In the basketball world, the NBA takes a step into the background as the calendar flips to the madness of March. It won't be easy, but some of us will keep our eye squarely upon the pro game as the regular-season schedule enters its fourth quarter this week. There is still much to be decided.
In the East, the Celtics and Cavaliers are engaged in a spirited battle for the top seed. The assumption is that the winner will get to host an eventual seventh game in the East finals and thus will become the prohibitive favorite to take on the Lakers in the NBA Finals. We've assumed this for so long now, you almost have to figure that either: A) one of the teams will be upset prior the the conference finals; B) the second-place team will promptly take the first game of the showdown and steal back the advantage that took the first-place team six months to earn; C) one of the teams will win in four or five games. There's no objective reason to feel that way. It's just that preconceptions in sports never turn out to be the foregone conclusions that we sometimes assume.
Nevertheless, the focus in the East will remain on the Boston/Cleveland duel, which resumes face-to-face action with a meeting in Boston on Friday. Meanwhile, Orlando still harbors hopes of sneaking into the mix. Beyond that, the stakes are lower. Miami and Atlanta seem to be battling for homecourt advantage in a probable first-round matchup. Atlanta still has a lead in the standings. Miami, on the other hand, edged ahead of the Hawks on the Hoops List this week for the first time all season and, thus, would appear to be the stronger team. After that, the East's battles concern a skid row of sub-.500ish teams that will fill out the bracket, thus becoming first-round lambs with which the East's lions will whet their championship appetites.
In the West, the Lakers seized control early and have methodically increased their lead all season. Barring injuries to Kobe Bryant and Pau Gasol, the Lakers will be the West's top seed. L.A. can't cruise home, however, because the Lakers still own but a narrow lead over Cleveland and Boston for the NBA's best overall record. After that, the West gets murky.
The second-place Spurs are 7 1/2 games back of L.A. in the West. However, San Antonio is just seven games from falling out of the playoff bracket altogether. The Spurs, Nuggets, Rockets, Hornets, Blazers and Jazz (with the Suns and Mavericks not far behind) are all within 3 1/2 games of each other, with the reward for finishing on top of that group being the clearest path to become heavy underdogs to the Lakers in the West finals.
We know you love your college hoops, but as the tournament season gets going, don't forget about the pay-for-play guys. March promises to be almost as crazy for the NBA as it will be for the NCAA.
(Statistics through March 1)
RANK (Last Week) Team (Power rating) [ WIN PACE / PYTHAGOREAN PACE / PRESEASON PROJECTION ]
1. (1) Cleveland Cavaliers (65.4) [ 65 / 65 / 44 ]
Rankings: NET: 1; OFF: 4; DEF: 2; PACE: 24
At press time, the Cavaliers were reportedly close to bringing back journeyman big man Joe Smith for his second tour with the LeBron James Traveling All-Stars. What's interesting is that the Cavs appear to have focused their charms (and pro-rated midlevel exception) on Smith rather than fellow former Clevelander Drew Gooden. This despite the fact that the Cavaliers face the next four to six weeks without Gooden's replacement at the four position, Ben Wallace, who went down with a broken fibia. Gooden is probably a higher profile player and is accustomed to playing starter's minutes, though whichever player lands with Cleveland will likely back up Anderson Varejao. However, Smith has been a better per-possession player. According to NBAPET, Smith's offensive and defensive efficiencies (115.9 offense, 116.9 defense) outshine Gooden's (107.9/120.8) on both ends of the floor this season. For all of his travels, Smith has always been regarded as a good teammate and worked well with James during his prior stint in Cleveland.
2. (2) Boston Celtics (63.8) [ 63 / 64 / 63 ]
Rankings: NET: 2; OFF: 5; DEF: 1; PACE: 18
Yes, the Stephon Marbury saga wrapped up its New York chapter and now the mercurial point guard is playing caddie for Rajon Rondo on the world champs. For the time being, I'm more interested in Boston's acquisition of Mikki Moore to fill its glaring need for an additional big man off of the bench. Moore is big, all right, at 7'0", 225 pounds. He's just not all that good. He's a weak rebounder, having never reached 15% of available misses in his career. (By contrast, Drew Gooden has grabbed 16.3% for his career.) Moore is also not a good shot blocker for his size, swatting 14 shots in nearly 800 minutes this season. Patrick O'Bryant, the center Boston traded to Toronto without ever really giving a chance to, has a block rate (6.2%) about five times better than Moore's (1.3%) and has grabbed 18.2% of available misses during his meager court time. Neither player has any ability to create his own shot, but both convert the dunk opportunities that come their way. We'll see how it works out, but this feels like a miss for Danny Ainge. It's difficult to see Doc Rivers giving the key minutes to Moore in the playoffs that he gave to P.J. Brown last season.
3. (3) Los Angeles Lakers (62.3) [ 65 / 61 / 49 ]
Rankings: NET: 4; OFF: 1; DEF: 6; PACE: 5
It's a slump! The Lakers lost two in a row! These guys can't win without Bynum! Geesh. Relax, people. The Lakers are fine. Their two losses last week, however, did throw them back into the middle of the quagmire with the Cavaliers and Celtics, with a possible Game Seven at the Staples Center in late June at stake. L.A. gets to right the ship with a soft schedule this week featuring home games against Memphis and Minnesota. Next week, though, look out. The Lakers play at Portland, Houston and San Antonio over a span of four days. Ouch. The Celtics and Cavs will be watching with heightened interest.
4. (4) Orlando Magic (57.5) [ 59 / 59 / 43 ]
Rankings: NET: 3; OFF: 6; DEF: 3; PACE: 13
We're talking very small samples here, but the early returns on the Rafer Alston acquisition are exceedingly encouraging for the Magic. Prior to Jameer Nelson's injury, Orlando had posted a 112.8 offensive efficiency in 47 games. That dropped to 109.0 during the six-game stretch after Nelson got hurt but before Alston arrived from Houston. In the six games since, Orlando has a 114.3 offensive efficiency and has won four of six, with all the wins coming on the road. Orlando's victims haven't exactly been a Murderer's Row, but the signs for the Magic are positive.
5. (5) Denver Nuggets (52.8) [ 53 / 48 / 43 ]
Rankings: NET: 11; OFF: 12; DEF: 8; PACE: 6
In between dispensing advice on professionalism through the media for spoiled Broncos quarterback Jay Cutler, Carmelo Anthony managed to get himself suspended. Anthony refused to come out of the Nuggets' 100-94 loss to the Pacers on Sunday. Nuggets coach George Karl said that he hadn't had a player refuse to come out of a game in his two-plus decades as an NBA head coach. I did the same thing when I was a freshman in high school. We were down 10 with a little over a minute to play and the coach was going to clear the bench. I threw a fit and told him he was giving up. He said, fine, stay in then. I went into a one-man press, made two steals and layups against the other team's scrubs and nearly rolled both of my ankles because of the intensity with which I was sliding my feet on defense. We lost by eight or so. All I'm sayin' is that I feel 'Melo's pain--unless he just wanted to score more points.
6. (7) Portland Trail Blazers (52.6) [ 51 / 52 / 38 ]
Rankings: NET: 5; OFF: 2; DEF: 18; PACE: 29
Easy to hurt; slow to heal. Greg Oden is falling into lockstep in the Portland lineage of centers (Bill Walton, Sam Bowie). If Oden can deliver a title like Walton did, Blazer fans are liable to forgive Oden's fragile soft tissues. If Oden goes the Bowie route, Portland faithful will dream of Kevin Durant, just like they did Michael Jordan before, and they'll say Brandon Roy is just as good as Durant, just as they said Clyde Drexler was as good as Jordan.
7. (6) San Antonio Spurs (52.2) [ 54 / 50 / 55 ]
Rankings: NET: 7; OFF: 13; DEF: 5; PACE: 26
The Spurs have been hot for frontcourt help for a few weeks now and it sounds like San Antonio is close to picking up Drew Gooden for the stretch run and the playoffs. Gooden secured his release from Sacramento just in time to remain eligible for the postseason. If you consider Tim Duncan a center, which you should, then the Spurs have filled the four-spot with the likes of Matt Bonner, Kurt Thomas and Francisco Oberto. Oberto has fallen off this season, while Bonner is overexposed for the amount of time he's been getting and Thomas is ancient even by Spurs' standards. If Gooden is willing to play the subservient offensive role that he is best suited for, he will really help the Spurs.
8. (8) Houston Rockets (50.8) [ 51 / 52 / 61 ]
Rankings: NET: 8; OFF: 15; DEF: 4; PACE: 19
The decline and fall of Tracy McGrady has been staggering. If McGrady, who doesn't turn 30 years old until May 24, doesn't regain his former status, he will have peaked at age 23. Actually, that'll probably be the case no matter how much game he recovers. If McGrady does bounce back, all signs point to his doing so in a city other than Houston. The handling and timing of his microfracture surgery ensured that. The question about McGrady will eventually be how motivated he is to redeem himself. Dwyane Wade showed what a gimpy superstar can do with a little health and desire to prove his detractors wrong. Does McGrady possess the same kind of drive? The team that gives him a chance to prove it will pay considerably less per annum than the $22 million McGrady will get in the final year of his deal with the Rockets, which has turned out to be something of a boondoggle. Luckily for Rockets' fans, the team is better this season without McGrady.
9. (9) New Orleans Hornets (50.0) [ 50 / 48 / 45 ]
Rankings: NET: 9; OFF: 8; DEF: 10; PACE: 28
The Hornets will cut payroll after the season. They have to. Chris Paul will be getting another $10 million or so, David West will get a bump--something has to give. That something will probably still turn out to be Tyson Chandler since there is no hope of unloading Peja Stojakovic's contract. Nevertheless, New Orleans can revel in the return of Chandler, who has played some of his best basketball of the season during the Hornets' five-game winning streak. New Orleans' efficiency margin has jumped from +2.7 before the streak to 4.8 during it. In the process, the Hornets have returned to the conversation about the top challengers to the Lakers' supremacy in the West. Enjoy it while you can, New Orleans.
10. (10) Utah Jazz (49.0) [ 50 / 51 / 50 ]
Rankings: NET: 6; OFF: 7; DEF: 12; PACE: 11
Carlos Boozer is still working his way back into shape, just as Deron Williams was when Boozer was injured last November. As such, the Jazz have not had a healthy Boozer and Williams in the lineup at the same time in a single game this season. Nonetheless, Utah is 14 games over .500, 3 1/2 games out of second place in the West and is riding an eight-game winning streak. Could this be the year that Jerry Sloan finally gets his long-deserved Coach of the Year award?
11. (11) Dallas Mavericks (46.8) [ 50 / 46 / 51 ]
Rankings: NET: 12; OFF: 9; DEF: 13; PACE: 15
Jason Terry returned to the Dallas lineup on Sunday after missing eight games with a hand injury. Prior to Terry's injury, Dallas was outscoring its opponents by 1.1 points per 100 possessions. During his absence, the Mavs' efficiency margin was +6.1. Dallas improved offensively without Terry, but the main bump came on defense, where Dallas improved by 3.7 points per 100 possessions. What gives? It's just the schedule. Dallas went 5-3 with Terry out, beating Sacramento twice, New Jersey, Milwaukee and Oklahoma City. The Mavs lost to the Celtics, Spurs and Rockets. The Mavs remain the best of the NBA's third tier and aren't likely to survive the first round of the postseason.
12. (13) Phoenix Suns (46.2) [ 47 / 46 / 49 ]
Rankings: NET: 10; OFF: 3; DEF: 21; PACE: 4
Apparently, with Amar'e away, Shaq will play. This season, the Suns are +3.7 points per 48 minutes with Shaquille O'Neal and Amar'e Stoudemire on the floor at the same time. They are +1.5 with Stoudamire playing without O'Neal. With Shaq playing without Amar'e, Phoenix is +6.3. Since Stoudemire went down with a detached retina, O'Neal has averaged nearly 25 points per game, including 78 points on 33-of-43 shooting in his last two games last week. The Suns have won four of six, with the only losses coming the Celtics and the Lakers. If Shaq can lead the Suns into a first-round matchup with L.A., well, that would be fun.
13. (15) Miami Heat (45.6) [ 43 / 49 / 35 ]
Rankings: NET: 16; OFF: 20; DEF: 11; PACE: 25
You can't go two minutes during a Heat broadcast nowadays without some sort of tirade about how overlooked Dwyane Wade is when it comes to the discussion about this year's MVP. You can't really blame Eric Reid and Tony Fiorentino. If you were to sit courtside and watch what Wade has being doing this season, how could you not believe this is the best player on Earth? Unfortunately, the NBA's Olympus is occupied by a handful of transcendent beings, of which Wade is but one. LeBron James (17.5 WP82), Kobe Bryant (15.7) and Chris Paul (14.1) have all eclipsed Wade (12.8) by matching his level of play on teams with more overall success. Of course, it depends on how you define "valuable". Wade (29.7%) has accounted for a greater portion of his team's wins than any player in the league. Wade's performance since the All-Star break typifies the dilemma surrounding his candidacy. Wade's per-game averages are 36 points, five rebounds, 10 assists, three steals and one block per game with a 54.9% performance from the field in seven post-All Star outings. It's an incredible stretch of play, yet the Heat have gone 3-4 during the stretch.
14. (12) Atlanta Hawks (45.4) [ 45 / 44 / 38 ]
Rankings: NET: 13; OFF: 10; DEF: 15; PACE: 21
Remember way back before Thanksgiving, when the Hawks began the 2008-09 NBA season with six straight wins, a streak which included wins at Orlando and New Orleans? Atlanta was the No. 1 team on the first-ever Prospectus Hoops List, a distinction which will no doubt be prominently mentioned in the team's next media guide. It's all been downhill since. After losing four of six, the Hawks now run the risk of being like Mike. Oh, not that Mike. I'm talking Mike Campbell, the drunk Englishman from Hemingway's The Sun Also Rises, who went broke "gradually, then suddenly." Atlanta teetered between #9 and #11 on the Hoops List for three months, but last week dropped two rungs, down to a season-worst No. 14. With 14 of their last 22 games at home, the Hawks still have ample opportunity to lock up the fourth seed in the East, even if they ulimately prove to be weaker than at least two teams behind them.
15. (14) Philadelphia 76ers (41.8) [ 41 / 43 / 38 ]
Rankings: NET: 14; OFF: 23; DEF: 7; PACE: 17
The Sixers have hit a rough patch, losing six of their last eight games. The slump hasn't come during a particularly rugged stretch of Philadelphia's schedule and has dropped the Sixers to a game under .500 when, for a second, it looked like they might make a run at home advantage in the first round. The culprit looks to be an ability to match solid defensive effort with a decent offensive output. During the slump, the Sixers have posted a defensive efficiency better than the league average four out of eight times, but have won only one of those games. They've been better than average on offense five times, but have won just two of those. As typified by the Devin Harris Miracle of Feb. 23, the 76ers have shown an increasing penchant for blowing late leads in close games. Really, though, it's just a bad stretch by a mediocre team. Philadelphia could easily rebound to win six of its next eight.
16. (17) Detroit Pistons (40.1) [ 41 / 38 / 55 ]
Rankings: NET: 17; OFF: 22; DEF: 16; PACE: 30
Rip Hamilton and Antonio McDyess return to the lineup. The old Pistons seemingly return to Detroit. Do Pistons fans even want Allen Iverson to come back from his injury? If so, will he really accept a role on Michael Curry's second unit?
17. (16) Milwaukee Bucks (39.5) [ 38 / 41 / 31 ]
Rankings: NET: 15; OFF: 17; DEF: 14; PACE: 14
The Bucks have outscored opponents by 3.2 points per 100 possessions with Michael Redd on the floor this season. Without him, they've been outscored by 2.1 per 100. However, since Redd's season ended because of injury on Jan. 24, Milwaukee has hung tough, going 7-8 and remaining in the eighth, and last, playoff slot in a potential East bracket. During the month of February, Richard Jefferson, Charlie Villanueva and Ramon Sessions all averaged 18 points or better, more than compensating for Redd's absence. For the season, the Bucks could not be more average. Through Sunday, Milwaukee had outscored its opponents 6184-6183. Since Redd went down, the Bucks have lost just two games by double digits. Perhaps the close losses are when Redd's absence has been felt the most. Or maybe Redd doesn't really make that much of a difference. I tend to believe the latter.
18. (18) Chicago Bulls (38.0) [ 36 / 36 / 43 ]
Rankings: NET: 18; OFF: 21; DEF: 17; PACE: 9
The Bulls have gone 3-3 since the trade deadline, with the losses coming on the road against Indiana, New Jersey and Washington. So far, it's safe to say, the new-look roster has not paid dividends for John Paxson. Now it appears that the embattled GM is at odds with his hand-picked coach, Vinny Del Negro, at least over one issue: Derrick Rose's place on the bench down the stretch of close games.
19. (19) Indiana Pacers (36.5) [ 34 / 36 / 41 ]
Rankings: NET: 19; OFF: 18; DEF: 19; PACE: 3
The Pacers tweaked their starting backcourt again, starting rookie Brandon Rush alongside Jarrett Jack, but have since reverted to the Jack/T.J. Ford pairing. Now matter what Jim O'Brien tries, this is just a team that slugs it out against pretty much every team it plays. Indiana has now played 29 games with final margins of five points or less. Only Atlanta (26) is close. The Cavs and Wizards have played just 10 such games. The Pacers have won four of six since Danny Granger was injured and, at 26-36, are one of the gaggle of East bottom-feeders battling to squeeze into the playoffs. Indiana has managed this against the league's second-toughest schedule in terms of opponent winning percentage. This isn't an easy team to get excited about, despite the number of fantastic finishes the Pacers have been involved in. Still, you have to give O'Brien credit for doing a solid job with a roster that just doesn't feel like it has a lot of cohesion.
20. (22) Charlotte Bobcats (34.7) [ 34 / 35 / 38 ]
Rankings: NET: 20; OFF: 27; DEF: 9; PACE: 27
The streaking Bobcats are gunning for their first-ever playoff berth and are trying to mobilize their fan base to cheer on the effort. Charlotte isn't a playoff-caliber team but, of course, there aren't eight playoff-caliber teams in the Eastern Conference unless the Bulls get their stuff together. Somebody's got to claim that eighth spot, so why not the Bobcats? A playoff appearance would be good for the franchise, but then what? Michael Jordan's franchise still has a long way to go.
21. (20) New York Knicks (34.0) [ 33 / 35 / 33 ]
Rankings: NET: 22; OFF: 14; DEF: 26; PACE: 2
Now that Stephon Marbury is gone, the Knicks' Donnie Walsh may be pointing his cap-clearing magic wand at Eddy Curry. Curry may return before the season ends, as Walsh wants to showcase him for a summertime package. That package could include Nate Robinson. Robinson is amazing, talented and exciting. He's been the Knicks' best per-minute player this season. However, he tends to play with blinders and it might be a good time to sell high, particularly if doing so allows Walsh to clear the roster of its last albatross contract.
22. (23) New Jersey Nets (33.6) [ 36 / 34 / 38 ]
Rankings: NET: 21; OFF: 16; DEF: 25; PACE: 23
Brook Lopez will garner a few Rookie of the Year votes. Lopez has a 4.3 WP82, fifth among rookies. Ahead of him are Derrick Rose (6.5), Rudy Fernandez (6.0), Mario Chalmers (5.9) and O.J. Mayo (4.5). Lopez has turned out to be a dynamic defender and rebounder as a rookie, ranking eighth in block rate and 23rd in offensive rebouding. In the Nets' not-so-glorious history at the center position, Lopez's 17.3 PER ranks fourth in the franchise's NBA history. Lopez has to only outperform the Bearded One, Mike Gminski, to eventually become the Nets' best-ever NBA center.
23. (21) Toronto Raptors (33.2) [ 30 / 31 / 42 ]
Rankings: NET: 23; OFF: 19; DEF: 22; PACE: 16
The Shawn Marion era in Toronto promises to be short and not-too-sweet, and unlikely to propel the Raptors anywhere near the East playoff picture. That reality may be wearing on franchise face player Chris Bosh, who has been sounding a little somber in his public comments as of late.
24. (24) Golden State Warriors (28.9) [ 27 / 31 / 35 ]
Rankings: NET: 24; OFF: 11; DEF: 28; PACE: 1
Don Nelson has decided to rest some of his older players in favor of more court time for the Warriors' younger talent. A novel idea. So far, it's hard to see that much has changed other than Ronny Turiaf hasn't been playing much. As much as Nellie juggles his rotations, it might hard to discern a pattern before the end of the season.
25. (25) Minnesota Timberwolves (28.0) [ 25 / 28 / 26 ]
Rankings: NET: 25; OFF: 24; DEF: 27; PACE: 10
Bobby Brown had a dazzling outing against Portland, scoring 15 points on eight shots in 17 minutes. He followed that up with a lackluster effort against the Rockets, but he did get 21 minutes and it does look like Kevin McHale might give Brown a chance to get into next season's point guard mix.
26. (27) Oklahoma City Thunder (21.1) [ 19 / 24 / 23 ]
Rankings: NET: 27; OFF: 28; DEF: 23; PACE: 7
The Thunders' shot distribution had skewed heavily towards Kevin Durant, Jeff Green and Russell Westbrook. With Durant out, it looks like OKC will fill the void with even more shots by Green and Westbrook. The 32 field-goal attempts Westbrook had on Feb. 27 were the most by any player 20 years old or younger in the basketball-reference.com era (back to 1986-87) except for three LeBron James games.
27. (28) Los Angeles Clippers (20.3) [ 20 / 19 / 33 ]
Rankings: NET: 28; OFF: 30; DEF: 24; PACE: 12
The Clippers are as hard to watch as ever, but once again, you have to love the amiable pairing of Ralph Lawler and Michael Smith behind the microphone. Their voices are the face of the Clippers.
28. (26) Memphis Grizzlies (20.3) [ 21 / 23 / 19 ]
Rankings: NET: 26; OFF: 29; DEF: 20; PACE: 22
In NBA history, only 32 players have reached 1,000 points and 400 assists before the age of 22. Mike Conley is one of those players. When you look at the list, there are only three players that you'd classify as a bust--Darius Miles, Shaun Livingston and Sebastian Telfair. Those three join Conley with the lowest age-21 PERs of the 32 players on the list. That doesn't necessarily mean that Conley will turn out to be a bust. It just means he has a long way to go to be an effective NBA point guard. With Kyle Lowry now a Rocket, there is nothing holding back Conley from ascending.
29. (29) Washington Wizards (19.8) [ 19 / 21 / 32 ]
Rankings: NET: 29; OFF: 25; DEF: 29; PACE: 20
Gilbert Arenas is running and shooting, semi-interesting news on a team stuck in a prolonged holding pattern.
30. (30) Sacramento Kings (18.1) [ 17 / 18 / 39 ]
Rankings: NET: 30; OFF: 26; DEF: 30; PACE: 8
The Kings' buyout of Drew Gooden was supposedly done to give Jason Thompson the power forward spot, for better or worse. Thompson has been a bit of a disappointment, with an inability to get his own offense as well as a paucity of blocks and steals, two areas that seemed as if they'd be a strength right from the start. He's been a good offensive rebounder but hasn't converted inside shots a great percentage, mostly because he gets so many attempts sent back, over 10 percent of them. At 23, you wouldn't have thought Thompson would be this raw. However, let's not forget that he is a late grower, having sprouted to 6'11" at a relatively advanced age and having played his college ball at Rider. Thompson has the raw skills and it's a wise decision by the Kings to let him develop those abilities as much as possible the rest of this season.
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)))
LUCK = the difference between a team's 82-game win pace and its 82-game Pythagorean win pace.
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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