We're a week away from March Madness, meaning everyone conveniently forgets about the NBA to go ga-ga over a bunch of amateurs dribbling around the perimeter and bricking threes. (I'm kidding college basketball fans. But only a little). That's your right, I suppose.
However, you'll end up missing a key part of the NBA calendar. March is when the contenders push for the playoffs and the pretenders start tanking. March is when we figure out who enters the playoffs hot and who enters the playoffs stumbling. March is when teams become settled after the trade deadline and really show us who they are.
If you're playing well in March, chances are you're going to play well in April, May and June. The Spurs used to own March, using the month as their sign the real season had begun. Naturally, the Spurs won several championships and became the closest thing to a dynasty that we saw in the NBA this decade. The Celtics went 21-4 in March and April of 2008, which spurred them to the title that season. In other words, March matters a lot.
March also helps us get some separation in our power ranking tiers. We know now for a fact that ten teams are completely out of it. Depending on how the Bucks and Spurs do the rest of the season, we also know for a fact that there are 12 shoo-ins for the playoffs and eight more teams fighting for positioning. Finally, depending on how Boston responds this week, we know there are six or seven teams that are a threat to win it all. By the end of the month, we'll probably have even more clarity on these tiers.
I guess it's not March Madness, because it's not as exciting. But it's also certainly not March Meaningless. And since that was a horrible pun, let's get on with the rankings.
IN THEIR OWN CATEGORY
30. New Jersey Nets: 7-56 overall, 1-3 last week
SBN Blog: NetsDaily
Last week: 30.
The Nets have won two games in two weeks. Rejoice!
In all seriousness, they are playing much better recently, and a big reason is Devin Harris. Since the all-star break, Harris is averaging 20.6 points and 7.5 assists per game, which is a significant improvement from where he was in the first half of the season. Toss in an improved Courtney Lee, and the Nets are actually getting some legit production out of their so-called Big 3 (Harris, Lee, Brook Lopez). Sure, the other 11 players on the roster stink (especially Yi Jianlian, because we have to get our shots in at Yi Jianlian), but they're not really a part of the future anyway. Things are looking up.
(Think of this after the Nets drop to the fourth pick, select Derrick Favors and overpay for Rudy Gay with their cap space this summer).
DREGS OF THE LEAGUE
29. Minnesota Timberwolves: 14-50 overall, 0-3 last week.
SBN Blog: Canis Hoopus
Last week: 29.
I guess it's understandable for a team to start tanking in March, but damn, they could at least be subtle about it. In last night's loss to Dallas, Kevin Love played 12 minutes. That's it. As I mentioned last week, Kevin Love is all sorts of awesome. If you look at the advanced stats -- you know, the kind that do a better job of measuring real impact on the game -- Love is having a historically good season for young forwards. How he plays only 12 minutes in a game is beyond me. I'm going to assume the Wolves are tanking, because no coach could be that stupid.
Earth to Kurt Rambis, you're not dealing with the video game version of Kevin Love here. (Warning: language not safe for work)
28. Golden State Warriors: 17-46 overall, 0-5 last week.
SBN Blog: Golden State of Mind
Last week: 28.
Warrior fans are among the most loyal in sports. Don't believe me? Take one look at the stands at a Warriors home game. They're pretty close to full, even though the Warriors have made exactly one playoff appearance in 16 years. So when one rabid Warriors fan writes that he's reached the breaking point and will not renew his season tickets, it speaks volumes about just how bad it's become. Even Warriors fans, who are predisposed to failure and incompetency, are fed up.
For everyone's sake, I hope Larry Ellison from Oracle buys the team already. Can I get an amen?
27. Indiana Pacers: 20-43 overall, 0-4 last week
SBN Blog: Indy Cornrows
Last week: 26.
Coaching is a tough profession, don't get me wrong. You only have a certain amount of control over your team, and it's much less than any fan thinks you have. Still, Jim O'Brien committed a pretty epic blunder this week. The Pacers hung around in the first half against the mighty Lakers last Wednesday, led by strong play from Josh McRoberts. But when asked about McRoberts' play, here's what O'Brien had to say.
"It's irrelevant," O'Brien said. "Try to do it in a winning effort. It's really irrelevant."
See Josh, you gotta show more fight when it matters! Like this.
Wait, nevermind, that was in a losing effort too. I guess you're screwed then.
26. Washington Wizards: 21-39 overall, 0-3 last week.
SBN Blog: Bullets Forever
Last week: 22.
Last week, the Wizards faced two elite defenses (Milwaukee and Boston) for the first time since they blew up their team. The result? They couldn't score. I guess they are who we thought they were.
25. Detroit Pistons: 22-41 overall, 1-3 last week.
SBN Blog: Detroit Bad Boys.
Last week: 25.
I have nothing snarky to say about Rodney Stuckey's scary collapse. Here's hoping he'll ultimately be okay. I'm also happy to see the Pistons respond with a big win over the Rockets without Stuckey on Sunday. In Stuckey's absence, Will Bynum had 12 points, 11 assists and just one turnover. He's also a free agent, and you'd think he'd like to go somewhere else where he won't be stuck behind three other guards in the pecking order. Whoever gets him will be getting one hell of a bargain.
(You hear that, Wizards? Whoever gets Will Bynum will be getting one hell of a bargain.)
24. Philadelphia 76ers: 23-39 overall, 1-2 last week.
SBN Blog: Liberty Ballers
Last week: 24.
The fact that they beat Toronto in the impossible early-afternoon Sunday game the Raptors always seem to win just underscores why this team is so frustrating. They have talent, but they have no cohesion and terrible coaching. It should come as no surprise that Eddie Jordan is on the chopping block.
It also should come as no surprise that Sixers fans would rather have Jordan Sams from SB Nation's Sixers blog Liberty Ballers be the team's next coach than Doug Collins.
23. New York Knicks: 22-41 overall, 2-2 last week.
SBN Blog: Posting and Toasting
Last week: 27.
There are three constants in this world. Death, taxes, and the New York Knicks being confusing. I don't even bat an eye when they follow up a 20-point home loss to the Nets (which included an 0-18 performance from three-point range) with a one-point win against the Hawks. Just sit and nod.
22. Sacramento Kings: 22-41 overall, 2-2 last week
SBN Blog: Sactown Royalty
Last week: 22.
Someone needs to teach Spencer Hawes how to rebound. In the wake of Sunday's loss to Oklahoma City, a game in which the Kings were outrebounded 45-33, Sactown Royalty crunched some numbers and found that Hawes is pretty much the only one to blame. In 24 minutes, Hawes grabbed two rebounds. The last time those two teams played, he had three rebounds in 31 minutes. Since Tyreke Evans is the only one allowed to score on the Kings (slight exaggeration), Hawes needs to rebound. Unfortunately, since rebounding can't really be taught, Hawes is kind of screwed. As are the Kings.
21. Los Angeles Clippers: 25-38 overall, 0-3 last week.
SBN Blog: Clips Nation.
Last week: 21.
20. Houston Rockets: 31-31 overall, 1-2 since the break.
SBN Blog: The Dream Shake
Last week: 19.
The Rockets are struggling since the trade deadline, but it's not Kevin Martin's fault. The Mongoose has stepped up his game in Houston, averaging an efficient 23.3 points per game on just 15.9 shots. Whose fault is it? Well, they miss Carl Landry a lot (and Landry misses them too), and their lack of interior defense and rebounding is really catching up to them. Therefore, it's looking like no playoffs for them.
Which is okay. The Rockets were punting this year anyway after the Yao Ming injury, and they now have a ton of draft picks and assets at their disposal (thanks to Donnie Walsh). I just wish they went back to being plucky overachievers like they were earlier in the season.
On the bright side, Shane Battier does karaoke, in a tongue-in-cheek way.
19. New Orleans Hornets: 32-32 overall, 1-2 last week.
SBN Blog: At the Hive
Last week: 15.
With the news that Chris Paul's injury is more serious than initially expected, let's reopen the debate about Darren Collison. We know Collison has been outstanding in Paul's place. We also know that it's hard to justify keeping both players around when the Hornets have several other weaknesses at other positions (as well as a hefty luxury-tax bill already in 2010-11). It would seem logical to trade Collison this summer to upgrade another position and/or to help cut costs by forcing anyone acquiring Collison to take on one of the Hornets' bad contracts.
But what happens if Paul's injury problems continue? Paul doesn't exactly have the body of a player who will stand the test of time. He's had two serious injuries already in his career, the other one being in 2006-07. Isn't it nice to have Collison around as insurance? Collison's cheap too (on a rookie contract), so it's not like you're paying through the roof for a backup point guard.
There's one other option (and I'm going to be killed for even bringing this up). What about trading Paul? If you're the Hornets, you have to be concerned not only with Paul's longevity, but also his frustration with the direction of the franchise. This year will mark the second straight year where the team has fallen in the standings, and there isn't too much hope for a major roster reconstruction in the near future. With Collison already in tow, don't you have to at least consider trading Paul while his value is high? I know this is bordering on blasphemy, but you have to at least think about it.
Anyway, none of these questions would have been relevant if Collison wasn't playing out of his mind like he is. So I guess it's a good problem to have.
18. Chicago Bulls: 31-31 overall, 0-2 last week.
SBN Blog: Blog A Bull
Last week: 14.
Here's a lesson for all those teams that actually make money: do your due dilligence when filling out the end of your bench. Otherwise, you could end up like the Bulls, who are in deep trouble now that Joakim Noah is out for at least three weeks. Noah's a valuable player, but he becomes more valuable when his backups stink. Brad Miller lost about five steps this summer, and the only other center on the roster is Noah's college teammate Chris Richard, who isn't exactly lighting up the D-League. Naturally, the Bulls have lost four in a row after surging into the Eastern Conference playoff picture.
But hey, this is what you get when you strive to win the profitability title instead of the NBA title.
17. Toronto Raptors: 32-29, 1-1 last week.
SBN Blog: Raptors HQ
Last week: 14.
I really don't want to come across like one of those "offense wins games, but defense wins championships" curmudgeons, but the Toronto Raptors are currently surrendering an average of 112.4 points per 100 possessions this year. This is 1.5 points worse than the 29th-best defensive team. Keep this in mind anyone starts to talk about the Raptors as a dangerous first-round opponent in the playoffs.
16. Charlotte Bobcats: 30-31 overall, 2-1 last week.
SBN Blog: Rufus on Fire
Last week: 29.
Crazy stat of the day: the Bobcats are 4-2 this season against the Lakers and Cavaliers and 26-29 against everyone else. This will become relevant if they make a deep playoff run. In other words, it won't be relevant.
15. Memphis Grizzlies: 33-31 overall, 3-1 last week
SBN Blog: Straight Outta Vancouver
Last week: 18.
I can't begrudge someone for creating a Hasheem Thabeet mix, not when you can find mixes of the most obscure players in the league on YouTube. But could you at least not make it public while Thabeet's in the NBA Developmental League? By doing that, you're just asking me to mock you.
I think it's safe to say timing isn't a strong suit for most YouTube users.
14. Miami Heat: 32-31 overall, 3-0 last week.
SBN Blog: Peninsula is Mightier
Last week: 20.
I hate this team. Just when we thought they were floundering, they win three straight, including an instant classic against the Lakers on TNT. It's not their fault; in fact, you have to give them a lot of credit for being a .500 team with that roster. But if I'm the Grizzlies, I'm sitting there and thinking, 'How the hell is that team a playoff team? Why can't we be in the Eastern Conference?'
Look at their roster beyond Dwyane Wade. Jermaine O'Neal is having a really good year, but he's your second-best player. Michael Beasley remains terribly inconsistent. The team's two point guards are Rafer Alston, who is threatening to retire after skipping practice, and Carlos Arroyo, who wasn't in the NBA last year. They've given nearly 2700 minutes combined this season to Dorrell Wright, Joel Anthony and Daequan Cook. On paper, they stink. But despite that, they're one game over .500 and could be a dangerous matchup for a team like Atlanta, who they've beaten three of four times this year.
Usually, it's fun to watch a team play better than they should. For some reason, though, Miami is no fun. Maybe it has something to do with the fact that management clearly doesn't care about this season. The Heat, like the Knicks, have had their eyes on 2010 for over two years now, yet they escape the criticism the Knicks get for punting two years of Wade's prime. I want to see Miami's brass criticized, so therefore I want the Heat to miss the playoffs. Instead, they're winning, and I'm mad.
GOOD, BUT NOT GREAT
13. San Antonio Spurs: 36-25 overall, 2-1 last week
SBN Blog: Pounding the Rock.
Last week: 10.
Dear television commentators,
Do me a favor. Don't look at the name on the front of the jersey when talking about the Spurs' chances this spring. Look at the facts.
FACT: The Spurs have the most difficult closing stretch of any team in the league. Twelve of their final 21 games are on the road. They still have to play Orlando twice, the Lakers twice, at Dallas, at Denver, at Phoenix, at Atlanta, at Boston, at Oklahoma City and at home against Cleveland. That means 11 of their last 21 games are against teams in the top 10 of these power rankings.
At this point, the question shouldn't be whether the Spurs can win the title. Instead, it should be whether they can hold on to a playoff spot. They are five and a half games ahead of Memphis right now, but that closing schedule is brutal. It's totally conceivable that the Spurs fall apart without Tony Parker and miss the playoffs, which I'd personally prefer since I'd love to see a Grizzlies-Lakers first-round series.
So please, ignore the name on the front of the jersey and focus on the facts. If this were any other team, we'd be writing their eulogy already.
12. Portland Trail Blazers: 38-27 overall, 2-0 last week.
SBN Blog: Blazers Edge
Last week: 12.
This season has seen two firsts for Andre Miller. Earlier this season, he scored 50 points in a game for the first time in his career. This week, he dunked the ball on the fast break for the first time in his career.
Who said he was a bad free agent signing?
(Disclaimer: I'm sure Miller has dunked before, so this is obviously an exaggeration, but I think we can all agree he rarely does it, if ever).
11. Milwaukee Bucks: 33-29 overall, 3-0 last week.
SBN Blog: Brew Hoop
Last week: 13.
The best team in the league right now that nobody's heard about. Since the trade for John Salmons, the Bucks are 9-1, with their only loss coming on the road in overtime to the Hawks on the second game of a back-to-back. They're so good that fans don't really know how to act.
Salmons and the Bucks have been a perfect match. The Bucks needed someone to score points, even if he's not much of a passer, and Salmons needed to go somewhere where he could shift back to small forward and get his touches. That's the thing about Salmons: he needs minutes and touches, but if he gets them, he suddenly becomes a great two-way player. With the Bulls this year, Salmons was forced to play shooting guard and stand around while Luol Deng took his shots. His defense and passing suffered tremendously. Now, he's getting his minutes and touches, and his defensive intensity has skyrocketed. He looks like the John Salmons we saw in the playoffs last year, if not better.
If I'm one of the top four teams in the East, I'm praying I don't have to play the Bucks. They're so good defensively, particularly with their ball pressure, so they'll tire our guards out. They're not a great scoring team, but they have the two things you need in the playoffs at a bare minimum: an elite post player (Andrew Bogut) and a wing player capable of creating his own shot (Salmons). If Brandon Jennings gets overwhelmed by the playoffs, they have a great, experienced backup in Luke Ridnour that can step in. I don't think Milwaukee will win a series, but I do think they'll tire out whoever they play enough to prevent that team from making a deep playoff run.
Tonight's game against Boston will say a lot about the Bucks. Here's hoping they win.
10. Atlanta Hawks: 40-23 overall, 2-2 last week.
SBN Blog: Peachtree Hoops.
Last week: 8.
Last year, the Hawks surged to the top of the league early on, only to fall back to the middle of the pack. This year, the same pattern is happening. The Hawks were 20-8 at Christmas; they're just 20-15 since. They haven't beaten an elite team (i.e. a team ahead of them in these rankings) at full strength since January 29, when they beat the Celtics for the fourth time this year (they did beat the Jazz, but the Jazz were playing without Deron Williams). The league has caught up with how the Hawks play, and because they're coached by Mike Woodson, the Hawks haven't adjusted.
Making matters worse, this is the Hawks' time. Joe Johnson's a free agent after the year is over. If they let him go, they fall way back in the standings. If they overpay him (which is what it'll likely take), they stagnate as a team that's about as good as they've been the past couple years. So their time is now either way. Unfortunately, it's looking more and more like the Hawks aren't going to be a major threat in the playoffs.
9. Oklahoma City Thunder: 38-24 overall, 3-1 last week
SBN Blog: Welcome To Loud City
Last week: 9.
An area of concern for the Thunder: their once stout defense has been leaking recently. They allowed 107 points to the Kings, 119 to the Nuggets and 102 to the Kings again. They managed to win both games against the Kings, but for a team that needs to defend at a high level to compete, their recent performances are concerning.
On a completely different note, I've decided Nick Collison is a chill bro, or at least more of a chill bro than Michael Scott of the Office.
8. Phoenix Suns: 40-25 overall, 2-1 last week
SBN Blog: Bright Side of the Sun.
Last week: 7.
The Suns are 29th in defensive efficiency, 30th in forced turnovers and 29th in defensive rebounding, yet they're potentially headed for 50 wins again. It's really amazing they're winning so many games.
Speaking of amazing, how crazy is it to see Grant Hill play this well again? I won't say he's the Hill of old, because that would be crazy, but he looks young again. He scores so many points in transition, beating younger players in the dust. He handles the ball when he has to, defends at a high level and makes athletic plays that guys 15 years younger couldn't make. Like this one:
Watching Hill gives me hope that Gilbert Arenas can get his act together, overcome his injuries and be somewhere close to the same player he used to be for the Wizards. If Hill can recover from his injury problems, why can't Arenas? Then, I remember that there's a big difference between the Suns' training staff and the Wizards', and I get depressed again.
7. Boston Celtics: 40-21 overall, 4-0 last week.
SBN Blog: Celtics Blog.
Last week: 12.
They've won four in a row, so I'll put them back into contender status even though they still looked pretty bad in slipping by the hapless Wizards on Sunday. Maybe they can do it again. Who knows? Maybe there aren't chemistry problems after all. Maybe the Celtics are like that married couple that overcomes all their problems to succeed. Maybe they can win the title again.
Or ... maybe they're winning because they played Detroit, Charlotte, Philadelphia and Washington. The Celtics have games in Milwaukee and Cleveland this week, so we'll find out
6. Utah Jazz: 40-22 overall, 2-0 last week.
SBN Blog: SLC Dunk
Last week: 6.
It's good to be the Utah Jazz right now. Sure, you've got a pesky luxury tax bill, and you have a big decision to make on Carlos Boozer this summer. But you've also won 21 of your last 26 games, even with an undrafted rookie starting at shooting guard. You also have a likely high lottery selection this year, courtesy Isiah Thomas. Finally, nobody is paying attention to you, even as your tear up the league. Everyone's touting Dallas and Denver as the teams with the best chance of dethroning the Lakers, but nobody's mentioning you. That's just how you want it to be.
5. Denver Nuggets: 42-21 overall, 3-0 last week.
SBN Blog: Denver Stiffs.
Last week: 5.
I still believe the Nuggets have the best chance at beating the Lakers in a seven-game series when it's all said and done. Nobody on the Lakers can guard Chauncey Billups, and the Lakers in general struggle with Denver's speed. But the Nuggets are in big trouble with the losses of Kenyon Martin until the playoffs and Ty Lawson for a while. An already shallow team now has to give heavy minutes to Malik Allen and Anthony Carter, two guys who haven't deserved big minutes since 2004. Dallas has already passed them, and Utah is hot on their heels. Hell, Phoenix could overtake them. Playoff seeding matters, because as good as the Nuggets have played the Lakers, they've also let down against other teams.
Denver's also like Atlanta in that this is their best shot. The Nuggets already have $70 million committed to just six players last year, meaning they're going to have to go into penny-pinching mode soon to avoid a huge luxury tax bill. Billups is getting older, as is Martin. Other Western Conference teams are getting better. If the Nuggets don't win this year, they probably won't win in the near future either.
To Denver's credit, at least they're in a better spot than the Hawks because they'll have their core players no matter what. But it's still armageddon for them, and these injuries really don't help.
4. Los Angeles Lakers: 46-18 overall, 1-3 last week.
SBN Blog: Silver Screen and Roll
Last week: 2.
Three-game losing streak! Panic!
(I have nothing more to say about this team that hasn't already been covered by Kelly Dwyer. Just read this. Yes, that means you, Kobe).
3. Orlando Magic: 44-20 overall, 3-0 last week.
SBN Blog: Orlando Pinstriped Post.
Last week: 3.
Let me take you back to the summer of 2008. The Wizards had just signed Gilbert Arenas and Antawn Jamison and were ready to compete for a title (stop laughing please. I said STOP LAUGHING!). Arenas had generously left a little bit of money on the table, enough to sign a backup small forward for about half of the mid-level exception without going over the luxury tax. Arenas' buddy Matt Barnes was then a free agent, having fallen out of favor in Golden State. Arenas never told the Wizards to sign Barnes outright, but that was the implication.
Instead, the Wizards signed Dee Brown. Barnes went on to Phoenix, where he flopped, and now he's in Orlando, where he's become an indispensable player for cheap. He's given the Magic toughness, and, as Orlando Pinstriped Post notes, he's making a tangible difference too. Isn't that exactly the type of player the Wizards have missed the last few years?
That's why Orlando's management is great and the Wizards' isn't. Well, it's just one reason. Imagine Barnes doing this to LeBron James as a member of the Wizards. Of course you'd find that awesome.
2. Dallas Mavericks: 44-21 overall, 4-0 last week.
SBN Blog: Mavs Moneyball.
Last week: 4.
Dallas has now won 12 games in a row after fleecing Washington in the Caron Butler/Brendan Haywood trade. They're clearly the second-best team in the league at this moment. And yet, Shawn Marion is indicating he isn't so thrilled with how many shots he's getting. This is unbelievable. Marion has played nearly his entire career with Steve Nash or Jason Kidd, and all he's done is complained about it. I'd tell him to go play for the worst team in the league to gain some perspective, but he's already done that (Miami in 2007-08) and nothing has changed.
Can you overcome someone grumbling like this? Yes, of course. Should you have to? No, absolutely not. When is Shawn Marion going to cheer up and realize he's in a great, great situation?
1. Cleveland Cavaliers: 50-15 overall, 3-1 last week.
SBN Blog: Fear the Sword
Last week: 1.
The Cavs lost this week, but it was to red-hot Milwaukee without LeBron James, so they're still atop this list. Cavs fans, be happy?
However, I gotta take a shot at LeBron James while I can. (Be proud, Cavs fans. I haven't taken a single shot at my least favorite player in the league until now). Apparently, Brandon Jennings was a little excited about the win and showed it. This reportedly pissed off LeBron, who told friends he wasn't enthused by Jennings' conduct.
Uhh ... seriously? Pot, meet kettle.
I rest my case.