Hi folks. My name is Mike Prada, and I'm going to be doing the NBA power rankings every week from here on out. In case you don't know me, I'm the webmaster of Bullets Forever, SB Nation's Washington Wizards blog, and I recently wrote an article ranking the 30 NBA teams in terms of entertainment value, which prompted angry fans everywhere to give me a piece of their mind.
But enough about me. You're here because you love power rankings, even though there's never a time when they matter on the court. General managers probably aren't bitching to each other that their team was too low in someone's power rankings. Players don't spend too much time wondering whether their team should be higher than 15th on someone's power rankings list.
Then again, we're fans, not players or GMs. We're supposed to talk about stuff like this. So, in that spirit, I'm hoping we do talk about these every week. I don't have a ton of criteria for how I do these, because there's no right way to rank teams. It's a subjective exercise with objective factors at play. However, I do think you can honestly break down the league into four categories: the cream of the crop, the successful teams that aren't quite championship caliber, the mediocre clubs and the dregs of the league. Without fail, teams fall into one of those categories.
So, without further ado, let's begin with this week's edition. We'll count down from 30 to 1. For reference, here are last week's rankings.
WORSE THAN THE DREGS OF THE LEAGUE
30. New Jersey Nets: (2-29, 0-3 this week).
SBN Blog: Your blog here
Well, that was easy. Let's move on.
Fine, you want me to say something? Look, when you can't beat the flippin' Minnesota Timberwolves at home when they're on the second game of a back-to-back, you are barely an NBA team and deserve to have a whole new category created for you. The 1972/73 Philadelphia 76ers should be worried, because their NBA-worst 9-73 season record is in jeopardy.
So there. Let's move on. Here are highlights from that dreadful Wolves-Nets game, if you want to indulge.
(Last week: 30)
DREGS OF THE LEAGUE
29. Indiana Pacers (9-20 overall, 0-3 this week)
SBN Blog: Indy Cornrows
The week that was for Indiana: a nine-point loss in Boston last Tuesday, a ho-hum 12-point loss at home to Atlanta on Saturday and a "We explored South Beach too much to care about the game"-type effort in a 34-point loss to Miami on Sunday. Maybe Indiana has a better record overall than some of the teams in front of them, but you have to punish them for crimes against basketball humanity for their past week.
Making matters worse, Mike Dunleavy, who rushed back from an injury to help fill in for an injured Danny Granger, is now dealing with nagging injuries himself (or as head coach Jim O'Brien likes to say, "it doesn't look like his legs are carrying him well right now"). Just so we're clear, this is coming from somebody who missed the first 13 games of the season.
(Last week: 26)
28. Minnesota Timberwolves (7-24 overall, 2-1 this week)
SBN Blog: Canis Hoopus
A decent week for the T-Puppies, who got a win in New Jersey before dispatching the Wizards in the Flip Saunders/Randy Foye revenge game last Saturday. They may still stink, but they have officially moved on from the Foye era, which Timberwolves fans are describing as "The Four Stages of Randy Foye Grief." I'd make some joke about Wolves fans having to now go through the "Seven Hundred Stages of Corey Brewer Grief," but Brewer actually had a big game against the Wizards (27 points, seven rebounds, good defense on Gilbert Arenas), so I'll let it go.
(Plus, he can dunk! Look! If only he could dribble and exhibit remedial shot selection, he'd be great!)
(Last week: 29)
27. Philadelphia 76ers (8-22 overall, 1-2 last week)
SBN Blog: Liberty Ballers
A surprising, out-of-nowhere win over the Blazers last night sends Philly up a grand total of one spot from where I originally had them. Still, it was an impressive win, one where Elton Brand scored a season-high 25 points. Let's just stop and consider the gravity of that statement for a second. Damn, Elton Brand has fallen hard.
Oh, and in case you were wondering, SB Nation's 76ers blog Liberty Ballers is still thinking about next year's draft, even in victory:
Wins are fun. Especially when they're against a team with a winning record. They don't particularly matter because we're not contenders this season, but they're nice to see from time to time, as long as we stay in a top 5 spot in the draft. If we can all realize this, then the rest of the year will be more enjoyable.
The eighth seed in the East is only three games away. I'm just saying...
(Last week: 27)
26. Golden State Warriors: (9-21 overall, 2-2 this week)
SBN Blog: Golden State of Mind
I know, I know, the Warriors beat the Suns and Celtics this week and probably deserve to be higher than the dregs section. But I just can't do it. Not when both of those wins happened when the other team was on the second night of a back-to-back. Playing the Warriors on the second night of a back-to-back is kind of like ordering a bad pizza when you're drunk. Sure, the pizza tastes good at the time, but it's only because of the circumstances.
It should be noted that the Suns-Warriors game was really entertaining though. Kind of like this Warriors-Suns game.
Warriors-Suns, where partying like it's 1994 happens.
(Last week: 28)
25. Detroit Pistons (11-19 overall, 0-3 this week)
SBN Blog: Detroit Bad Boys
That's now seven losses in a row for Detroit, in case you were counting. I can't even blame injuries anymore because Tayshaun Prince and Rip Hamiton are both back in action. To find room for both of them, John Kuester is starting Prince at power forward alongside rookie Jonas Jerekbo. Obviously, he didn't get the memo from former Pistons coach Michael Curry that this arrangement does not work. You hear me? Does. Not. Work.
On the bright side, SB Nation did welcome in Detroit Bad Boys, one of the premier NBA team-specific blogs on the Internet, this week. Go check it out.
(Last week: 20)
24. Washington Wizards (10-19 overall, 2-2 this week)
SBN Blog: Bullets Forever
(Last week: 25)
23. Chicago Bulls (11-17 overall, 1-2 last week)
SBN Blog: Blog a Bull
It's true they did beat the Hornets on Saturday, but I still have to rank the Bulls this low for what they're doing to Vinny Del Negro. Is he an incompetent head coach? Of course. Does he deserve to have to talk about the possibility of his own firing while the front office remains silent? Of course not. Only the Bulls...
(Last week: 24)
22. New York Knicks (11-19 overall, 1-2 last week)
SBN Blog: Posting and Toasting
The final scores of the Knicks games last week: 88-81, 93-87, 95-88. Who kidnapped Mike D'Antoni and turned him into Larry Brown? Come on, I need my dysfunctional Knicks fix. I need my transition play, my quick three-pointers with guys in players' faces and my total lack of defense. If you're in a transition year anyway before 2010, at least make it fun and interesting for the fans. Is that too much to ask?
(Last week: 23)
21. Milwaukee Bucks (12-17 overall, 0-3 last week)
SBN Blog: Brew Hoop
It's looking more and more like the Bucks are returning to the 2007 "We have no offense and don't really play defense either" Bucks, as opposed to the 2009 "We were actually exciting and tough to play" version. That's exactly what Brew Hoop wrote after last Wednesday's loss to the Wizards.
It was more like 2006 or 2007 retro. You know, when Mike Redd was creating tons of offense, Charlie Bell still played some point guard, Andrew Bogut left you wanting more, and Brandon Jennings played like a high schooler...because he was.
20. Los Angeles Clippers (13-17 overall, 1-2 last week)
SBN Blog: Clips Nation
It's hard to penalize the Clippers too much for their 1-2 week when their three games were at Houston, at Phoenix on Christmas Day and against Boston at home, so I'll move them up one spot despite a losing week. Still, with all the talent this team has, you hope they'd be better. Maybe when Blake Griffin comes back in the ever-nearer future.
(Oh, and Mike Dunleavy: if you still have a job by then, please don't play Griffin at small forward. I beg you. I know you have Marcus Camby and Chris Kaman, but Griffin is a 4. Period. You don't play someone that awesome around the basket on the perimeter. Thanks. In case you needed a reminder, just watch this).
(Last week: 20)
19. Charlotte Bobcats (12-17, 2-1 last week)
SBN Blog: Rufus on Fire
You hear that noise? It's the Charlotte Bobcats train that keeps chugging its way to 35 wins and the 13th pick in the draft. Don't worry, it won't stop.
(Last week: 22)
18. New Orleans Hornets (13-15 overall, 1-1 last week)
SBN Blog: At the Hive
I'm running out of ways to say "Chris Paul is awesome, the rest of the team is garbage." So instead, I'll direct you to this excellent post at At the Hive chronicling the awful calender year that was for the Hornets. It started with a Christmas Day 2008 massacre at the hands of the Magic and has continued until this very day. Here's hoping the 2010 calendar year is kinder to this club, because I hate seeing Hornets fans all sad.
(Last week: 16)
17. Toronto Raptors (15-17 overall, 2-0 last week)
SBN Blog: Raptors HQ
Don't look now, but the Raptors have won four straight, including a home-and-home sweep of the Pistons. The competition hasn't been outstanding (home wins over New Jersey, New Orleans and Detroit, as well as a road win over the Pistons), but in the East, that's good enough to vault you all the way up to sixth place. If jokes about the balance of power in the NBA weren't so cliche, I'd make one.
The bottom line is that normally skeptical Raptors fans are actually optimistic. In the East, that's progress. (Dammit, I promised I wouldn't make a balance of power joke. Sorry guys).
(Last week: 19)
16. Memphis Grizzlies (14-16 overall, 2-1 last week)
SBN Blog: Straight Outta Vancouver
(Crap, I did it again. Sorry).
While we're here ... ladies and gentlemen, Jamaal Tinsley!
(Last week: 18)
15. Sacramento Kings 14-16, 1-2 last week
SBN Blog: Sactown Royalty
It was nice to see Paul Westphal get Jeff Van Gundy's endorsement for Coach of the Year. The guy deserves it. And yes, I'm moving up Sacramento two spots despite an 1-2 week. When your losses are overtime defeats to the Lakersand the Cavs, and your win is against the Nuggets without Tyreke Evans, you move up. I may not have too many specific rules for these, but that's one of them.
(Another rule: Anytime your performance this season causes a national writer to eviscerate himself line-by-line for his shoddy preseason prediction, you move up. Kelly Dwyer remains my hero).
(Last week: 17)
SUCCESSFUL, NOT QUITE CHAMPIONSHIP-CALIBER
14. Houston Rockets (18-13, 2-2 last week)
SBN Blog: The Dream Shake
Say it ain't so, Tracy McGrady-Joe. (Lame rhyme? I agree. Let's just move on). It's not terrible to lose at Orlando and at Cleveland, but for a team that has made their mark on maximizing their talent and competing with 100% effort, the fact that both were blowouts is pretty troubling. I think it's impossible to deny at this point that the Tracy McGrady situation is hanging over everyone's heads. It's thrown everyone's minutes out of whack, which hurts on a team like Houston that has a precious balance to maintain. Houston's just 4-4 since McGrady returned, with the aformentioned blowouts included.
One thing's for sure: the McGrady situation is hanging over the heads of Rockets fans over at The Dream Shake. There have been not one, not two, but three long posts this week on the McGrady situation over there. All are worth your time. The last one by Tom Martin in particular is worth your time. Here's an excerpt from Martin's piece, which argues that the Rockets handled the situation correctly.
Eventually, however, McGrady got to play, and for one reason and one reason only: to showcase him. At the time, Tracy's giant expiring contract was the sole reason for his trade interest. As of today, nothing has changed - he's still a giant wad of cash, rather than an NBA star. But if I'm Daryl Morey, and I have one of the more intriguing trade options rotting on my bench, why sell myself short? I'm fairly certain that I can increase his value ever so slightly, just so that teams may consider him as more than just a coupon for the 2010 Free Agent Jamboree.
In playing McGrady sparingly, the were giving teams the impression that McGrady could actually be of some use on the court. Listen, Mr. Riley, we both know that Tracy isn't close to what he once was. But he's not exactly dead air, either. Why not give us Anthony Randolph, and we'll call it even Whoops, caught myself daydreaming there.
Does this all do McGrady wrong? I guess not. I mean, it stinks from his perspective that he can't play more, but Tom raises a good point: if McGrady really wanted to go elsewhere, wouldn't it benefit him to play fewer minutes before his play inevitably tapers off? If so, maybe the Rockets were doing McGrady right after all.
(Last week: 11)
13. Utah Jazz (17-13 overall, 1-1 last week)
SBN Blog: SLC Dunk
Here's a shocker: Utah played one road game and one home game this week, losing the road game while scoring just 70 points and winning the home game by 21 points. At this point, it's comical how differently they play at home compared to how they play on the road. I'm running out of funny things to say about it.
The Jazz also made a trade this week, dumping promising rookie Eric Maynor off to Oklahoma City so they could rid themselves of Matt Harpring's contract and cut their astronomical luxury tax bill down. That means they need a point guard, and Ridiculous Upside, SB Nation's NBA Developmental League blog, goes through some possible D-League candidates. I'm hoping for Mustafa Shakur myself. Why? Someone with that awesome of a name needs to be in the NBA. Case closed.
(Last week: 12)
12. Miami Heat (16-12 overall, 3-0 last week)
SBN Blog: Peninsula is Mightier
Three wins in a row and five in the last six games for the Heat, who still give me this "we're totally average" vibe, but maybe they're a little better. They did hold Utah to 70 points and beat New York in MSG on Christmas, both wins an above-average team gets normally. Maybe they're just sneaking up on people.
(By the way, Michael Beasley's stats in December: 47% shooting, 17.1 points, 6.6 rebounds. Kid's growing up, slowly, but surely. He's even drawing charges!).
(Last week: 13)
11. Oklahoma City Thunder (16-14 overall, 3-1 last week)
SBN Blog: Welcome To Loud City
I'm officially unable to be objective about this team. Sorry guys. The NBA needs to do something and make sure these guys make the playoffs this year. We need a Lakers-Thunder first-round series after that epic game earlier this week.
(Last week: 14)
10. Denver Nuggets (20-12, 1-3 last week)
SBN Blog: Denver Stiffs
I know that Chauncey Billups has been hurt, and I know how much his loss kills this team. But still, you cannot be a top team in the league if you lose to the Sacramento Kings when they're missing both Tyreke Evans and Kevin Martin. You just can't. And since I have no real authority to punish the Nuggets on the court (being a measly blogger and all), I'll instead punish them by moving them down to 10 in the SB Nation Power Rankings. This power trip feels pretty good, what can I say?
SB Nation's Denver Stiffs decided to punish the Nuggets their own way too, comparing Nuggets coach George Karl to former Broncos coach Mike Shanahan for his inability to win games in December. Now that's harsh. It's also times like these where I remember Shanahan is probably going to be the next Redskins coach. Yippee! (Enough football talk? Fine, sorry).
(Last week: 6)
9. Portland Trailblazers (20-13 overall, 3-1 last week)
SBN Blog: Blazers Edge
Yesterday's loss to the hapless 76ers (a classic "we ran out of gas" loss) put a damper on a pretty incredible week for the Blazers, who defeated the Mavericks, Spurs and Nuggets despite losing yet another key player (Joel Przybilla) to a season-ending injury, forcing them to start the immortal Juwan Howard at center. Portland has now lost Przybilla, Greg Oden, Travis Outlaw, Nicholas Batum and Rudy Fernandez for significant time this year. Is this punishment for the whole Darius Miles fiasco last year? I'm going to say yes. The basketball gods are angry at Portland and are punishing their players for it.
(Blazers fans, don't worry, I'm kidding. Take it from this Wizards fan: injuries to your team are no fun. Sorry for your pain).
(Last week: 9)
8. San Antonio Spurs (17-11 overall, 2-1 this week)
SBN Blog: Pounding the Rock
The Spurs have a worse record than the Blazers and lost to the Blazers earlier this week. So why San Antonio over Portland? The Spurs are lurking, while the Blazers are not. I know, pretty lame. But you have to reward a team for going 8-2 in its last 10 games, even if only three of those games happened this week. The Spurs are coming and the rest of the league should be worried.
Seriously, any time Spurs fans take a comprehensive look at the numbers and say "Yeah, we weren't great early on, but I'm not too concerned," the league should worry. The Spurs had a ton of new pieces to integrate, and they had some nagging injuries to deal with early on, but now they're starting to jell and the team we've seen in the last ten games is the product of all of that. The scary part is that they're still nowhere near their full potential. Once they are - holy hell, the NBA is in trouble.
(Last week: 10)
7. Phoenix Suns (20-12 overall, 2-2 this week)
SBN Blog: Bright Side of the Sun
Only a mighty impressive win over the Lakers last night keeps Phoenix ahead of San Antonio, Portland and Denver and in seventh place in this week's rankings. The Suns are now just 6-9 in December after a 14-3 start, and Suns fans are wondering whether it's time to panic.
I'm not sure whether it's time to panic, per se. Still, I just don't think this team is good enough to stay this high the rest of the year. It's pretty amazing what they've done so far, but if you compare their talent from top to bottom (and I'm including coaching) to all the other top teams in the league, they just don't stand up. Steve Nash may be amazing, but he can't carry these guys all season, can he?
This team's path honestly reminds me a lot of the 2006/07 Orlando Magic. You probably forget that team, but they started the season 13-4 and had the best record in the league at the time. From that point on, Orlando went just 27-38 and slipped into the playoffs as the eighth seed before being swept by the Pistons. Both the Magic and the Suns had a lack of top-flight talent (Orlando was Dwight Howard and a bunch of young guys not ready for prime time). Both those teams had a retreat coach experiencing a level of success they hadn't experienced in a while (Brian Hill, Alvin Gentry). Both those teams had Grant Hill. (Okay, that last one was a joke). It's hard to believe Phoenix will fall that hard, but it's also hard to believe they'll be one of the seven best teams in the league by the end of the year.
Here's hoping I'm wrong, because the NBA is a better place when the Suns are good. Especially when they're getting away with blatant jump ball violations.
(Last week: 7).
6. Orlando Magic (22-8 overall, 1-1 this week)
SBN Blog: Orlando Pinstriped Post
When you consider all the changes that Orlando had in the offseason, there's nothing wrong with being 22-8 after 30 games. They'll be there in the end, and they'll be more dangerous that ever.
Still, I can't shake the Christmas Day loss to Boston out of my head. This was a chance for the Magic to make a statement on national television. All their players were healthy and they were playing at home against a team that has historically bothered them. The Celtics were without Paul Pierce, their crunch-time scorer and best overall player. And yet, the Magic still couldn't shake Boston's stifling defense and efficient offense, losing 86-77 in a game that really wasn't the close. Dwight Howard wilted once again when matched up against great post defenders, and Rashard Lewis disappeared with Kevin Garnett back in the fold. Orlando's ball movement completely disappeared and we had to watch Vince Carter wince his way to 27 points and just two assists. Orlando's loss wasn't Carter's fault, but it's still not a winning formula to have him do all the scoring. Boston knew this and exploited it.
In my mind, there have been only four statement games all year. Orlando won one of them when they routed Atlanta at home on Thanksgiving day, because it proved Atlanta isn't quite ready. Atlanta won one when they beat Boston at home earlier in the year, and the Cavs won the other when they routed the Lakers on Christmas. In my mind, though, the Celtics' win over Orlando on Christmas was the statement game of the year. It reaffirmed Boston's place at the top of the East and pushed Orlando down the list until they figure out how to score against a great defense. They'll probably figure it out eventually, but not now, which is why, at the moment, they're just sixth.
(Last week: 3).
5. Dallas Mavericks 22-9 overall, 2-1 this week)
SBN Blog: Mavs Moneyball
Surprised to see Dallas this high? Here are some facts:
When you consider all of that, it's pretty surprising to see Dallas at 22-9. They've faced a ton of adversity and are still right there as the Lakers' primary challenger in the West (for now at least). Assuming the entire crew stays healthy, that's a team the Lakers want no part of in the playoffs. Hence, the high ranking.
(Last week: 4).
4. Atlanta Hawks (21-8 overall, 2-1 this week)
SBN Blog: Peachtree Hoops
The Hawks keep taking care of business convincingly against teams they should beat, to the point where Hawks fans really have nothing more to say but "good job guys." This week's going to be an interesting test for them, though, as they play Cleveland in back-to-back games (seriously, schedule-makers? Seriously). Do they match up well with Cleveland? I'm not sure, to be honest. Nevertheless, it's a major test that'll tell us a lot about the Hawks. They failed their first test when Orlando spanked them at home on national TV on Thanksgiving, so I'm sure they'll be motivated to pass this one.
(Last week: 8. Really guys, eighth? Come on).
3. Los Angeles Lakers (24-6 overall, 2-2 this week)
SBN Blog: Silver Screen and Roll
Every team that fancies itself as a title contender faces some bumps in the road. This week for the Lakers classifies as a pretty huge one. Blowout losses to Cleveland and Phoenix have Lakers fans pissed, at least pissed enough to throw foam fingers onto the court.
Meanwhile, the story to watch with this team that nobody is talking about is whether Jerry Buss allows management to add even more payroll to improve their bench. Right now, the Lakers' 7th-12th men are Luke Walton, Sasha Vujacic, Josh Powell, Shannon Brown and Jordan Farmar. That's a pretty pathetic mix, and that lack of depth showed when Ron Artest sat out yesterday. The problem is, the Lakers' payroll is already astronomical, and it's not like teams are going to gift them a productive player on an expiring contract in this economic climate. There are guys out there that can help the Lakers and will accept a package centered around Farmar and Adam Morrison's expiring contract, but they won't come cheap. Will the Lakers get them anyway? Their championship hopes might depend on it.
(Last week: 1)
2. Boston Celtics (23-6 overall, 2-2 this week)
SBN Blog: Celtics Blog
I was this close to putting them at #1 even though they've lost two straight to the Clippers and the Warriors. The Celtics made their statement with their win over the Magic on Christmas Day, and the two West Coast losses really aren't killers considering Paul Pierce is still out. The Warriors are an impossible team to play on the second night of a back-to-back (just ask the Suns), and the Clippers' loss struck me as a classic "lose the battle, win the war" game.
What do I mean? Doc Rivers elected to let Rajon Rondo make all the decisions down the stretch for the Celtics, even though Rondo's a terrible free-throw shooter. Ray Allen got one good look near the end of the game; otherwise, it was all Rondo. Rondo obviously failed in the end, missing two free throws before Baron Davis' classic buzzer beater, but he'll need that experience down the road. The Celtics will need him to make winning plays in pressure situations in the playoffs, and since that Clippers game ultimately doesn't matter to them much, what better time to give Rondo that exposure?
Still, I can't put them first. Their injuries are piling up, and they did just lose two in a row. Don't worry, Celtics fans. The Celtics will be back. Until then, let's relive one of the best games of the year thus far.
(Last week: 2)
1. Cleveland Cavaliers (24-8 overall, 3-0 this week)
SBN Blog: Fear the Sword
You have no idea how much it pains me to say this, but the Cavaliers are officially scary. They had a rough start while they worked out all the kinks, but what they did this week was nothing short of extraordinary. They're starting to jell, starting to have some actual offensive cohesion and starting to show why they won 66 games last year. I'd venture to say that no team has had a better last eight days (I'm cheating and including Monday's win over Phoenix in there) than the Cavs all season. They routed Houston, routed the Lakers and held off the upstart Kings in a hostile environment. Very, very impressive.
You know what's truly wild? Cleveland won those games in a different way. Against Phoenix, they trotted out a small lineup featuring LeBron James at power forward and ran the Suns off the court in the fourth quarter. Against the Lakers, they rolled out their huge lineup, with Zydrunas Ilgauskas and Shaquille O'Neal in at the same time, and totally neutralized the Lakers' inside game. You're finally starting to see the vision Danny Ferry had when made his offseason moves. Right now, this is a team with a roster that can beat you small (thanks to the Anthony Parker and Jamario Moon signings) or beat you big (thanks to the Shaq trade). They have a lineup for every situation, making them nearly impossible to match up with.
I really hope it all doesn't work, but I'm scared that it might. This week was frightening if you're a fan of any of the other top teams in the league. The Cavs are jelling and they mean business.