Week 5 NBA Power Rankings: A new No. 1 in the Boston Celtics
Like a phoenix from the ashes, I rise again. Back from a three week hiatus, Willie G is here to bring the people what they want: Spicy NBA Power Rankings. Many things have changed since I entered my NBA cloister; I’ve grown a garbage excuse for a beard, my house has heating and plenty of other things you the reader don’t care about. Let’s stop dillydallying, here are my relatively well-educated NBA takes.
30. The Sacramento Kings
Hey, they don’t have the worst record in the NBA, but boy are the Kings trying. With the NBA’s worst offense and 28th ranked defense, Sacramento really brings its all to its tanking. It’s second option, Buddy Hield, is out for the next several games and there doesn’t look to be a single star on this squad. Hey, on the bright side these are all “high character” individuals, so at least one of Sacramento’s goals was accomplished.
29. The Dallas Mavericks
Give credit where credit is due, Dallas isn’t even remotely hiding its tanking aspirations. While Sacramento hides behind signing expensive veterans, Atlanta claims a “youth movement,” and no one knows what GarPax ever thinks, Dallas openly tanks. Sure, Mark Cuban can say things like “…until we’re eliminated, we ain’t tanking” but let’s not kid ourselves. They were most definitely tanking last season when they started off 4-16 in their first 20 games. This year they’re 3-14 in their first 17. Instead of subjecting Dallas to the butt of many jokes, I’ll instead focus on something more positive.
Salah Mejri is likely a name you’ve never heard of. It might surprise you then to find out the 31-year-old Tunisian is a three-year NBA veteran and quietly one of the most productive defensive centers in the game. While on the court, opponents score an average of 8.0 points less than they would against a non Mejri line-up. He’s quietly usurped Nerlens Noel’s spot as closing center. His per-36 minute stats project him as a high quality backup big. With substantial playtime, Mejri could potentially average 10 rebounds a game, severing as a stifling presence in the paint for a contender. His age doesn’t fall into line with Dallas’ post-Golden State timeline, so don’t be surprised to see the big man traded to a contender who needs rebounding and defense (Boston and Cleveland look like suitors) before the trade deadline. In the meantime, keep an eye out on this NBA diamond (maybe more like a shiny penny) in the rough.
28. The Chicago Bulls
Sorry Chicago, I don’t have the mental endurance to write two paragraphs about every terrible team in the league. Lauri Markkanen looks pretty solid, flashing some Dirk-esque spot up midrangers. Though the Jimmy Butler trade still looks like a fleecing in hindsight, perhaps a Markkanen/LaVine/No. 1 overall draft pick core could make some noise in a few years. That said, to describe this franchise as anything besides “floundering” would be generous.
27. The Atlanta Hawks
John Collins and Taurean Prince are pretty good NBA players. Both could be a rotation player on a real NBA team. You know who else could be a real rotation player on a real NBA contender? Dewayne Dedmon, Ersan Ilyasova and Kent Bazemore come to mind. Atlanta already has three first-round picks in the 2018 draft, why not add a few more? Dedmon and Ilyasova both are on reasonable contracts, and Bazemore’s lofty contract could serve as balancing for a team looking to get bad salary off the books. Atlanta isn’t the league’s worst team, they beat the Kings by 46 last Wednesday. But if they want to speed up their rebuilding process, maybe they should ship off anyone contributing to winning.
26. The Los Angeles Lakers
In any normal week, Lonzo Ball recording a second triple-double in 17 total NBA games would be the headline story for the Lakers. This week, however, Lonzo’s dad once again wrestled the spotlight away. A political scientist in my academic world, never in my life did I think I’d get to write the sentence, “The President of the United States of America is beefing with an NBA player’s father.” But here we are, The President of the United States of America is beefing with an NBA player’s father. Trump tweeted that, “…LaVar Ball, the father of LiAngelo, is unaccepting of what I did for his son and that shoplifting is no big deal. I should have left them in jail!” Sure this isn’t about Lonzo, but I’d much rather talk about Lavar and Trump than I would a team that went 2-2 and looks to grab a mid-tier draft pick. God I love the NBA.
25. The Phoenix Suns
For a team that’s tanking, boy the Phoenix Suns are doing a terrible job at tanking. To quote reddit user u/Chi_bulls_4, “The biggest concern for Phoenix is they have been way too dynamic offensively to the tune of scoring 110+ points in 5 of their last six games.” Phoenix ended up losing their tanking contest against the Bulls (losing by winning the game), even with Markkanen trying his best. This brings Phoenix to an almost respectable 7-11. T.J. Warren has looked respectable, so does Troy Daniels. Jay Triano is impressively leading the Suns to more wins than this roster deserves, and if his price tag is cheap enough, might be the full time head coach of the suns.
24. The Brooklyn Nets
I haven’t made a self-deprecating joke about myself yet in these rankings. Luckily enough for me, the Brooklyn Nets provide just such an opportunity. Just like my love life, the Brooklyn Nets started off hot. They were constantly messaging with this cute girl, got lunch with her and would walk back from class/work together. From an outsider perspective it looked like this attempt at dating was going too far exceed expectations (those expectations manifesting themselves as me maybe not still being single). Then, two weeks after the Nets started flirting with not being the league’s worst team, ya boi got ghosted. I’m not upset though, because while I still might be single and lonely, at least Cleveland gets a good draft pick out of it. Maybe I’ll go on a night out, almost seal the deal after the guy she was hitting on fouls out and then have Klay Thompson drain like three three-pointers right in my face like Brooklyn had happen to them Sunday night. This section just got really depressing.
23: The L.A. Clippers
Ooo-wee, I go away for three weeks, just three weeks, and the once respectable Clippers now look like an injury ridden garbage fire. They started out so promising, 5-2 with the league’s 5th best defensive rating and a myriad of good offensive weapons. Now, they’ve lost nine straight and have the second-worst defensive efficiency in the league. Is this because Milos got injured? I think it was Milos. Have I mentioned I love Milos’ game? Because I do.
On a serious note, LAC’s injury list currently consists of: Patrick Beverley, Austin Rivers, Danilo Gallinari, and Milos Teodosic. That’s the Clippers’ starting back court, their primary backup point guard and their starting small forward. Even the best team in the league couldn’t handle losses like that. Hopefully a speedy recovery by this team returns them back to at least average, but injuries raise major concerns regarding this teams long term success.
22. The Miami Heat
The Heat aren’t actually this bad, at least I don’t think so. For the most part, Miami’s losses could be chalked up to missing Dion Waiters during a majority of their games. Unfortunately, a loss against the Indiana Pacers might prove me otherwise. Dion Waiters went 0-for-10 during that game, just getting destroyed on both ends. Additionally, Miami is IMPRESSIVELY BAD during the third quarter. Their offensive rating (if the team were to play at that exact level for the entire game, the offensive rating is what the score would be) is a league lowest 80.7. Miami’s third quarters also provide the most consistent betting option in the NBA, with 68 percent of wagers against the Heat providing a pay-out. A few positive notes, Josh Richardson, Hassan Whiteside and Goran Dragic are all surprisingly effective defenders. If Justice Winslow can improve his own game, this could genuinely perform at a top 10 defensive level.
21. The Charlotte Hornets
Right after talking about the Miami Heat, I get to acknowledge another incorrect preseason prediction. These Charlotte Hornets aren’t particularly great. I assumed that these guys would end up producing as a top four team in the East, right now they’re a bottom four squad. Kemba Walker, an All-Star quality point guard, dropped 47 points against the Chicago Bulls. That’s good. It’d be better if his team could have won that game. It’s especially bad that they surrendered 123 points to one of the league’s worst offenses. I thought treading water might suffice in the East, clearly it hasn’t.
20. The Utah Jazz
Before Rudy Gobert went down, the Jazz bolstered a premier internal defense. Without him, not so much. Derrick Favors’ play is impressive, but that’s about it. A team that was initially poised to combat for the 7/8 seed against Memphis/LAC/New Orleans now looks paltry. I can still gush about Donovan Mitchell for days, but without their All-Star/All-Defense caliber center, this squad looks like it’s heading nowhere quick.
19. The Indiana Pacers
Indiana still looks like a prime regression candidate. All credit to Indiana, even hovering around .500 is far above expectations but I am concerned this team won’t keep this level. Their best player, Victor Oladipo is shooting .446 from three point range, up from .361 on OKC. Those numbers should slightly regress. Domantas Sabonis similarly is putting up a .609 effective field goal percentage which has to regress. What is notable is even regression towards the mean would provide those two individuals might actually provide the return Indiana’s front office would like.
But I don’t want to talk about the Pacers potential long term, rather, I’d like to talk about the fantastic trade position Indiana finds themselves in. Similar to Atlanta, Indiana has several fantastic trade options. Darren Collison has a cool $10 million over two years for a quality backup point guard. Cory Joseph is $7.6 million and a player option next year. Thaddeus Young has $13 million and a player option. Lance Stephenson is $4 million with a team option next year and Al Jefferson is owed a $10 million dollar team option next season. If they can clear Young and Joseph (or at least convince them to opt out of their options) Indiana would be a premier free agent signing destination. They’d have $46 million in cap space, which while they might not directly use, could be used in a sign and trade. Similarly, Joseph and Young’s likelihood to opt out and Stephenson and Jefferson’s team control make them premier options for a salary dump. These aren’t generally trades that happen at the deadline, but after the season to clear space for free agency. Indiana might not be a premier location from a 25-year-old millionaire’s perspective but there might not be a better situation for a general manager.
18. The Orlando Magic
From one regression candidate to another, Orlando just wasn’t the team that casual NBA fans thought they were. They are the true definition of average from an offensive and defensive rating stance. Their offensive rating comes in as the 15th in the league, and defense is the 16th. Orlando demonstrates the exact winning formula for these “worse” teams that do well. Similar to Indiana and Brookyln, Orlando is bringing the pace. Averaging 100 possessions a game, this team runs fast. This strategy worked particularly well to begin the season when older teams were still working their way back into shape and a shortened preseason limited first team reps, but a month into the season the 30 year olds are ready to go.
17. The Memphis Grizzlies
So on one hand, Memphis looks pretty good for trying several redemption projects at the same time. Specifically Tyreke Evans looks quality; posting a .571 effective field goal percentage and traditional stats closer to his Rookie of the Year campaign than any of his sad New Orleans Pelicans times. Let’s look at the other hand, they have a below average offense and defense, Mike Conley might be out for an extended time and this team looks like it’ll eek its way into an eighth seed at best. Since losing Conley, the Griz have dropped four in a row by at least a 12-point margin. Depending on the extent of the injury Memphis might need to readjust this season’s plans.
16. The New York Knicks
Come on New York Knicks, why couldn’t you have just waited one more year to start getting good? Then you could run an all euro line-up of Frank Ntilikina/Luka Doncic/Willy Hernangomez/Kristaps Porzingis/Enis Kanter. I don’t care if three of those players are centers. Oh… I have to actually talk about basketball. The Knicks are ok, maybe they’ll make the playoffs. I like Europe.
15. The New Orleans Pelicans
New Orleans’ scheme revolves around the idea that with two centers (neither of which apparently enjoy being referred to as a center) should get just about every single rebound. In actuality, New Orleans rank 11th in Defensive rebounding rate and 22nd in offensive rebounding. These numbers have to go up right? Rondo’s return added a nice punch but he’s still clearly on a minute’s restriction. What is interesting is during a contract year, DeMarcus Cousins is putting up career highs in points per game, rebounds per game and assists per game with a 27/13/5 score line for the season. Those are some MVP-caliber numbers.
14. The Milwaukee Bucks
What do you know, Eric Bledsoe is a pretty good NBA player. Despite an abysmal three-point percentage caused by a known knee issue, Bledsoe’s provided everything that Milwaukee could have wanted. He’s a capable ball handler, an excellent pick-and-roll orchestrator and can drive to the rim with explosive athleticism. Additionally Bledsoe adds another potential defensive weapon for Jason Kidd to squander. That last one felt like a cheap shot.
13. The Oklahoma City Thunder
Oklahoma City has the league’s 5th best net rating in the NBA, so why then are they 2 games under .500? Close losses on the road might point to some answers. In five straight road losses, the Thunder lost by four to the Blazers, three to the Timberwolves, eight to the Nuggets, three to the Spurs and now seven to the Pelicans. A deeper dive finds most of these losses are ceded in the second half, with the Thunder struggling to maintain their lead. Two faults could be attributed to these woes. First, Westbrook is playing at a far less efficient rate than last year, taking fewer three-point attempts and having a lower overall field goal percentage. Second, the Thunder seemingly have a shaky front court rotation with limited depth. Patterson’s size limits him more to the four, giving OKC few options at center outside Steven Adams. Lowering the burden on the front court could see OKC giving up fewer of these close losses.
12. The Portland Trailblazers
Portland pretty much hasn’t changed in the past several weeks. They’re still great at scoring when CJ or Dame runs the floor and aren’t when those two don’t. They’re also quietly an elite defense, which is something I wouldn’t have expected without looking at the stats. However, I’m more focused on the fact that McCollum used the line “You’re sweet and soft like those crepes you eat” as trash talk. I mean Fournier is French. Nah, no one gets away with such creative trash talk without a shout out in the power rankings. Good on you CJ.
11. The Philadelphia 76ers
This power rankings is full with me admitting I was wrong. Let me just come clean on a few more things while we’re at it. First, I was the biggest proponent on betting the under on Philadelphia’s 42.5 win line. It looked absolutely absurd at the time. A second thing I was wrong about, Dennis Smith Jr. was the clear cut favorite in my eyes to win ROY. The answer to why I was wrong on both of these things is the same, Ben Simmons. I don’t believe anyone expected Simmons to be this good this quick. He plays with the speed and agility of a guard, with the size of a small center. His passing vision ranks up with LeBron James and Magic Johnson and by god I might be calling it early, but he’ll stand with Giannis and Anthony Davis as the next generation’s premier stars. I even think there’s a chance Simmons could make an All-Star game this year. He’d be the first rookie since Blake Griffin, and only the third individual since the year 2000 to accomplish such a feat (Yao Ming was voted an All-Star in 2003, but similar to Zaza Pachulia, his votes primarily came from Chinese nationals rather than due to his statical feats). This team has me finally trusting the process.
10. The Washington Wizards
The Wizards don’t have everything figured out just yet. They’re still struggling on the defensive end of the ball and, surprise surprise, their bench isn’t particularly good. I do really like their addition of Kelly Oubre into the starting line-up at small-ball power forward. That said, complaining about good teams sometimes feels like picking at straws. Washington still is tied with Cleveland for the fourth-best record in the East, simply waiting for Detroit to regress. At their current pace, this is at least a second round playoff team.
9. The Detroit Pistons
Ignore the fact that Cleveland handed Detroit a royal smack down at home, this team actually looks to have taken that “next step” they supposedly were making after their last playoff appearance. The biggest contributor? Andre Drummond. Shooting an impressive rate on free throws (up to 61% from his career average 39%) he’s no longer a fourth quarter liability. Don’t scoff at the notion that these guys might just grab home court advantage in the first round of the NBA playoffs.
8. The Minnesota Timberwolves
It’s interesting, I tend to only read about the flaws of the Timberwolves, and if I were presented with most articles about the Minnesota boys out of context, I’d assume this was some sort of sub .500 team. Instead, at 10-7, Minnesota is primed to make their first playoff appearance in years (14 years in fact). They’re on a two game losing streak yes, they have some issues in the fourth quarter as well, but overall this is a good basketball team with the potential to become a great one. Also, somewhat unrelated, but a Timberwolves beat writer compared the Wolves offense to that of an Elephant Shark, and that might be the ugliest animal I’ve ever seen.
7. The Denver Nuggets
So, here’s a pretty sad thing. Paul Milsap isn’t going to play for at least another 2-3 months. Their All-Star addition during free agency was a fantastic pickup and absolutely complimented their scheme. That said his age limited his effectiveness for more than a year or two and suddenly Denver’s seeming lock into playoffs has been picked (I’m sorry that was a terrible pun). Here’s the good news. Denver never offloaded Kenneth Faried who can slot immediately into Denver’s lineup. In addition Juancho Hernangomez is brimming with offensive talent and could possibly break into Denver’s starting 5 with a few good games. Maybe this isn’t such a bummer after all.
6. The Toronto Raptors
If it wasn’t for Cleveland’s absolute beatdown of Detroit, Toronto would rank among the top 5 teams. Toronto has completely reimagined their offense in an impressive form. Previously relying almost solely on midrange jump shots, they’ve expanded their arsenal to become premier teams at the rim and from three. Though they play at an average pace, their premier skill involves getting to the line. They shoot free-throws on 23% of total possessions. With a top 3 offensive rating and a high average margin of victory, Toronto is a team that should be feared.
5. The Cleveland Cavaliers
Chatting on Facebook with my boss, I predicted that Detroit would eke out a win against Cleveland by somewhere around four points. I was off by about 40 points and the wrong team. I was harsh on the Calderon signing, but that man is clearly a consistent playmaker that with the right team can lock in. Outside one or two noticeably egregious defensive lapses, Cleveland played excellent zone defense, forcing Detroit into bad shot after bad shot. I’ve honestly never seen such a meticulous takedown during the regular season. During the past five games, Cleveland has statistically performed almost identically to Golden State, Houston, San Antonio and Toronto, putting them at the top of the statistical table. Kevin Love is in rhythm, LeBron is still LeBron, and Cleveland might actually look like a good team again. Until, you know, they stop caring again.
4. The San Antonio Spurs
The San Antonio Spurs are a lot like me these past couple of weeks. I lost my keys about two weeks ago, causing problems when my roommate locks the door without telling me. However, I’ve managed to work around and conquer this challenge. I happen to climb through my first floor bedroom window that I have to lodge open, but it’s doable and it’s not causing any real problems. The San Antonio Spurs lost something just as important, Kawhi Leonard. Like my keys, Leonard is a critical part of San Antonio’s day to day ability, but with him gone they’ve still found a way to function without him. Just like my bedroom window, LaMarcus Aldridge is averaging 24 points and 8 rebounds to provide an alternate route to victory. The Spurs bench is weak but that’ll improve when Leonard (or my keys, who even knows) return. And for that, I am thankful.
3. The Houston Rockets
Alright, because I’m obligated too, here are some statistics on the Houston Rockets. They’re currently 8th in defensive rating, which is wild for a Mike D’Antoni team. They’ve got the second highest offensive rating in the league, playing above average pace and in general look like serious championship contenders. Why then, do I only want to quickly fire of some stats? I’m currently far more interested in Clutch Gaming, their new eSports franchise. The Houston Rockets bought a professional League of Legends team. I know that sounds ridiculous, but Golden State and Cleveland did as well. With stable investment and increased financial backing, eSports should see massive growth. It as nothing to do with basketball so I can’t actually move any of the three aforementioned teams up in the power rankings, but I can give the Rockets kudos for embracing a new and exciting investment and entertainment opportunity. Also, James Harden is my current MVP ballot candidate, so that’s pretty cool.
2. The Golden State Warriors
Excluding garbage time, the Warriors are taking 31.4 percent of their shots around the rim, down from 36 percent last year. The result? An even higher percentage of jump shots. Golden State looks to have returned to form despite a loss to Boston last week. The reigning champ look good, even if their stats aren’t premier. What more is there to say, this is the best team ever assembled in basketball history. Just enjoy the ride.
1. The Boston Celtics
You know what, I still think that Golden State is going to win the title. That said, what’s the point of weekly power rankings if I’m not going to respect a team that’s won 16 straight? Boston’s been on a tear over the past month and I have to give them real props. They’re playing a highly switchable line-up where just about every single individual can defend multiple positions. The result? A premier defense. Kyrie Irving is playing at a MVP caliber even if he keeps spitting insane and outlandish science takes. Maybe he’s right. If Boston really is being protected by some sort of aura, then maybe I should start taking up veganism as well.
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