The pitfall in writing about a new league trend while a season is in progress is that the trend can disappear. That's not quite the case with the supposed flip-flop in the power of the NBA's two conferences this season, but the past week indicated the West may yet quell the onslaught of the East.
Mostly, this is thanks to the Lakers, who went out on the road last week and beat the Celtics and Cavaliers, the two teams thought to be the NBA's top two clubs--at least in this space. Indeed, with the injury suffered by Lakers center Andrew Bynum, it was beginning to look like the league's real championship round this season would take place during the Eastern Conference finals.
Instead, Kobe Bryant warmed up for the week by pouring in 61 points in New York, then turned the starring role over to Pau Gasol and Lamar Odom, respectively, in wins over Boston and Cleveland. As a result, the Lakers have closed in on the Celtics and Cavs in this week's ratings. In the course of doing so, Phil Jackson's resilient squad reminded us that, hey, they did make the Finals last season--without Bynum. Indeed, we may have to wonder if the Lakers are actually better without their talented, young center.
As for the overall East-West battle, the West is catching up, having gone 57-51 since we last visited the issue. The East is still ahead 156-144 and is about 100 percentage points better than its interconference performance the last two seasons. There is little doubt that from top to bottom, the right coast teams have caught and probably passed the left coast squads. At the top, though, the trend is far from clear.
RANK (Last Week) Team (Power rating) [ WIN PACE / PYTHAGOREAN PACE / PRESEASON PROJECTION ]
(Statistics through Feb. 8)
RANK (Last Week) Team (Power rating) [ WIN PACE / PYTHAGOREAN PACE / PRESEASON PROJECTION ]
1. (1) Cleveland Cavaliers (64.9) [ 65 / 66 / 44 ]
Rankings: NET: 1; OFF: 3; DEF: 3; PACE: 25
Now that the home win streak is over, we can concentrate our attention on the NBA's cruel decision to take away LeBron James' 50-point game/triple-double combo. Who do they pay to do those reviews? Is really worth the money? Anyway, Elias moved a full list of the 50-point game/triple-double combos in NBA history:
Player Year Team Pts-Reb-Ast
Elgin Baylor 1961 Lakers 52-25-10
Richie Guerin 1962 Knicks 50-11-13
Elgin Baylor 1963 Lakers 50-15-11
Wilt Chamberlain 1963 Warriors 51-29-11
Wilt Chamberlain 1968 76ers 53-32-11
Kareem Abdul-Jabbar 1975 Bucks 50-15-11
2. (2) Boston Celtics (63.8) [ 64 / 65 / 63 ]
Rankings: NET: 2; OFF: 6; DEF: 1; PACE: 17
OK, I'll say it. I think the primary difference between this year's Celtics and last year's championship team is Kevin Garnett. Simply put, his game has slipped. He's still an elite player and the Celtics are still a great team. However, he's not quite as elite and the Celtics aren't quite as great. Thus the Lakers and Cavaliers have caught up to Boston, making it a three-team scrum for this year's title. Is this something that can be fixed? After all, Garnett is widely known as a max-effort guy. How much more can he give? Looking at his numbers, where he is coming up short of last year's performance is limited to two areas: he's not getting to the line as much and he's not getting as many offensive rebounds. To me, this smacks of being schematic. He's simply spending too much time hanging around on the perimeter.
3. (4) Los Angeles Lakers (63.3) [ 67 / 62 / 49 ]
Rankings: NET: 4; OFF: 1; DEF: 5; PACE: 5
After last week, you have to wonder whether the Lakers are better without Andrew Bynum. The issue is more complex than this, but the Lakers have outscored their opponents by 8.3 points per 100 possessions with Bynum on the floor and 8.9 without him. So, theoretically, LA is +0.6 points better over 100 possessions without Bynum. By the same measure, LA's other primary bigs, Pau Gasol (+6.2) and Lamar Odom (+12.9) have had much more positive impact.
4. (3) Orlando Magic (59.6) [ 62 / 63 / 43 ]
Rankings: NET: 3; OFF: 4; DEF: 2; PACE: 10
If Orlando doesn't acquire a legitimate starting point guard in the absence of Jameer Nelson, the Magic is in trouble. Nelson's WP3K (14.8, 4th in the NBA) dwarfs that of his replacement, Anthony Johnson (6.9, 90th). The nearly eight-wins-per-3,000 minutes difference could cost Orlando as many as three or four wins over the course of the rest of the season, making the Magic's pursuit of Cleveland and Boston a futile effort. The idea of using Hedo Turkoglu as a point forward and starting a backcourt of Courtney Lee and Mickael Pietrus has merit, but that's not going to be the whole answer. Orlando is still going to need a penetrate-and-dish lead guard and Tyronn Lue is not the answer.
5. (5) Denver Nuggets (52.6) [ 54 / 49 / 43 ]
Rankings: NET: 6; OFF: 9; DEF: 9; PACE: 4
The Nuggets may have their best team since the ABA-NBA merger. Their winning percentage (.667) is a smidge better than the '87-'88 Nuggets (.659), the previous best post-ABA team in Denver. On the offensive end, the Nuggets have their best per-possession squad since the Doug Moe days.
6. (8) San Antonio Spurs (52.4) [ 56 / 50 / 55 ]
Rankings: NET: 7; OFF: 12; DEF: 4; PACE: 26
Roger Mason: Mr. Clutch. Mason is 3-of-3 on game-winning shots this season. On Sunday in Boston, Mason hit a huge three-pointer down the stretch that didn't qualify as a game-winner but did put the Celtics in an inescapable hole. Mason is a big reason the Spurs are 13-4 in close games this season.
7. (6) Portland Trail Blazers (52.3) [ 50 / 51 / 38 ]
Rankings: NET: 5; OFF: 2; DEF: 19; PACE: 30
It's been a gradual slide, but the Blazers have slipped from fourth to seventh on the Hoops List since the beginning of 2009. Perhaps they miss Steve Blake more than they thought they would: Portland is +5.1 with Blake; +2.0 without him.
8. (7) New Orleans Hornets (50.0) [ 51 / 48 / 45 ]
Rankings: NET: 8; OFF: 8; DEF: 11; PACE: 28
No team needs the All-Star break more than the Hornets, who quite simply are bad without Chris Paul in the lineup, do. Paul is second to Dwyane Wade in accounting for 28.4% of the Hornets' success this season. With Paul on the floor, the Hornets are +7.7 points per game on the season. Without him, they are a staggering -12.3. Paul is due back any day but Byron Scott has said he wants to be cautious. Meanwhile, Tyson Chandler is out indefinitely and David West may be suspended after getting ejected for a flagrant foul on Minnesota's Mike Miller on Sunday. Bad timing--the Hornets have two games to squeeze in before the break, one of them against the Celtics.
9. (9) Houston Rockets (49.0) [ 49 / 49 / 61 ]
Rankings: NET: 11; OFF: 15; DEF: 7; PACE: 18
It doesn't look like there is going to be another epic winning streak from the Rockets this February, as Houston continues to be among the league's most puzzling teams. With a mostly-healthy lineup, Houston still managed to lose at Memphis last Wednesday. The Rockets are hoping to get Ron Artest back after the break and they come out of All-Star weekend with six straight games at home. It's time to make hay.
10. (11) Dallas Mavericks (46.4) [ 49 / 43 / 51 ]
Rankings: NET: 13; OFF: 11; DEF: 16; PACE: 13
The Mavericks/Bulls game on Saturday was terrific, a one-point overtime affair that featured a great performance from Dirk Nowitzki. However, even in winning, the Mavs demonstrated how far they've slipped, having to go to such extremes to beat a sub-.500 team at home. All of the teams battling for the last few spots in the West bracket have their warts. However, now that Dallas has lost Jason Terry to a broken hand, the Mavs are as good a bet as any to miss the postseason. Terry has been responsible for 19.7% percent of Dallas' wins this season, the 18th-highest figure in the NBA, better than Nowitzki and Jason Kidd. I guess we'll now find out just how wide the gap is between Terry and Jose Barea.
11. (10) Atlanta Hawks (45.3) [ 47 / 45 / 38 ]
Rankings: NET: 12; OFF: 10; DEF: 15; PACE: 21
After a 6-10 January, the Hawks seemed to be righting the ship, winning games at Minnesota and Charlotte to begin February. Then, on Friday, Atlanta got blasted by the Clippers at home. This week, Atlanta drops to 11th on the Hoops List, the first time the Hawks have been lower than tenth all season. Mike Bibby is nursing a foot sprain and the Hawks really don't look like the same team with Acie Law running the point. The All-Star break comes at a good time for Atlanta.
12. (13) Phoenix Suns (45.3) [ 46 / 45 / 49 ]
Rankings: NET: 10; OFF: 5; DEF: 18; PACE: 6
The trade rumors that swirl around the Suns are really a condemnation of what Steve Kerr has done since joining Phoenix. He tore down something fun and successful, replacing it with something plodding and average. Now that it's not working, he wants to blow things up even more. All the while, his star point guard, Steve Nash, who has always oozed pure basketball joy, has become as sullen as an Ingmar Bergman hero. There needs to be a wave of change in Phoenix, and frankly, it probably needs to start with Kerr who, it might be pointed out, wasn't really qualified for the job when he took it.
13. (12) Utah Jazz (45.2) [ 45 / 48 / 50 ]
Rankings: NET: 9; OFF: 7; DEF: 14; PACE: 12
The Jazz continue to do what ordinary teams do in the NBA: Win most of the time at home; lose most of the time on the road. As well as Paul Millsap has played this season, Utah really seems like an ordinary team without Carlos Boozer. Boozer's departure after the season isn't as much of a foregone conclusion as it's widely believed to be. However, the play of the Jazz without Boozer this season makes the decisions that face Kevin O'Connor this offseason difficult. Millsap will get a raise and is a very good player. However, if the Jazz is better with Boozer and you can't keep both, what do you do? Millsap provides, say, 90% of the value of Boozer at a much more cap-friendly salary. However, you can't win a championship without Boozer. Of course, you might not be able to win one with him, either. It's been a tough season for a team that was so enjoyable to watch last season.
14. (15) Philadelphia 76ers (42.5) [ 41 / 43 / 38 ]
Rankings: NET: 15; OFF: 23; DEF: 6; PACE: 16
The Sixers will still make the playoffs without Elton Brand, who is done for the season. They'll probably go out in the first round again, unless they can catch the Pistons for the five-seed. Either way, Brand's injury leaves a lot of lingering qestions surrounding this team as the season winds down.
15. (14) Miami Heat (42.0) [ 44 / 42 / 35 ]
Rankings: NET: 14; OFF: 20; DEF: 8; PACE: 20
Here's a crazy thought: The Heat need a center. They reportedly want to move Shawn Marion. Meanwhile, Phoenix is rumored to be willing to move Shaquille O'Neal. We have a match!
16. (16) Detroit Pistons (40.5) [ 45 / 40 / 55 ]
Rankings: NET: 17; OFF: 21; DEF: 13; PACE: 29
Whether or not Joe Dumars is able to move Allen Iverson and/or Rasheed Wallace, he has in a sense already disassembled his one-time Eastern power. Fans in Detroit are likely biding their time for the summer, as they should be. The only problem is that the summer they are waiting for may be a year and a half away.
17. (17) Milwaukee Bucks (38.4) [ 37 / 40 / 31 ]
Rankings: NET: 16; OFF: 19; DEF: 12; PACE: 14
First it was Michael Redd. Then it was Andrew Bogut. Now, it's Luke Ridnour. Just like that, the Bucks' playoff hopes have gone down the proverbial toilet. Perhaps recognizing the opportunity lost, Milwaukee is thought to be shopping Richard Jefferson. In the meantime, there is little reason to watch the Bucks except for Ramon Sessions. As it happens, that's a pretty good reason.
18. (18) Chicago Bulls (37.0) [ 35 / 35 / 43 ]
Rankings: NET: 19; OFF: 22; DEF: 17; PACE: 9
Sometimes, it feels as if the Bulls are so close. Chicago dropped a one-point, overtime decision at Dallas on Saturday after Derrick Rose missed a runner in the lane at the end of regulation and Dirk Nowitzki recovered from a slow start to party like it was 2005. The Bulls have been rumored to be heavy on the Amar'e Stoudemire trail. With so many redundant but talented parts on this roster to move, the Bulls stand to benefit more than any of the other teams thought to be in on the Stoudemire sweepstakes. Can you just imagine what Rose and Stoudemire could do on the pick-and-roll?
19. (23) New Jersey Nets (35.1) [ 37 / 36 / 38 ]
Rankings: NET: 18; OFF: 13; DEF: 24; PACE: 24
The Nets' four-spot jump is the biggest move on the Hoops List this week and New Jersey has overtaken the eighth playoff spot in the East. We remind you that the Nets face the NBA's toughest schedule from here on out but, then again, Jersey is playing playing its best basketball of the season. The Nets have gone 3-1 so far in February with the only loss coming at Orlando. This week, the Nets have the Spurs at home then go to Houston and Dallas after the break. We'll find out if this little surge is for real.
20. (20) New York Knicks (35.0) [ 34 / 34 / 33 ]
Rankings: NET: 22; OFF: 17; DEF: 26; PACE: 3
The Knicks lost three home games last week, to the Lakers, Celtics and Cavaliers. At times, there seemed to be more Garden fans yelling for the visitors than for the Knicks. They like their stars in New York, and those fans recognize a star player when he walks out on the court. Right now, none of those star players are wearing New York uniforms.
21. (19) Indiana Pacers (34.9) [ 31 / 35 / 41 ]
Rankings: NET: 20; OFF: 16; DEF: 20; PACE: 2
Jim O'Brien's latest scheme is to avoid the Jarrett Jack/T.J. Ford decision and just start them both. It's not that the lineup doesn't work--the pair are +12 when playing together this season. It's just that there's no future in it, and the future should really be where O'Brien's focus is right now. Brandon Rush is getting sporadic minutes and has been pretty bad during them. However, this is a first-round pick that had three years under his belt with a college basketball power. Isn't it sink-or-swim time?
22. (21) Toronto Raptors (33.6) [ 29 / 32 / 42 ]
Rankings: NET: 21; OFF: 18; DEF: 22; PACE: 19
The No. 22 ranking is the season's nadir for the Raptors, but there aren't any signs the descent will stop here. Job one for Bryan Colangelo is to find a taker for Jermaine O'Neal before the whole league figures out just far gone O'Neal really is. Meanwhile, Chris Bosh is nursing a knee sprain that isn't believed to be serious. Under the circumstances, Toronto should be cautious with its most valuable asset.
23. (22) Charlotte Bobcats (32.9) [ 31 / 33 / 38 ]
Rankings: NET: 23; OFF: 29; DEF: 10; PACE: 27
Why Vladimir Radmanovic with this coach? Why that contract on this team? Michael Jordan could have improved the team more by pulling on a jersey himself--or just by playing in one of his fancy suits.
24. (24) Minnesota Timberwolves (30.8) [ 27 / 30 / 26 ]
Rankings: NET: 25; OFF: 24; DEF: 27; PACE: 11
Kevin McHale's squad seems to have plateaued: Minnesota is 24th on the Hoops List for the fifth week in a row. This week, he finally caved and began starting Kevin Love alongside Al Jefferson. The result was an 0-3 week, but McHale shouldn't let that discourage him. For one thing, he continues to overvalue Ryan Gomes when a Love/Jefferson combination screams for a more consistent perimeter game from the three-spot. He's got Mike Miller, why not use him? That assumes, of course, that Al Jefferson's knee injury isn't serious.
25. (25) Golden State Warriors (28.6) [ 26 / 30 / 35 ]
Rankings: NET: 24; OFF: 14; DEF: 28; PACE: 1
Don Nelson has rolled out 31 different starting lineups this season, most of them playing various combinations of shooting guards and small forwards with a token big man in the middle. How about just trying an actual NBA lineup and sticking with it?
26. (29) Los Angeles Clippers (21.2) [ 19 / 20 / 33 ]
Rankings: NET: 28; OFF: 30; DEF: 23; PACE: 15
The Clippers are healthy again, with Baron Davis, Marcus Camby and Zack Randolph back in the starting lineup alongside Eric Gordon and Al Thornton. As result, L.A. went out and played its best two games of the season on Friday and Saturday. The Clippers beat the Hawks and Grizzlies on the road by a total of 45 points and averaged 123.5 points in the process. Great. They're 12-39. Maybe, just maybe, the Clippers can establish some momentum for next season.
27. (27) Oklahoma City Thunder (21.0) [ 20 / 25 / 23 ]
Rankings: NET: 27; OFF: 27; DEF: 25; PACE: 8
While Oklahoma City fans are busy screaming no matter what happens on the court and crossing their fingers that the Thunder can hit the lottery jackpot and select hometown hero Blake Griffin, the Ford Center is becoming a pretty tough place to play. OKC has won six of eight at home, with one of the losses a one-point heartbreaker against the Nuggets.
28. (28) Memphis Grizzlies (20.9) [ 22 / 23 / 19 ]
Rankings: NET: 26; OFF: 28; DEF: 21; PACE: 23
Second-year point guard Mike Conley has started 29 games this season. Third-year point guard Kyle Lowry has started 21. Conley has a better WP3K (3.4) in more minutes (55% of available); Lowry is at 3.2 and 44%. Conley has been the choice lately for Lionel Hollins as Lowry is nursing an ankle sprain. However, one of the most important tasks Hollins can complete with the last 40% of the NBA season is to figure out which one of these two point guards is going to work with O.J. Mayo--or to decide that neither of them can.
29. (26) Washington Wizards (18.9) [ 17 / 20 / 32 ]
Rankings: NET: 29; OFF: 26; DEF: 29; PACE: 22
Mike James has started 30 straight games at point guard for the Wizards. His hasn't been very good. In fact, he's been pretty awful, with a 2.1 WP3K since joining Washington. Meanwhile, Ed Tapscott has second-year point guard Javaris Crittenton on his roster, languishing with a 2.2 WP3K and only 17% of available minutes since coming to Washington from Memphis. Does this makes sense for a team with the league's worst record? Crittenton may or may not be an NBA starter. We don't know. What we do know is that a team starting Mike James at point guard has a dim future.
30. (30) Sacramento Kings (17.4) [ 17 / 17 / 39 ]
Rankings: NET: 30; OFF: 25; DEF: 30; PACE: 7
Did you see that dunk that Oklahoma's Blake Griffin had against Colorado on Saturday? Did you know he's leading the country in rebounding and has had a double-double in all but four games this season? Did you know his middle name is Austin? Did you know his major is pre-health and exercise science? If you're an NBA fan and know this much about Blake Griffin, you probably live in Sacramento.
NBAPET = stands for National Basketball Association Projection, Evaluation and Tracking = A database and system of metrics for analyzing professional basketball.
gRATE = a one-game metric that measures a player's offensive and defensive contribution and expresses it as a net point total. The sum of a team's gRATE figures for a game will equal its actual point differential for that game.
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.
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