We power rankings folk have a problem. Too many good teams, no easy way of separating them. In the Western Conference, the 11th-place team (New Orleans) is just two games behind the fourth-place team (Utah). In the Eastern Conference, spots four through eight are separated by a game and a half.
So, to make our jobs easier, we think of ways to separate the contenders from the pretenders. It could be qualitative (which teams are playing better right now, which teams are passing the eye test, etc.) or it could be quantitative (who has a better point differential).
In that light, allow me to present my own way of dealing with the ever-growing middle class of the NBA. My method is simple. Who's doing well on the road?
Why place so much weight in road performance? Because there aren't many teams who can win on the road in this league. As of yesterday, NBA teams were winning an average of 62 percent of their home games. Only seven teams have losing records at home this year (an eighth, Detroit, is exactly .500 in The Palace of Auburn Hills). By contrast, only seven teams in the league have a winning road record.
If a team you expected to be mediocre or worse is on a surprising hot streak, chances are it's because they've had a lot of home games. For example, eight of Charlotte's first 12 games in January were home games. Memphis may be 18-7 since December, but they've also played 15 of those 25 games at home. Sacramento started off hot with a soft home schedule, but they've now wilted on a six-game road swing. Utah's jumped back into the Western Conference playoff picture, and ... whaddaya know, they've played eight of their last 12 at home. I could go on.
Playing on the road requires mental toughness, smarts, tenacity and a will to win, baby! And since I'm all out of platitudes, let's just get on with the rankings.
(To see last week's rankings, click here. We use same categories to separate the teams into tiers, though the names of those categories changed this week).
STILL IN THEIR OWN CATEGORY
30. New Jersey Nets: 3-40 overall, 0-3 last week
SBN Blog: Nets Daily
Last week: 30
Remember when everyone said the Nets ripped off the Mavericks in the Jason Kidd-Devin Harris trade? As Kidd continues to age like fine wine and Harris plays like he's quit on his team, should we reevaluate things? On the one hand, Kidd was sulking himself in Jersey, and playing with a great offensive player like Dirk Nowitzki has rejuvinated him in a way the Nets situation couldn't. On the other hand, Harris has proven that he can't be counted on as a franchise player this year. A franchise player doesn't experience the kind of unbelievable statistical drop-off Harris has seen this year. A franchise player doesn't come up in trade rumors for guys like Caron Butler. A franchise player helps bring out more in his talented young teammates than this.
The jury is still out on the Kidd trade, but as Harris continues to lead his team toward NBA infamy, it's worth reconsidering our thoughts on the trade.
DREGS OF THE LEAGUE
29. Minnesota Timberwolves: 9-36 overall, 0-3 last week
SBN Blog: Canis Hoopus
Last week: 29.
Two good efforts early in the week (close losses to Oklahoma City and New Orleans) mean little if you get blown out by Milwaukee on the road. On the bright side, we learned two good things about Minnesota this week. One is that perpetually disappointing Corey Brewer may actually be starting to turn the corner in his development. The other is that Damien Wilkins apparently has ups that approach his uncle Dominique's.
28. Golden State Warriors: 13-29 overall, 1-2 last week
SBN Blog: Golden State of Mind
Last week: 27.
At this point, I would love nothing more than for Amare Stoudemire to end up in Golden State. No style suits him better -- well, except Phoenix's of course. Warrior fans can get excited that their team is taking baby steps from 25 to 35 wins, all while mortgaging their future. Finally, as much as I love the NBA D-League players, it's more fun to watch one of them play at the same time than three. Let's make it happen!
27. Washington Wizards: 14-29 overall, 0-3 last week.
SBN Blog: Bullets Forever
Last week: 25.
I hate to call it like it is, but these guys are playing like they've quit. Players are deliberately ignoring the coach's instructions at the end of games. Benchwarmers are complaining that they've never been treated worse in their career, even though they've been on about five zillion teams. Other teams are running up the score on them because they know there's no fight left. The head coach is cutting off press conferences and bashing his own players left and right. It's ugly. As someone who has witnessed it all firsthand this year, I can confirm that, yes, it's been as bad as it looks.
26. Detroit Pistons: 15-28 overall, 1-2 last week
SBN Blog: Detroit Bad Boys.
Last week: 24.
Another year, another failed first-year coach, another round of players making excuses for their performance. But hey, at least Ben Wallace grades out well!
25. Philadelphia 76ers: 15-29 overall, 2-2 last week.
SBN Blog: Liberty Ballers
Last week: 27.
It's really unfortunate Samuel Dalembert isn't on a better team in a better market. If so, he'd receive more attention for the incredible sacrifices he is making to help in his native Haiti. He's barely slept, and yet, he continues to produce like he never has his entire career. Before a win over Dallas last Wednesday, Dalembert flew coach and barely made it to the game in time because he was in Haiti, yet still produced a double-double in an upset win. Hearing him talk about his struggles makes his accomplishments all the more remarkable.
24. Sacramento Kings: 15-28 overall, 0-3 last week
SBN Blog: Sactown Royalty
Last week: 23.
At what point do we punt the Tyreke Evans-Kevin Martin experience? Right now? Never? Sometime in-between? It's an honest question, because while there are several other reasons the Kings are struggling (namely, the tougher schedule), the evidence against the pairing working well together continues to pile up.
23. Indiana Pacers: 16-29 overall, 2-3 last week
SBN Blog: Indy Cornrows
Last week: 26.
Danny Granger has returned just in time to keep Indiana in their constant holding pattern of being too good for the top of the lottery, yet not good enough to challenge for the playoffs. Of course, as I say this, watch the Pacers stun everyone and win the John Wall lottery. When your point guards are T.J. Ford, Earl Watson and A.J. Price, you'd take an upgrade to the position any way you can.
22. New York Knicks: 17-26 overall, 0-2 last week
SBN Blog: Posting and Toasting
Last week: 21.
Did you hear that the New York Knicks lost by 50 points last Sunday? No? Well, relive the train wreck yourself with these highlights.
Here's my question: was it really necessary to show a Knicks highlight in that recap? Like, what's the point? THEY LOST BY 50! But hey, the world must know Jared Jeffries hit a buzzer beater at the end of the first quarter, right?
21. Milwaukee Bucks: 18-24 overall, 2-1 this week
SBN Blog: Brew Hoop
Last week: 22
Needing scoring punch, the Bucks signed Jerry Stackhouse, who maybe could have provided it if it was 2000 rather than 2010. On the bright side, he can sing the national anthem, which is something Brandon Jennings probably can't do since he abandoned a good ol' American institution (college) to go play for some damn Italian team last year. Score one for the Stack man!
20. Los Angeles Clippers: 20-24 overall, 2-2 last week
SBN Blog: Clips Nation.
Last week: 19.
With all the fallout from the Gilbert Arenas gun situation, I've been forced to go looking across the league for a new favorite player. For the last few weeks, I've searched far and wide, spanning all corners of the NBA League Pass Broadband window that pops up on my computer. At long last, I think I've found my guy.
Who is it? Craig Smith.
Why Craig Smith, you ask? Dude knows exactly what he's good at. Nearly three-quarters of his field goal attempts this year have come inside the paint. He's not tall, but he's wide and crafty underneath the hoop, able to score with either hand and against any player. Last night, against the Celtics, the Clippers were giving Smith the ball to isolate against Kevin Garnett, who, of course, is possibly the best defensive power forward of the modern era (tied with Duncan and Dennis Rodman). The Clippers also know exactly how to use him; they throw him in there for 15 minutes a game and constantly give him the ball on clearouts to let him do his thing. There may be other undersized power forwards, but there's nobody like Craig Smith. That's why he's my new favorite player.
(As for the Clippers -- what can you say? So much talent, so many injuries, so little cohesion. It's all a broken record).
THE ASTOUNDINGLY LARGE MIDDLE CLASS
19. Charlotte Bobcats: 21-22 overall, 1-3 last week
SBN Blog: Rufus on Fire
Last week: 15.
Remember when we talked about the importance of winning on the road at the beginning of this post? Charlotte's home record? 18-5. Charlotte's road record? 3-17. In a related story, the Bobcats have dropped three in a row, two on the road, and now have five straight road games ahead.
More than any other team, the Bobcats demonstrate the whole home/road litmus test. Charlotte's home court is hardly imposing when compared to other NBA arenas. They don't get the benefit of a zillion home Sunday games like the Raptors. They don't get the benefit of high altitude like the Nuggets and (to a lesser extent) the Jazz do. There's not the history like there is in Boston or LA. They're just a team that is good enough to beat anyone in a familiar atmosphere, but wilts themselves when they're faced with unfamiliarity. They're a team like so many in the NBA's middle class.
18. Toronto Raptors: 23-22, 2-2 last week.
SBN Blog: Raptors HQ
Last week: 17.
Another team with a massive home/road split -- 15-6 at home, 8-16 on the road. Of those eight road wins, two (New Orleans on November 6 and Orlando on January 6) came against teams with winning records. The others? Washington (when Gilbert Arenas missed a game-winning layup), LA Clippers, New York, Detroit, Philadelphia and Chicago (at the height of the "Vinny Del Negro is a goner" era). It's nice that they beat the Lakers this week, but it was a Sunday home game, so I can't put too much stock into it.
On the other hand ...
17. Chicago Bulls: 21-22 overall, 3-1 last week
SBN Blog: Blog A Bull
Last week: 20.
... here's a team that's taken care of business on the road. The Bulls won three straight road games this week against the following teams: Phoenix, Houston, San Antonio. Very impressive. The defense is improving and Derrick Rose is starting to emerge again after a very slow start to the season. If the Bulls keep this up, they'll stay in the playoffs, where they can at least make it seem to marquee free agents like they're a team on the rise.
16. New Orleans Hornets: 24-20 overall, 3-1 last week.
SBN Blog: At the Hive
Last week: 18.
Two good things about the Hornets to note. One is that, because of yesterday's moves to get rid of Devin Brown and Bobby Brown, they're under the luxury tax for next year. That's huge, because not only do they not have to pay the league double for every dollar they're over the tax, but they also get the approximately $5 million share that gets redistributed from teams above the tax threshold. For a team that's hemorrhaging money, gaining that much money is a big coup, and all it cost them were Devin Brown, Bobby Brown and Hilton Armstrong, none of whom are good players.
The other good thing is that this means more playing time for second-round rookie Marcus Thornton, who may not be good yet (key word, yet), but is sure much more fun to watch than anyone on the team other than Chris Paul.
Why aren't they higher? Oh yeah, the home/road thing. New Orleans is 16-4 at home and 8-16 on the road.
15. Houston Rockets: 24-20 overall, 1-2 last week
SBN Blog: The Dream Shake
Last week: 13
We got some problems in Houston. For one, that defense, which was supposedly good, has really slacked off. Houston's now just 16th in defensive efficiency. For another, yikes, Trevor Ariza. His advanced stats are just pitiful; 11.9 PER and a 46.5% true shooting percentage, all while ending over 22 percent of Houston's possessions. I wonder whether Ariza wishes he were back in LA, because it seems like it's been proven that he can't be an effective featured player in this league.
Honestly, it appears that the Rockets are who we thought they were, if we want to channel Denny Green for a second. That's kind of where The Dream Shake is going with this post.
14. Phoenix Suns: 26-20 overall, 2-2 last week
SBN Blog: Bright Side of the Sun.
Last week: 14.
Speaking of teams who are who we thought they were ... how about the Phoenix Suns' defense against the Utah Jazz down the stretch last night? Phoenix led 96-79 with just over two minutes to go in the third quarter and somehow lost 124-115. If you're counting, that's 44 points in 14 minutes for the Jazz. Maybe the Suns should watch this video on loop for the next few days.
13. Miami Heat: 23-21 overall, 3-2 last week.
SBN Blog: Peninsula is Mightier
Last week: 16.
Now here's a team with a pretty even home/road split -- 13-11 at home, 10-10 on the road. If you're going to argue this placement with me by saying this just means they're mediocre everywhere, well, you have a point. But at least they can say that. Many of the other teams around here can't.
(Though it's interesting that, when I talked to Miami broadcasters at Friday's Wizards-Heat game, they were bemoaning the team's inconsistency. In terms of road/home record, I don't really see that, but they were adamant about it).
I will say this: Dwyane Wade's meltdown against the Cavaliers last night was nothing short of stunning. I guess it happens even to the best.
12. San Antonio Spurs: 25-18 overall, 0-3 last week
SBN Blog: Pounding the Rock.
Last week: 8.
When is it time to push the panic button on this team? Pounding the Rock says right now, and I agree.
Let's analyze the situation for a second. (cues Hubie Brown voice). You've got Tim Duncan, who's having a marvelous offensive season, but can't carry the entire load anymore. His defensive energy is way down because of all he's doing on offense. It was incredible to see the Bulls just pick Duncan apart on a very basic Derrick Rose/Joakim Noah screen and roll down the stretch last night. You've got Manu Ginobili, who isn't himself anymore, and Tony Parker, who isn't himself either because of a foot injury that will linger all season. You've got Richard Jefferson, who's been a major disappointment, and Antonio McDyess, who hasn't made much of an impact. About the only thing you have going for you other than Duncan is rookie DeJuan Blair.
You've got the annual rodeo trip coming up, which is usually when you come together and kick butt, but you've also now lost three straight home games to merely decent teams (Utah, Houston, Chicago), and your guys look more tired than ever before. You're in trouble. There's no other way to put it.
11. Memphis Grizzlies: 24-19 overall, 2-1 last week.
SBN Blog: Straight Outta Vancouver
Last week: 12
10. Oklahoma City Thunder: 24-20 overall, 1-2 last week.
SBN Blog: Welcome To Loud City
Last week: 10.
And now we come to possibly the most contentious part of these 'here power rankings.
You're probably wondering "Why are the Grizzlies ahead of the Thunder when they have a better record and just beat them. Hater!" Two reasons:
First, not to sound like a broken record, but we gotta bring up road performance again. I don't want to take anything away from Memphis' great run recently, but they've had the benefit of playing a pretty home-heavy schedule. Memphis is 17-5 at home, but just 7-17 on the road. The stated reason for their poor November was that Allen Iverson was poisoning things, but really, it was having a road-heavy beginning of the season. Twelve of their first 19 games were road games, and predictably, the Grizzlies were 7-12 in those games. Since then, Memphis is 17-7, but of those 24 games, 15 were at home. By contrast, Oklahoma City is one of the seven teams in the league with a winning road record (12-11), and they haven't had any major swings in their play all season. They take care of business on the road about as well as they do at home, and that's more sustainabile going forward.
The other reason, which is tied into road proficiency, is defense. Oklahoma City plays it, Memphis doesn't. The Thunder are fifth in the league in defensive efficiency (points allowed per 100 possessions); the Grizzlies are 24th. If shots aren't falling for the Thunder, which tends to happen more often on the road, they can still compete because they can play defense. If shots aren't falling for the Grizzlies, they're in trouble. And they'll stop falling. Mike Conley, for example, has never been known as a great three-point shooter, yet he's hit 17 of his last 24 three-point shots. Not to denegrade Conley's massive improvement this season too much, but there's no way he can sustain that. When the rest of the team can't either, the Grizzlies will have trouble getting wins because they can't stop people.
So there's my argument. Give me yours in the comments. Let's all get along and learn from each other. We can all agree that last Friday's Thunder-Grizzlies game was awesome, can't we?
9. Portland Traiblazers: 27-19 overall, 2-2 last week
SBN Blog: Blazers Edge
Last week: 9.
They're in a holding pattern until Brandon Roy returns healthy, which hopefully happens soon. It's a testament to the depth of this team, the coaching chops of Nate McMillan and the disposition of the players that they've had this much success with all their injuries, because if the injured Trail Blazers team (Roy, Greg Oden, Travis Outlaw, Joel Przybilla and Nicholas Batum until last night) played the healthy Trail Blazers team (Andre Miller, Steve Blake, Martell Webster, LaMarcus Aldridge, Juwan Howard) in a pickup game, my money's on the injured Trail Blazers.
8. Utah Jazz: 26-18 overall, 3-0 last week
SBN Blog: SLC Dunk
Last week: 11.
Right under our noses, the Jazz have won seven of their last eight. Have many of those games been home games? As we mentioned at the top, yes. But there's also a blowout win in Dallas, a win in Denver and a win in San Antonio during the streak. What's been a key? In my mind, it's the re-insertion of Andrei Kirilenko into the starting lineup. I'm not really sure why it took Jerry Sloan so long to do it, but the deed's been done and Kirilenko has shown flashes of what he once was in another era.
Though we're going to have to do something with AK-47's hair sooner or later (via @Jose3030).
7. Orlando Magic: 29-16 overall, 3-2 last week
SBN Blog: Orlando Pinstriped Post.
Last week: 7.
Hanging on in this category by a thread after last night's loss to the Grizzlies, which naturally happened after Vince Carter launched an ill-advised three with the game tied in the final two minutes. I've always liked Carter, but man, he really shrinks in the last two minutes of games. If you had to pick one guy in the league to break a play to shoot a shot like that, it'd be Vince Carter. Too bad, because I thought the Magic were really beginning to find their stride after gutting out an overtime win over the Bobcats on the road. I still think it's coming, but obviously not yet.
6. Dallas Mavericks: 29-15 overall, 2-1 last week.
SBN Blog: Mavs Moneyball
Last week: 6.
I'd give them the road record boost (they're 16-8 on the road this year, which is really amazing), but their point differential (60.6% expected winning percentage) is so much worse than Denver's (68.4%) that I can't do it. Also, Denver's suffered through some injuries recently to Carmelo Anthony and Chauncey Billups, and they're still coming out ahead.
Until then, let's appreciate Jason Kidd and the simplicity of his game. The only way this video (from Rob Mahoney at The Two Man Game) would be better is if there were more examples against teams other than the Wizards.
5. Boston Celtics: 29-13 overall, 2-2 last week.
SBN Blog: Celtics Blog.
Last week: 4
Kevin Garnett is back, which has led to two straight wins, albeit non-impressive ones at home over the banged-up Trail Blazers and Clippers. But at least they're winning, which is not what they were doing a ton of while he was out. This week is gutcheck week for the Celtics; Thursday at Orlando, followed by Friday at nemesis Atlanta and Sunday at home against the Lakers. We don't really know how good Boston is against the best because they've been so middling against so-so teams, but you also get the sense Boston is coasting, or at the very least saving their energy. This week should tell us if that's indeed the case or if instead they're just old.
4. Atlanta Hawks: 29-14 overall, 3-1 last week.
SBN Blog: Peachtree Hoops.
Last week: 5.
The Hawks keep taking care of business, striking at just the right time to put games out of reach. Against Houston last night, it was at the end of the second quarter, when they ripped off 12 straight points going into halftime. That's what good teams do on the road. They bide their time, play evenly for most of the game, and find one stretch where they break their opponents' backs. These guys are definitely for real after all.
3. Denver Nuggets: 30-14 overall, 4-0 last week
SBN Blog: Denver Stiffs.
Last week: 3.
Yes, they've got problems on the J.R. Smith front -- Smith pouted after only playing 12 minutes in an overtime win over the Hornets on Saturday, and Denver Stiffs thinks his time is up. But they've also won seven in a row, and while six of those were home games, only one of them was remotely in doubt by the fourth quarter (the New Orleans game). I'm not sure they're good enough to beat the Lakers in a seven-game series, but you have to admit, they've got the best shot to do it. I guarantee you the Lakers don't want anything to do with them.
2. Los Angeles Lakers: 33-11 overall, 1-2 last week
SBN Blog: Silver Screen and Roll
Last week: 2.
Thursday's loss to the Cavaliers, who were missing their second-best player, should prove beyond a reasonable doubt that the Lakers aren't the best team in the league right now. They might be at the end, mind you, but they have some issues of their own to work out. They have five more games left on this eight-game Eastern Conference road swing and they need a good showing to prop themselves back up. The Lakers are just 10-8 on the road this year, which isn't bad, but for a team that's supposed to be this good, it should be better.
In other news, Kobe Bryant is apparently human after all.
1. Cleveland Cavaliers: 35-11 overall, 4-0 last week
SBN Blog: Fear the Sword
Last week: 1
You have to admire these guys. They have more road wins than anyone in the league (18). They've disposed their top contender for the crown (the Lakers) twice, the second time when they didn't have Mo Williams. Since a 3-3 start, they're 32-8. They're 6-3 against the other teams in the "championship contenders" category, including 2-0 against the Lakers, 2-0 against the Hawks and 1-0 against the Magic. Will they be the best at the end of the season? Maybe, I don't know. It does kind of feel like they've squeezed as much as possible out of this roster, as opposed to the Lakers and Celtics, who certainly could get better. However, as of right now, they're the best, and there's no real way to contest it.
If only they could get LeBron James in the open floor once in a while, like this...