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February 23, 2012
February Only
Teams on the Move

by Kevin Pelton

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Let's talk about a concept that usually doesn't get much run in this space: recent performance. In general, I'm a big believer in the larger sample, which is why the ratings I use don't make any adjustment for hot or cold streaks. Still, looking at recent play can be both interesting and enlightening to the extent it may eventually translate over a longer period of time. If we apply the same adjustments for location and opponent to just February point differential, here are the "standings" of sorts for each conference.

EASTERN CONFERENCE

Team             ADiff  Rk
--------------------------
Miami             10.2   1
Chicago            7.1   3
Orlando            5.0   5
New York           3.1   8
Indiana            0.3  14
Detroit           -0.2  15
Philadelphia      -0.6  17
Boston            -1.4  21
Team             ADiff  Rk
--------------------------
Milwaukee         -3.8  23
Cleveland         -4.1  24
Toronto           -4.5  25
New Jersey        -5.7  27
Atlanta           -7.2  28
Washington        -7.3  29
Charlotte        -17.6  30

WESTERN CONFERENCE

Team             ADiff  Rk
--------------------------
Oklahoma City      8.7   2
Portland           6.4   4
San Antonio        4.0   6
Dallas             4.0   7
L.A. Clippers      3.0   9
Golden State       2.6  10
Houston            2.1  11
Memphis            1.4  12
Team             ADiff  Rk
--------------------------
L.A. Lakers        0.7  13
Phoenix           -0.3  16
Sacramento        -0.7  18
Minnesota         -0.9  19
Denver            -0.9  20
Utah              -3.6  22
New Orleans       -4.8  26

A few things jump out here, most notably the enormous gulf between the two conferences this month. While just five East teams have performed better than average during this stretch, nine West teams are above-average, which would leave the Los Angeles Lakers out of our imaginary February playoffs. Not only does the West take up nine of the top 13 spots, just one of the worst eight teams in the league this month has come from the West--and even the New Orleans Hornets have been feisty of late, picking up a series of wins during an East Coast road swing.

Let's take a closer look at the teams that have been most improved, or declined the most, during this month.

MOVING UP

1. Detroit Pistons (+6.7 points per game)
The Pistons probably should have taken more heat for their disappointing start to the season. For all their problems with roster construction, they were too talented to start 4-20. Since then, Detroit has won seven of its last 11 games. The schedule has helped, certainly: the Pistons' only wins against likely playoff teams in that span have come against the Boston Celtics (twice). Still, Detroit's true level is probably closer to the February performance than the season's first month. The Pistons' offense has thrived lately behind Rodney Stuckey getting to the line, Brandon Knight knocking down three-pointers and Greg Monroe controlling the glass.

2. Sacramento Kings (+5.4 points per game)
During February, the Kings are 3-1 at home and have shown the ability to beat bad teams on the road (New Orleans and Washington). Even though I cautioned not to expect much in terms of wins and losses from replacing Paul Westphal with Keith Smart, improved play by DeMarcus Cousins and Tyreke Evans since the coaching change has made Sacramento a more formidable squad. Sacramento has also benefited from cutting Jimmer Fredette's minutes in favor of second-round pick Isaiah Thomas, now starting at the point. In that role, Thomas has averaged 19.5 points with a .639 True Shooting Percentage.

3. Golden State Warriors (+4.0 points per game)
Would you believe the Warriors have been the second most efficient offense in the NBA over the last 10 games? Golden State has made 43.5 percent of its three-point attempts during that span, with five different players (Stephen Curry, Monta Ellis, Nate Robinson, Brandon Rush and Klay Thompson) shooting better than 40 percent from beyond the arc. If Mark Jackson would only extend the minutes of Ekpe Udoh's plus-minus, the Warriors might be a real spoiler. Unfortunately, Golden State probably has to pass too many quality teams to make a run at a playoff spot, so all these wins are doing are hurting the Warriors' chances of keeping their first-round pick (protected if within the top seven and headed to Utah otherwise).

4. New York Knicks (+3.9 points per game)
I don't know that any explanation of why the Knicks has surged is needed, so let's focus instead on the upside of this group. In February, New York has been fourth in the Eastern Conference. Even at the height of Linsanity, the Knicks are far behind Chicago and Miami in the East. The question is whether New York can fight its way into the midst of the Atlanta-Indiana-Orlando-Philadelphia roadblock and potentially earn home-court advantage. The Hawks in particular look quite vulnerable.

5. Orlando Magic (+3.4 points per game)
Speaking of the Magic, quietly Orlando has won six of the last seven games heading into the All-Star break. Two of the Magic's three February losses have come in overtime; the other was by five at Philadelphia. Right now, Orlando looks like the East's third-best team. Under normal circumstances, that might be reason for optimism, especially given what terrible play the Magic has been getting from its point guards. Alas, Dwight Howard's free agency changes the equation, and Orlando still hasn't shown the ability to challenge Chicago and Miami, which might be necessary to keep Howard from leaving via free agency.

HEADING DOWN

1. Atlanta Hawks (-9.2 points per game)
So far in February, the Hawks have been better than Washington and Charlotte. That's it. Atlanta has lost five of its last six games in increasingly depressing fashion. Besides Jason Collins getting healthy, there isn't much help on the way. Frustration is going, with Tracy McGrady grousing about his minutes and Marvin Williams maybe asking for a trade (he denies it). The Hawks have a healthy five-game cushion on ninth place, so they're unlikely to fall out of the playoffs, but it's entirely possible that they slip to the seventh seed and an opening-round matchup against Chicago or Miami that spells certain doom.

2. Philadelphia 76ers (-5.6 points per game)
The East's other early surprise is also dealing with hard reality. At least the 76ers can hope that their injured center (Spencer Hawes, who has played just twice since Jan. 16 while battling back and Achilles injuries) will be back at some point in the near future. Philadelphia is 12-2 and riding a 11-game winning streak with Hawes available. It's not so much that Hawes is a great player (though he was playing the best basketball of his career before the injuries struck) as that the 76ers' rotation works much better with him in the middle. The schedule has also been a factor in Philly's slide, but even when we adjust for it the Sixers have been a different team. Turns out their start may have been too good to be true. Philadelphia has a three-game lead over the Knicks in the Atlantic Division but also must finish ahead of the fifth seed in the East to hold home-court advantage in the opening round.

3. Denver Nuggets (-4.5 points per game)
On Wednesday night against the Clippers, Denver played without Ty Lawson (sprained left ankle), Rudy Fernandez (lower back strain), Danilo Gallinari (sprained left ankle) and Nene (left calf strain). That's three starters and a key reserve. That the Nuggets were even in the game is testament to the deep bench Masai Ujiri has built, but there's only so many injuries a team can handle. Gallinari has been the biggest loss; Denver is 15-10 when he plays and 3-6 without the budding star. Denver should get healthy, has suffered some hard luck in close games and might add Wilson Chandler as a restricted free agent shortly. So better times are likely ahead, but the Nuggets are far from assured of a playoff spot.

4. Charlotte Bobcats (-4.2 points per game)
Believe it or not, the Bobcats have been even worse lately. They rate as 17.6 points worse than the average team based just on February results. That's a historic level of ineptitude. I'm not even sure what to say about Charlotte at this point other than things have to get better because there isn't much further down to go.

5. Utah Jazz (-2.6 points per game)
While there are more diverse explanations for the teams that improved, this part of the list is basically teams regressing to the mean. Such is the case with the Jazz, who are who we thought they were. Utah is still just two games out of a playoff spot, but the Jazz and Warriors have identical point differentials and Utah ranks ahead of only New Orleans in the conference this month, so fans in Salt Lake can probably feel free to start making plans for early May.

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

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