The Cavaliers have closed in on the Lakers for the top spot on this week's Prospectus Hoops List, but Kobe Bryant's heroics in Boston staved off LeBron and company for another week. Meanwhile, the Nuggets leapfrogged the Celtics, taking a top-five slot the rankings.
(Statistics through Jan. 31)
1. (1) Los Angeles Lakers (60.8 / 33.5%) [ 63 / 59 / 53 ]Rankings: NET: 3; OFF: 11; DEF: 3; PACE: 8
What do you do with a player like Kobe Bryant, who just seems to possess a preternatural ability the make difficult end-of-game shot? It's almost reached the point where you have to consider running three players at Bryant in an effort to get the ball out of his hands, or keep it from getting there in the first place. You'd have to keep your other two defenders close to the lane to prevent Bryant from firing a bullet pass to someone for an uncontested layup, so that means you're left with one or two players unguarded on the perimeter. Would you rather have that than another Kobe dagger? At least it'd be a change of pace.
2. (2) Cleveland Cavaliers (60.4 / 32.9%) [ 63 / 60 / 54 ]Rankings: NET: 1; OFF: 4; DEF: 5; PACE: 27
The Cavaliers signed the mystery player of the month when they inked little-known guard Cedric Jackson, who played his college hoops at Cleveland State, on Jan. 23. Jackson was averaging 14.7 points in the D-League when he hooked on with the Cavs. Since he signed, he's played seven minutes in four games, gone 1-of-4 from the line and doesn't have an official shot from the field. On Monday, Cleveland has to decide whether to give Jackson a second 10-day contract, prompting Mike Brown to say, "He's a good guy, but I haven't seen whether or not he can play, so I'm OK with him being around." It's got to be really deflating for players like Jackson that get so close to realizing their NBA fantasies, but don't really get a legitimate shot to stick. Not blaming anyone here, just the system. Ten-day contracts are great for the teams, but the way things are structured, they are almost counterproductive for the players. They'd be better off going overseas.
3. (3) Atlanta Hawks (55.8 / 6.5%) [ 53 / 54 / 30 ]Rankings: NET: 7; OFF: 5; DEF: 14; PACE: 24
Direct question posed to me at Kincade's in Lincoln Park: Are the Hawks an elite team? My answer: No. This was over two weeks ago, but now I have to acknowledge that I was still being influenced by the pessimistic projection I had for Atlanta before the season. It's hard to admit you're wrong, even though anyone who projects anything has to deal with a great deal of inaccuracy. (You know, it's why they play the games ...) If you'd ask me to bet on a Hawks-Celtics playoff series, I'd have a strong desire to wager on the Celtics. But the Hawks have been ranked ahead of Boston in POW every week this season except one and finished off a four-game season sweep of the Celtics on Friday. At this point, how could anyone favor the Celtics if these teams meet in the postseason?
4. (5) Orlando Magic (54.6 / 7.0%) [ 54 / 55 / 49 ]Rankings: NET: 4; OFF: 9; DEF: 4; PACE: 15
Orlando has won six of seven while everyone tries to figure out what is wrong with the team. Another rough patch could be on the way for the Magic after Jameer Nelson tweaked his knee and Mickael Pietrus twisted his ankle on Sunday. Orlando has a couple of gimmes up next, but then face a stretch of four games in five nights, three of them road tests at Boston, Chicago and Cleveland, respectively. The Magic can't afford to give up any ground to the Cavaliers, who hold a 5 1/2 ame lead for the top spot of the East. And don't forget about the three-team scrum Orlando is involved with for the two-through-four seeds in the conference along with Atlanta and Boston.
5. (7) Denver Nuggets (53.9 / 5.9%) [ 55 / 55 / 43 ]Rankings: NET: 6; OFF: 3; DEF: 13; PACE: 5
Teams sometimes take to doubling off of Arron Afflalo in order to keep Carmelo Anthony under control. Afflalo has increasingly made that strategy a non-starter. For the season, Afflalo is hitting 45.7 percent from three-point range, a figure which ranks fourth in the NBA. Afflalo's marksmanship spiked in January, when he hit 33-of-62 from beyond the arc and averaged over 12 points per game. Perhaps not coincidentally, the Nuggets went 12-3 last month, resulting in a Coach of the Month award for George Karl.
6. (6) Boston Celtics (53.3 / 3.6%) [ 52 / 56 / 56 ]Rankings: NET: 2; OFF: 13; DEF: 1; PACE: 23
Kevin Pelton has already put Boston's recent struggles in perspective, so let's discuss something else. Mark Heisler, the NBA writer for the Chicago Tribune, pretty much kicked dirt on the Celtics' grave in a column on Sunday. Not to pick on Heisler, as his tale is becoming more widely told, but it's way to early to do that. Also, Heisler insinuated that Danny Ainge has failed by putting together such an old core because the window of opportunity is so limited. My response? One championship, if only that, is enough.
7. (8) Utah Jazz (53.2 / 3.4%) [ 49 / 53 / 53 ]Rankings: NET: 9; OFF: 12; DEF: 10; PACE: 14
The Jazz's current stretch of nine wins in 10 games has included four road victories, as Utah has become the league's hottest team. The streak has coincided exactly with Jerry Sloan's re-insertion of Andrei Kirilenko into the Jazz starting lineup on Jan. 9. NBAPET suggests that Kirilenko is having a monster defensive season, rating +5 for his position defense, +4 in blocks-plus-steals for his position and +4 as an overall athlete. Kirilenko has always flourished in those latter ratings, but his position defense hasn't rated as strong, with the likely culprit being that he was often caught out of position when plying his trade as a help defender. Certainly doesn't seem to be the case this season. Kirilenko's solution? Just be all over the place. Utah is an amazing 7.3 points better on defense with Kirilenko on the floor.
8. (4) Dallas Mavericks (52.2 / 3.1%) [ 52 / 48 / 50 ]Rankings: NET: 8; OFF: 10; DEF: 11; PACE: 21
Rick Carlisle told The Dallas Morning News, "We’ve gotten very soft defensively as a team…We were a tough-minded team the first quarter of the year, and that’s gone by the wayside...It’s an attitude adjustment that we’re going to have to make to get it back." What prompted that outburst? The 52 points laid upon the Mavericks by Andre-freaking-Miller on Saturday. Yeah, that'll do it. For what it's worth, all of Dallas' backcourt players, except for Juan Jose Barea, rate as plus or average defenders according to NBAPET. These things just happens sometimes, like once a decade.
9. (10) San Antonio Spurs (49.0 / 0.9%) [ 48 / 54 / 57 ]Rankings: NET: 5; OFF: 7; DEF: 8; PACE: 22
There were a number of un-Spurs-like qualities about the stretch of San Antonio's home loss to Chicago last week. First, the Spurs simply could not get stops in crunch time, as the Bulls' Derrick Rose executed time and again. Second, the Spurs' last couple of possessions degenerated into a very diminished-looking Manu Ginobili driving to the hoop and getting the ball sent back. He just drove and flailed, perhaps remembering last-second bailout calls of yore. Ginobili's numbers are fine--Tony Parker's line is more of a red flag--but in that game, at least, Ginobili just didn't look right.
10. (11) Oklahoma City Thunder (48.5 / 0.5%) [ 45 / 48 / 32 ]Rankings: NET: 11; OFF: 18; DEF: 6; PACE: 17
Over the last three weeks, the Thunder has lost games by 1, 1, 2 and 1 points--bad luck. One of those one-pointers was a LeBron James-Kevin Durant duel that we unfortunately only get twice a year. Man, what a show. Oklahoma City can't take solace in close wins, not with so many teams bunched up in the West. In that Cleveland game, Durant had 34 points on 25 shots, but LeBron had 37 points, 19 shots, chipped in with 12 assists, then swatted Durant's driving shot to tie the game in the final seconds. Winner: LeBron, but Durant got to see firsthand what he aspires to become.
11. (12) Phoenix Suns (48.1 / 0.9%) [ 46 / 46 / 38 ]Rankings: NET: 12; OFF: 1; DEF: 29; PACE: 3
A home loss to Charlotte capped a 3-8 stretch for Phoenix, who looked like a team in serious retreat. However, Phoenix has bounced back strong with a home win over Dallas (thus snapping a long losing streak in games televised by TNT), which was followed by a hard-fought win on Sunday in Houston. Unfortunately, the Suns will have to go forward without Leandro Barbosa, who is having surgery for a cyst on the wrist of his shooting hand. He'll be out for around a month. In his absence, backuup point guard Goran Dragic and backup swing player Jared Dudley will get more run at the two.
12. (9) Portland Trail Blazers (48.0 / 0.8%) [ 46 / 49 / 50 ]Rankings: NET: 10; OFF: 6; DEF: 18; PACE: 30
Portland forward Nicolas Batum made his return to the lineup on Jan. 25 and has hit the ground running. He's got an eFG% of .674 on 23 shots and has had a more active floor game than he showed as a rookie. I was concerned that with Martell Webster's emergence, there was no role for Batum to play, but of course the injury-ravaged Blazers can use every warm body they can get. Batum is proving to be much more than that already. Nate McMillan can look forward to many quality minutes from his three-position in the years to come.
13. (13) Houston Rockets (45.5 / 0.0%) [ 43 / 41 / 50 ]Rankings: NET: 15; OFF: 16; DEF: 15; PACE: 12
Aaron Brooks has a little bit of hero syndrome. (I personally refer to that as the Reggie Bush Complex.) There is a fine line between being willing to take the big shot and being selfish about it. It's a tightrope Derrick Rose has only begun to walk. With Trevor Ariza's shot still missing, Brooks is forced to do too much on crucial possessions and since he always looks for the shot, Houston becomes somewhat easy to defend in hyperintense halfcourt sets. These are my impressions of watching the Rockets in limited snippets in recent weeks and none of this addresses the defensive problems they've had of late. (Topic for another day.)
14. (16) Charlotte Bobcats (44.7 / 0.1%) [ 42 / 45 / 45 ]Rankings: NET: 14; OFF: 24; DEF: 2; PACE: 26
The Bobcats started off a six-game West swing with a loss in Denver, but have won three straight since, ensuring at least a break-even trip with games against the Blazers and Lakers pending. The continued success has come despite the continued struggles of D.J. Augustin, who is making a strong argument for the existence of the mythical sophomore slump. Augustin's decline from his rookie season has come from a sea change in his offensive repertoire. His production is now almost entirely contigent upon his ability to hit three-point shots. Since he has been wildly inconsistent at that skill, Larry Brown has continued to limit his minutes when Augustin's shot is off, which is most of the time.
15. (17) Toronto Raptors (43.9 / 0.3%) [ 44 / 39 / 38 ]Rankings: NET: 18; OFF: 2; DEF: 30; PACE: 10
DeMar DeRozan is miffed at his Rookie Challenge snub? By my system, DeRozan is the 16th-best rookie in WP82 and has a Statistical Plus-Minus (-6.6) that puts him at the 14th percentile of all NBA players. Just as he was at USC, DeRozan is proving to be style over substance. The raw material is there to work with, but going to be up to Jay Triano and Bryan Colangelo to tease it out, and to DeRozan to worry about things other than some hoaky All-Star exhibition. Eight of NBAPET's top 11 rookies made the roster. The three who missed were Ty Lawson, Marcus Thornton and Wes Matthews, all of whom fell victim to the glut of solid rookie guards.
16. (14) Miami Heat (43.8 / 0.5%) [ 41 / 43 / 44 ]Rankings: NET: 13; OFF: 14; DEF: 12; PACE: 28
Has Rafer Alston been a spark for the Heat? Uh, no. Alston has been just as inefficent for Miami as he was in New Jersey, though he hasn't been relied upon as heavily as he was with the Nets. The Heat remains incredibly up and down. Over its last 10 games, just as an example, Miami has gone 5-5. It's won games by 24, 30 and 31, and lost games by 18 and 39. While Miami and Toronto run in place, Chicago and Charlotte are moving right by them in the East standings. A first round pairing of Dwyane Wade against LeBron James would be sweet--but short. The Heat will be in Chicago on Saturday, which will prompt an orgy of speculation about the Summer of the Free Agent. (Neither Wade or James have paid a visit to Chicago yet this season. At least for a game.)
17. (15) Memphis Grizzlies (43.1 / 0.0%) [ 44 / 41 / 30 ]Rankings: NET: 16; OFF: 8; DEF: 25; PACE: 9
If you'd told me before the season that Zach Randoph would make the All-Star team, and deserve it, I would have slowly backed away from you, with a can of Mace in my hand to keep your crazy ass at bay. Alas, that's where we're at. Randolph's WP82 (13.2) ranks 19th in the league and is up from the 3.5 he compiles last year between the Clippers and the Knicks. What an amazing turnaround, but it's also evidence of what a talented player can do when he realizes where his strengths lie. Like Josh Smith in Atlanta, Randolph has largely forsaken the low-percentage perimeter shots that dragged down his value throughout his career.
18. (18) New Orleans Hornets (41.4 / 0.0%) [ 45 / 38 / 44 ]Rankings: NET: 17; OFF: 15; DEF: 19; PACE: 20
Newly-acquired center Aaron Gray says he never got a fair shot with Chicago and, frankly, he's right. He deserved some lengthy run as he was probably the Bulls' best back-to-the-basket player. That's not to say he's a starting center--he couldn't operate out of the high post in Vinny Del Negro's system, nor can he defend the pick-and-roll. Gray is rooted to the floor and is Scooby-Doo-villain slow afoot. But he's got a nice set of post moves, particularly when he is on the left block and there is a place for that in anybody's offense.
19. (20) Chicago Bulls (39.2 / 0.1%) [ 41 / 34 / 45 ]Rankings: NET: 20; OFF: 27; DEF: 7; PACE: 13
For all the dread that the words "Circus Trip" conjure in Chicago, the lesser-known phrase "Ice Show Trip" may now be fraught with good vibrations. After dropping the relatively easy opening two games of their season-long, seven-game road skein to the Warriors and Clippers, the Bulls roared back to win the final five games at Phoenix, Houston, San Antonio, Oklahoma City and New Orleans. I kind of feel like a parent ready to welcome home a child who has been getting an overseas education. My boys are all grown up. Chicago is 23-22, over .500 for the first time since Nov. 19 and just 1 1/2 games out of fifth place in the Eastern Conference.
20. (19) Milwaukee Bucks (37.7 / 0.0%) [ 36 / 40 / 26 ]Rankings: NET: 19; OFF: 25; DEF: 9; PACE: 11
I wrote on Twitter earlier this season that Andrew Bogut looks like an All-Star every time I watch the Bucks. That's still the case, yet Bogut ranks behind Dwight Howard, Chris Bosh (if you consider him a center), Al Horford and David Lee among Eastern Conference centers in WP82. There is a cumulative value aspect of WP82 that always requires further checking and, indeed, Bogut is 17th out of all players in SPM. The problem? He doesn't play enough. Bogut is getting 58 percent of available minutes for the Bucks. He's missed six games and his 32.9 minutes per game ranks behind other top centers. If not for the limited minutes, Bogut would have had a solid All-Star case.
21. (21) Los Angeles Clippers (32.6 / 0.0%) [ 34 / 30 / 27 ]Rankings: NET: 22; OFF: 23; DEF: 16; PACE: 19
While upstart squads in Chicago and Charlotte are making hay in their forays on the road against the West, the Clippers can't say the same about their swing out East. L.A. has lost four straight after winning on Washington, the last three by at least 14 points. On Sunday against Cleveland, the Clippers coughed up 46 points in the first quarter, have of which came from LeBron James. L.A. still has to visit Chicago and Atlanta before headed home and its once flickering hope at a playoff run has been virtually extinguished.
22. (22) New York Knicks (30.6 / 0.0%) [ 31 / 33 / 31 ]Rankings: NET: 21; OFF: 17; DEF: 20; PACE: 7
The Knicks lost at home to Dallas by 50 points. Fifty points. At home. What can you really say about a 50-pt loss on your home floor? These things just happen sometimes. What's interesting about the loss, the biggest blowout of this NBA season, is that it was the Knicks that held the previous largest lead in a game this season--48 pts vs. Indy. This game, the Mavs' largest lead was 53 pts. That's a 101-point swing from high point to low point. Has any team ever had a swing like that in a single season?
23. (23) Philadelphia 76ers (29.8 / 0.0%) [ 27 / 33 / 40 ]Rankings: NET: 23; OFF: 20; DEF: 21; PACE: 25
After edging the Nets on Sunday, the Sixers are 3-3 since Eddie Jordan juggled his starting lineup, inserting Elton Brand and Jrue Holiday in place of Thaddeus Young and Lou Williams. It's the most conventional lineup Jordan can field, but it gives him a ton of punch off the bench in Williams, Young and Maurice Speights. Chances are, it won't make a huge difference that we'll be able to detect. If the underachieving Sixers regress to their mean a bit, it's only natural. Yes, I said it. Regression is natural.
24. (24) Sacramento Kings (28.9 / 0.0%) [ 28 / 30 / 30 ]Rankings: NET: 24; OFF: 21; DEF: 24; PACE: 6
The Kings are 3-16 after a promising 13-14 start. That has the trade wins blowing. I for one would not be hasty if I were Kings general manager Geoff Petrie. The Kings have had a feature player emerge this season in rookie Tyreke Evans. That's a great starting point for team with a number of talented young players, but now you have to fit that talent around Evans. We're past the point of having Evans blend in with the rest of the roster. The Kings' frontcourt production has sagged since the offense has become more centered around Evans and, of course, the Evans/Kevin Martin pairing has not worked well. Nevertheless, Petrie needs to give it more time before he starts shipping young talent out of town.
25. (27) Washington Wizards (28.2 / 0.0%) [ 28 / 30 / 26 ]Rankings: NET: 25; OFF: 22; DEF: 23; PACE: 16
Here's what Flip Saunders said after sitting talented-but-immature Andray Blatche: "The only way they're going to learn is to come out of the game when they make mistakes. I told Andray, 'I've seen enough of that dribbling behind the back.' That might work on the playground. Every time he does it, he's going to come out of the game. Some of his habits have to be broken," Saunders said. Shouldn't a player be broken of this kind of habit BEFORE he gets to the NBA? Apparently not.
26. (25) Golden State Warriors (26.5 / 0.0%) [ 23 / 30 / 35 ]Rankings: NET: 26; OFF: 19; DEF: 28; PACE: 1
Stephen Curry began to emerge with Monta Ellis out of the lineup, averaging 28 points in three games. Ellis was injured in the first of those games, then missed the next two. Curry took 22.7 shots per game to get those points. That's not Kevin Martin efficient, but it's better than what they typically get out of Ellis, who has become one of the most shot-happy players in the league. There's a place for that and with a modicum of shot selection, Ellis can definitely help an offense hum. However--and this is an issue worthy of considerable thought--I'm not sure the Ellis/Curry pairing can work. Ultimately, one of them is going to have to be traded and, frankly, I think Curry does more to help a team.
27. (26) Detroit Pistons (26.0 / 0.0%) [ 26 / 25 / 44 ]Rankings: NET: 28; OFF: 26; DEF: 22; PACE: 29
The Pistons' poor perimeter shooting has been one of their major problems this season. They're shooting 28.3 percent on three-point attempts this season, worse even than woeful New Jersey. To overcome that handicap, a team would need to get to the line a lot and get easy shots in transition. The Pistons do neither, though their performance on the offensive glass keeps them from the league's worst offense. Detroit plays at the second-slowest tempo and ranks 16th in free-throw rate. Despite a deep backcourt rotation (albeit one beset by injuries), the Pistons' only plus perimeter shooters this season have been rookies Jonas Jerebko and Austin Daye.
28. (28) Indiana Pacers (25.4 / 0.0%) [ 27 / 25 / 38 ]Rankings: NET: 27; OFF: 28; DEF: 17; PACE: 2
I want to root for the Pacers. They've featured an all-Kansas City backcourt of Earl Watson and Brandon Rush in their last nine games, during which Indiana has gone 2-7. So much for that revolution. Indiana has had uniformly terrible performances from its guards this season, with the possible exception of Luther Head. A.J. Price has been average in limited action. Given the lack of an upside for Watson and the white flag being raised in the T.J. Ford case, perhaps it's time to see what Price could do with some heavy playing time. Really what is there to lose?
29. (29) Minnesota Timberwolves (17.7 / 0.0%) [ 18 / 18 / 32 ]Rankings: NET: 29; OFF: 29; DEF: 26; PACE: 4
After the season, Wolves GM David Kahn will go through another sorting-out process. He's already picked up the team options on Kevin Love and Corey Brewer, which would indicate that he considers both young players as building-block types. Clearly Love falls into that category, but how is Brewer coming along? After being limited to 15 games last season, Brewer has started all 49 of Minnesota's games this season and has evolved into an average offensive contributor with plenty of room left to grow. However, Brewer came into the league with exceptional reach, athleticism and a reputation as a game-changing perimeter defender. He's yet to achieve that status in the NBA. In fact, NBAPET rates him as -5 defender, which puts him near the bottom of the barrel. Brewer still draws plaudits for his defense, but the data is just not there to back it up. His counterparts are 15 percent more efficient against Brewer and the defensively-putrid Wolves are 3.4 points better when Brewer is out of the game. What gives? My theory is that a couple things are at work. First, I doubt Brewer's knee, which he injured last season, is 100 percent and if affects his lateral movement. Also, I suspect his defense has suffered by having to play the two-guard position. That's not going to be a long-term situation. Overall, Minny fans shouldn't stress over Brewer's defensive metrics. The entire team's defense has suffered under Kurt Rambis. It should be heartening that Brewer has developed a jump shot.
30. (30) New Jersey Nets (9.1 / 0.0%) [ 7 / 12 / 40 ]Rankings: NET: 30; OFF: 30; DEF: 27; PACE: 18
I guess we can pretty much spend the rest of the season quantifying how the Nets have completely thrown in the towel. Here's one attempt:
G05 .501 0-5
G10 .463 0-10
G15 .499 0-15
G20 .564 1-19
G25 .540 2-23
G30 .537 2-28
G35 .497 3-32
G40 .540 3-37
G45 .515 4-41
This shows the opponent-adjusted eFG% allowed by New Jersey in five-game blocks. In other words, the first line says that (after adjusting for quality of opponent shooting), the Nets allowed a .501 eFG% in their first five games, .463 in their second five, etc. All through the Nets' season-opening, 18-game losing streak, they at least defended at something like NBA quality. Since then, however, opponents have had their collective way with Kiki Vandeweghe's dispirited troops.
RANKINGS: NET = net efficiency ratio; OFF - offensive efficiency; DEF - defensive efficiency; PACE: average possessions per 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)))
Championship probability (CHAM) = percent of championships won out of 10,000 simulations of the "as of today" playoff bracket, based on each team's POW
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.
Playoff Potential (POT) = suggests the highest likely postseason round a team might advance to, based on comparing its POW to other teams in our database
Power rating (POW) = (((PYTH + AWP)/2)*(OWP/.500)) x 82
Pythagorean winning percentage (PYTH) = uses the basketball-reference formula of Games x (Points scored^14) / ((Points scored^14) + (Points allowed^14))
WP82 = wins produced per 82 games, adjusted for playing time
WP3K = wins produced per 3,000 minutes
SKILL RATINGS: player performance is quantitatively tracked in a variety of categories that represent a cross-section of basketball skills; in each category, the player's performance is measured against others at his position, then slotted in a league-wide percentile ranking. The percentile ranking is converted to an intergral rating between +5 and -5, with 0 being average. Skill ratings are tracked for overall production (TOT), offensive production (OFF), on-ball defensive ability (DEF), overall rebounding (REB), passing (PAS), ballhandling (HND), shooting (SHT), athleticism (ATH), foul-drawing (FOU), blocks-plus-steals (BPS).
Statistical Plus Minus (SPM): measures a players net effect in points per 100 team possessions.
You can go read my caterwauling and pontificating Tweets at @bbdoolittle.
Bradford Doolittle is an author of Basketball Prospectus.
You can contact Bradford by clicking here or click here to see Bradford's other articles.