a middling team loaded with bad contracts in Arizona? I think the answer is obvious, but if you do choose to sign with the latter team you have to live with the consequences (cough Tyson Chandler cough).

28) Brooklyn Nets (21-55)- I know it has been a long season, but Brook Lopez has played some fantastic basketball this year. He’s averaging 20 ppg, 8 rpg, and 1.8 blg, and has only missed three games this season.

29) Los Angeles Lakers (16-59)- A lot has been written and said about D’Angelo Russell, but Julius Randle is very quietly averaging a double-double. That’s pretty impressive considering the player leading the Lakers in assists is Russell with 3.5 APG and the player who has the second-most APG is Marcelo Huertas, who averages less than 15 minutes per game.

30) Philadelphia 76ers (9-67)- The 76ers trade of Michael Carter-Williams to the Bucks reminds me of the Browns fleecing the Colts by trading them Trent Richardson before the rest of the league realized he just wasn’t a very good player. Is Carter-Williams a NBA role player? Possibly in the right situation if his team can compensate for his lack of shooting. Is he the future Bucks starting point guard? Probably not, especially given the lack of shooting for the Bucks at other positions, unless the plan is to go 30-52 every year.

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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