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A Modest Proposal (12/08)

December 6, 2008
Prospectus Hoops List
December 6, 2008

by Bradford Doolittle

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The list has stabilized this week, with the top five teams unchanged. The Cavaliers remain stubbornly wedged between the Lakers and Celtics, reminding those who care to notice that perhaps that Boston/LA rematch is not a foregone conclusion. Cleveland's status isn't likely to change anytime soon, thanks to a soft December schedule. Indeed, LeBron and company may be on the top of the heap by the turn of the calendar. Meanwhile, the question remains: Can anyone close the gap on the Lakers in the West?

RANK (Last Week) Team (Power rating) [ WIN PACE / PYTHAGOREAN PACE / PRESEASON PROJECTION ]

(Statistics through Dec. 4)

1. (1) Los Angeles Lakers (69.8) [ 72 / 69 / 49 ]
Rankings: NET: 2; OFF: 3; DEF: 2; PACE: 3

I just have to say it once about Trevor Ariza and I'll never do it again: I told you so.

2. (2) Cleveland Cavaliers (69.7) [ 68 / 69 / 44 ]
Rankings: NET: 1; OFF: 1; DEF: 4; PACE: 19

The NBA named LeBron James and Chris Paul as the Players of the Month in their respective conferences for November. Good call. James has edged ahead of Paul for the top spot in WP82. With the Cavs and Hornets playing like top-ten teams, this should be a spirited MVP race.

3. (3) Boston Celtics (66.3) [ 73 / 65 / 63 ]
Rankings: NET: 3; OFF: 9; DEF: 1; PACE: 16

Sometimes you get so buried in statistical minutiae that you forget to do something as simple as look at the conference standings in the newspaper. (I hope there are still a few people out there reading those things.) Celtics. Lakers. Is it really so simple? The story in Boston has been the play of Rajon Rondo. The Celtics have four of the top 15 players in the league in WP82, a list which includes Rondo and effectively gives Boston a Big Four. Rondo's triple-double against Indiana on Wednesday was epic: 16 points, 13 rebounds and 17 assists. In the era covered by basketball-reference.com, just Magic Johnson (twice) and Lafayette Lever have hit all three of those marks in the same game.

4. (4) Portland Trail Blazers (59.4) [ 57 / 56 / 38 ]
Rankings: NET: 4; OFF: 2; DEF: 17; PACE: 30

What makes Portland's offense so efficient? That's an involved question, but the short answer is three-point shooting (second highest percentage on fourth-highest rate of attempts) and offensive rebounding (best in the NBA).

5. (5) Denver Nuggets (52.5) [ 53 / 50 / 43 ]
Rankings: NET: 6; OFF: 13; DEF: 6; PACE: 6

Are the Nuggets being overlooked as an elite team? Since Chauncey Billups arrived on the scene, Denver has been one of the NBA's best defensive teams without sacrificing on the offensive end. George Karl need only to sort out his shooting guard rotation to solidify Denver's status as a top-four team in the West. Actually speaking to J.R. Smith might be a good start towards that end.

6. (10) New Orleans Hornets (51.4) [ 51 / 52 / 45 ]
Rankings: NET: 7; OFF: 5; DEF: 16; PACE: 29

Who is top challenger to the Lakers? David West is showing some signs of getting back to last year's form. The Hornets need Tyson Chandler to do the same. Despite the relative struggles of that pair, New Orleans has risen all the way to sixth in the power rankings. They may yet emerge as LA's biggest threat in the West.

7. (6) Detroit Pistons (51.4) [ 53 / 43 / 55 ]
Rankings: NET: 15; OFF: 12; DEF: 19; PACE: 27

Allen Iverson has already manifested his peculiar penchant for offcourt controversy and oncourt paradoxes while Chauncey Billups is being touted as an MVP candidate by George Karl, his new coach in Denver. Let's not pillory Joe Dumars just yet. The Pistons are sinking fast, but let's not lose sight of the fact that no matter what Dumars said about the Iverson trade at the time, this was a move to improve the long-term prospects of his team. This year's squad is winning at .647 rate, but has a Pythagorean profile barely over .500. As those figures begin to merge, you could see Michael Curry cut Iverson's minutes even more in favor of Rodney Stuckey and Arron Afflalo. Detroit isn't on the hook for AI after this year, so the risk of a Stephon Marbury situation is minimal. Either way, we'll learn a lot about Curry as this season unfolds.

8. (8) Houston Rockets (51.3) [ 51 / 51 / 61 ]
Rankings: NET: 8; OFF: 20; DEF: 5; PACE: 25

Shane Battier is back in the lineup, while Tracy McGrady is out. That moves Ron Artest to the two-guard even though he sports a power forward's body at this stage of his career. The Rockets may continue to win, but Houston fans can look forward to some ugly games over the next few weeks.

9. (12) Dallas Mavericks (48.7) [ 45 / 49 / 51 ]
Rankings: NET: 10; OFF: 15; DEF: 8; PACE: 8

The Mavericks are on the move with a dual point-guard attack of Jason Kidd and Jose Juan Barea, a shortened rotation and Jason Terry back in the sixth-man role. Dallas has underperformed its Pythagorean record and has an easier schedule ahead of it then the one that has been played to date.

10. (9) Atlanta Hawks (48.2) [ 53 / 45 / 38 ]
Rankings: NET: 11; OFF: 4; DEF: 18; PACE: 24

Josh Smith is back, playing in his first game in almost a month Wednesday against Memphis. He will clearly help the Hawks' defense, but is it possible that he may actually hurt Atlanta on the offensive end? Despite having Smith available for just five games this season, the Hawks are fourth in the league in offensive efficiency. Joe Johnson has been by far the dominant offensive presence for Atlanta in Smith's absence, with fellow guards Mike Bibby and Flip Murray playing off of him in one of the league's most perimeter-oriented attacks. The Hawks clearly need a healthy Smith to reach their ceiling, but it will be interesting to watch how Mike Woodson re-integrates Smith at the offensive end.

11. (11) Orlando Magic (48.0) [ 60 / 55 / 43 ]
Rankings: NET: 5; OFF: 11; DEF: 3; PACE: 9

Would you have guessed that the Magic sports the third-best defensive efficiency figure in the NBA? They do. Orlando's perimeter defense has been stifling. The Magic are second in the league in three-point percentage against but also rank second in the lowest ratio of three-pointers to overall attempts. Nevertheless, the Magic are sixth in defending two-pointers and third in percentage of blocked shots. The strategy is clear: Pinch the three-point line and funnel everything at Dwight Howard. Good in theory and in practice.

12. (7) Phoenix Suns (43.2) [ 45 / 39 / 49 ]
Rankings: NET: 14; OFF: 6; DEF: 23; PACE: 17

On a per-minute basis, Shaquille O'Neal has been better than Amare Stoudemire this season. That, more than anything, is an indictment of what Terry Porter has done with this team.

13. (13) Indiana Pacers (42.0) [ 31 / 38 / 41 ]
Rankings: NET: 16; OFF: 22; DEF: 13; PACE: 4

When you look the Pacers' numbers, you have to fight the urge to yawn, but there are some good things here. Indiana is 7-11 against the league's most difficult early-season schedule. Danny Granger has emerged as a borderline All-Star and the team's defensive efficiency has jumped all the way into the middle of the pack.

14. (18) Miami Heat (41.3) [ 43 / 44 / 35 ]
Rankings: NET: 12; OFF: 10; DEF: 15; PACE: 21

Turnovers! It's not Maris and Mantle chasing the Babe, but I will be transfixed all winter to see if Miami can continue to lead the NBA with the lowest rate of turnovers on offense while also leading the league in forcing turnovers at the defensive end.

15. (16) Toronto Raptors (40.6) [ 38 / 30 / 42 ]
Rankings: NET: 21; OFF: 16; DEF: 24; PACE: 18

New coach Jay Triano wants to run, which is good. Is it too little, too late? Last year's Raptors, with their two-headed point guard and a gaggle of athletic perimeter players, were better suited to an uptempo style. This year's group is saddled with Jermaine O'Neal, whose minutes could dwindle if Toronto truly adopts a New Way--even on the rare nights he is healthy enough to play.

16. (14) Utah Jazz (39.8) [ 49 / 50 / 50 ]
Rankings: NET: 9; OFF: 8; DEF: 14; PACE: 20

He's not there yet, but Deron Williams' game is starting to show some of its old spring. Meanwhile, Carlos Boozer's return is imminent. Despite all the injuries, Utah is sixth in the West. The Jazz will be a factor in the months ahead.

17. (15) Chicago Bulls (39.7) [ 34 / 32 / 43 ]
Rankings: NET: 19; OFF: 25; DEF: 12; PACE: 5

This is a team without a heart. We're not talking effort or desire, we're just talking about interior players. The Bulls are 28th in two-point FG%, 27th in defensive rebounding and 27th in blocking shots. The WP3K rankings for Chicago's qualifying bigs (out of 250): Joakim Noah (203), Drew Gooden (212), Tyrus Thomas (247). If Aaron Gray qualified, he'd rank between Gooden and Thomas.

18. (17) Milwaukee Bucks (39.3) [ 32 / 35 / 31 ]
Rankings: NET: 20; OFF: 27; DEF: 9; PACE: 12

Malik Allen started a game? Scott Skiles is still scrambling to solve his power forward situation. Luc Mbah a Moute is undersized for the position but has performed better than Charlie Villanueva. The Bucks were starved for offense without Andrew Bogut, which should have favored Villanueva. Now Bogut is back, which should point back to Mbah a Moute but, instead, Skiles trotted out Allen. Can we at least agree that it's not a good sign to see Malik Allen in your starting lineup?

19. (20) New Jersey Nets (36.5) [ 43 / 31 / 38 ]
Rankings: NET: 22; OFF: 7; DEF: 29; PACE: 15

New Jersey ranks a surprising seventh in offensive efficiency, a mark traced directly to the production of backcourt partners Devin Harris and Vince Carter, who have dominated the Nets' attack. At the same time, Jersey is 29th in defensive efficiency. The problem is perimeter defense. The Nets are 29th in three-point field goal defense (42.4%) and effective field-goal percentage (52.3%). They allow the highest ratio of three-point attempts to overall field-goal attempts and commit the second-highest rate of fouls per 100 possessions. It's not that the Nets' interior defense has been Spursesque, but they are at least middle-of-the-pack in two-point field goal percentage against and, in particular, rookie center Brook Lopez looks like he's having an impact on the defensive end of the floor.

20. (19) Philadelphia 76ers (34.7) [ 34 / 39 / 38 ]
Rankings: NET: 17; OFF: 28; DEF: 7; PACE: 11

How long will Elton Brand be out? How will the disappointing Sixers fare without him? Brand's hamstring injury isn't believed to be serious, but it's still going to be interesting to see how Philly performs with what is pretty much its playoff roster of last season. Ed Stefanski needs to deliver another shooter for the 28th-ranked offense or else the dreams of contention for this season are going to die quickly.

21. (21) San Antonio Spurs (34.5) [ 45 / 28 / 55 ]
Rankings: NET: 13; OFF: 17; DEF: 11; PACE: 26

All the weapons are back and the Spurs look like, well, the Spurs. San Antonio has a favorable schedule this month, for the most part, although tough road tests at Dallas and New Orleans loom in December. By the new year, we may have a much better gauge on Gregg Popovich's squad.

22. (23) New York Knicks (30.9) [ 36 / 29 / 33 ]
Rankings: NET: 24; OFF: 19; DEF: 26; PACE: 1

The emergence of Chris Duhon as the Knicks' leader in WP82 is a little shocking. When he was with the Bulls, I considered Duhon a solid third-guard but nothing more. As such, I cast a raised eyebrow at the computer screen when I read that Donnie Walsh was so hot on Duhon's trail in the offseason. Duhon hasn't been New York's best per-minute player (that's Nate Robinson), but he is third the NBA with 82% of the available minutes at his position and sports a top-20 assist rate. The latter figure was boosted by a 22-assist outburst against the Warriors this week, the most in the NBA this season. Duhon ranks 46th in the league in WP82, so we're not talking All-Star Game or anything. Nevertheless, Walsh deserves kudos for spotting a part-time player who could fill a larger role in Mike D'Antoni's system.

23. (26) Charlotte Bobcats (30.8) [ 31 / 33 / 38 ]
Rankings: NET: 18; OFF: 26; DEF: 10; PACE: 28

Don't look now, but the Bobcats are getting better. Charlotte was one of four teams to make at least a three-spot jump in the power rankings this week. Larry Brown has the Bobcats playing solid defense: Charlotte ranks tenth in defensive efficiency. They've done that against a tough schedule in terms of aggregate opponent winning percentage, but Charlotte has played 13 of its 18 games at home. Hard times are ahead.

24. (22) Sacramento Kings (26.4) [ 20 / 32 / 39 ]
Rankings: NET: 29; OFF: 21; DEF: 30; PACE: 23

I still contend this team has some talent and that better days lie ahead. As such, I hope rumors of Reggie Theus' shaky job status are unfounded. The Kings have lost five games by two points or fewer and, in terms of actual record to Pythagorean record, have been the NBA's unluckiest team. The players like Theus. There is no reason to make a move.

25. (24) Golden State Warriors (25.1) [ 22 / 29 / 35 ]
Rankings: NET: 23; OFF: 14; DEF: 28; PACE: 2

A story floating about this week on TrueHoop, among other places: Corey Maggette's selfishness has become so obvious, that after the final buzzer of a recent Warriors/Celtics game, Kevin Garnett yelled at Maggette, "Way to get your numbers!" I can't confirm that story, but I can confirm that Maggette's assist rate (8.6) has dropped off a cliff as compared to the last two seasons (15.9 and 14.3).

26. (25) Minnesota Timberwolves (24.8) [ 19 / 29 / 26 ]
Rankings: NET: 26; OFF: 23; DEF: 21; PACE: 13

Al Jefferson is still getting noticed as a star-caliber player because of his status as a 20-10 player. Nevertheless, he is miscast as a short-armed center and kills the T-Wolves on the defensive end. Wouldn't Brook Lopez look nice next to him? In case Kevin McHale hasn't noticed by now: Kevin Love and Jefferson play the same position. Good luck with that.

27. (28) Washington Wizards (23.0) [ 15 / 27 / 32 ]
Rankings: NET: 25; OFF: 18; DEF: 27; PACE: 22

The laws of regression dictated that the Wizards win a game or two as they close in on their Pythagorean record, but this is still a floundering team, new coach or no. The big question for this season hasn't even begun to be answered: Will the contract Ernie Grunfeld gave to Gilbert Arenas hamstring this franchise for the foreseeable future?

28. (27) Memphis Grizzlies (18.3) [ 18 / 22 / 19 ]
Rankings: NET: 27; OFF: 24; DEF: 22; PACE: 14

I wrote earlier this season about how the Grizzlies' starting lineup at the time was younger than North Carolina's. Memphis features one of the leagues most exciting rookies in years in O.J. Mayo. This is a fun team to watch, yet fans staying away in droves. I guess a 4-14 record will do that. However, if Memphis starts to win in the next couple of years, but continues to struggle at the gate, you will seriously have to wonder about the long-term viability of that market.

29. (29) Los Angeles Clippers (16.7) [ 13 / 19 / 33 ]
Rankings: NET: 28; OFF: 29; DEF: 20; PACE: 10

Yeah, the Clippers have been better since the Zach Randolph trade, with one- and two-point losses sandwiched around a win over Miami. Still, is this team anywhere close to playoff-caliber? Then what sense does Randolph makes for this team?

30. (30) Oklahoma City Thunder (11.5) [ 8 / 14 / 23 ]
Rankings: NET: 30; OFF: 30; DEF: 25; PACE: 7

Early returns on the shift of Kevin Durant to small forward: According to 82games.com, his PER is 25.1 at the three, eight points better than at the two. His opponents' PER at three is 11.1, down from 17.1. The sample is small, but this looks like a great trend for a franchise that really needs something good to happen.

Definitions:

Adjusted winning percentage (AWP) = ((home wins x 0.6)+(road wins x 1.4)) / (((home wins x 0.6)+(road wins x 1.4)) + ((home losses x .1.4)+(road losses x 0.6)))

Opponents winning percentage (OWP) = aggregate percentage of games won for each team's opponents, based on the number of times the team has faced that opponent.

Pythagorean winning percentage (PYTH) = uses the basketball-reference formula of Games x (Points scored^14) / ((Points scored^14) + (Points allowed^14))

Power rating = (((PYTH + AWP)/2)*(OWP/.500)) x 82

WP82 = wins produced per 82 games, adjusted for playing time

WP3K = wins produced per 3,000 minutes

RANKINGS: NET = net efficiency ratio; OFF - offensive efficiency; DEF - defensive efficiency; PACE: average possessions per game

Bradford Doolittle is an author of Basketball Prospectus. You can contact Bradford by clicking here or click here to see Bradford's other articles.

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