By Charlie Gibson
Follow me on twitter @cgibson1619
30. Philadelphia (1-23): Does Comcast Philadelphia air LSU games?
29. Los Angeles (3-20): It is a big task to tank into the top three. Byron Scott did it last year, but needs to repeat to solidify his legacy. Jordan Clarkson will be worth a lot of money to someone this summer—how much will the Lakers pay him/how much does he like LA-life? Lastly: if you’re gonna be this bad can you at least start Randle and Russell?
28. Brooklyn (7-15): Most depressing situation in the league because they’re capped out and don’t control their pick for three years. But people will sign up to play in New York.
27. Denver (9-14): How concerned are players after Al Jefferson’s weed-suspension? Concerned enough to bring it up at the next collective bargaining agreement ? Danilo Gallinari’s probably been too good to trade, but I’d like to see GM Tim Connelly, who came up as an intern for the Zards, trade Faried and Nelson for more future-centric assets.
26. Milwaukee (9-15): A letdown season so far. Lineups with Khris Middleton as the only shooter have struggled to score. The step forward by Giannis has been exciting, though. I’d like to see Jabari get more time, asap. Can’t be too worried because they have two of the top ten “prospects in the league” on Nate Duncan’s annual list.
25. New Orleans (6-16): Wrote about them last week. The team that was so impatient to win could now benefit most by tanking… ironic. Tyreke has looked great in his return, but just imagine Simmons/Davis.
24. Minnesota (9-13): They’re 8-8 in games Rubio has played. Fun team to watch—they try hard and have an interesting mix of players. But ultimately this is a year of development for KAT (22 PER) and Wiggins (21 ppg).
23. Portland (10-14): Lillard and McCollum can score with any backcourt that doesn’t play in San Fran. I can just imagine them trying to keep straight faces when Stotts told them they’d have larger roles this year. But the Blazers have gone 6-12 since their 4-2 start to the season.
22. Phoenix (10-14): Knight and Bledsoe are having career years so far scoring the ball. Knight supporters can contrast his strong play with Milwaukee’s struggles and argue for his value. Unfortunately this team is a mess. It’s hot in the desert, and chemistry can be hard to maintain. Markieff Morris has been an under-the-radar/on-the-radar major disappointment.
21. Sacramento (9-15): Unlike some teams below them (and above them actually) on this list, the Kings try hard and play with heart. The Rondo revival is a sight to behold—he’s fun to root for while teamed up with fellow weirdos DeMarcus Cousins and Rudy Gay. Hopefully the Cousins as PF strategy can stay on the shelf for a while because I’m pretty intrigued by the Casspi/Cousins frontcourt.
20. New York (10-14): The Knicks have stumbled into a lot of good buzz this season thanks to Kristaps. The question now is whether that positive energy can push them to overachieve or if they’re going to miss the playoffs and be forced to declare Melo’s prime officially over.
19. Orlando (12-11): Moving unrefined stud Victor Oladipo to the bench was good for roster makeup. My questions: Is Evan Fournier for real and do they have the talent to make the playoffs? Consider me doubtful on the latter.
18. Washington (9-12): Bradley Beal is out for two weeks with his annual stress reaction. John Wall, in his last seven games, is averaging 27.4 ppg and 10.1 apg but the Wizards sit below .500 because he has to do it all himself for the sixth straight season. Wall had more talented teammates in college than he ever has in the NBA. Neal, Sessions, and Temple are asked to do too much for my liking, and while I’m a Jared Dudley fan, I can’t help but come to the conclusion the Wiz don’t have the firepower to play this fast. More possessions is a good thing if you’re a better team, but if every bucket is a grind then maybe that is not the ideal style of play. An offense can only go so far with a 1 and a 3 who can’t shoot. Nene and Alan Anderson coming back will help, and honestly I wouldn’t mind if Nene and Gortat shared the court a bit, something they haven’t done for one minute this season. Nene’s defense has been greatly missed this year and was potentially undervalued in previous seasons.
17. Detroit (13-11): Andre Drummond averages 10.9 rebounds per game, 18 points—wait a minute… that was 10.9 defensive rebounds. Add his 5.8 offensive rebounds and we get to his actual rebounding total: 16.6 a game. He grabs more steals than blocks, is 22 years old, and scores 18 ppg on 53% shooting. Add in 25-year-old scorer Reggie Jackson and the Pistons got a nice thing going. But that’s all it is. Detroit needs another marquee player who could shift Jackson into a Jeff Teague/Mike Conley role to actually scare people.
16. Boston (13-10): The Brooklyn Nets currently have the fourth worst record in the league. If they end the season in that position, Boston would have an 11.9% chance at Ben Simmons. GM Danny Ainge has rebuilt in a fancy way so that Boston can compete for the playoffs and have stakes in the BS lottery. I’m more interested in the pick than the team, but the team is interesting enough to bring the Warriors to double OT. Isaiah Thomas is playing better than ever this under coach Brad Stevens, and Boston beats more top-heavy teams with its depth of pieces. Lingering question: which players will be part of the core going forward?
15. Houston (11-12): The Rockets are the only team to have fired their coach this season, and they have had negative vibes all year. The Hard-man is the least of Houston’s problems, but Dwight Howard has not been a second superstar. Howard is averaging 12.7 ppg, is attempting less than 10 shots a contest, and is scoring 7.2 less points per 100 possessions than last season. New addition Ty Lawson, traded from Denver because of “character issues,” has been an abject disappointment. New coach J.B. Bickerstaff, son of former Wizards coach Bernie Bickerstaff, has yet to figure out how to deploy the big man rotation.
14. Utah (10-11): Weirdest thing about Utah? No one on their team averages more than 3.3 assists per game (Hayward). Rookie Raul Nato starts at point guard and plays 17 minutes a game. Led by Derrick Favors, who is having an All-Star season, the Jazz allow the third fewest points/gm in the league. Favors, this year, is averaging 17/9 and has a PER of 25.5. He is flanked by Rudy Gobert (when he returns) and Gordon Hayward, who’s making a career high 2 threes/gm. Coach Quin Snyder (the most anonymous coach in the league?) likes to close a lot of games with three wings: Gordon Hayward, second year man, Rodney Hood, and 6th man Alec Burks, who’s averaging 19.5 points per 36 minutes off the bench. Hood, 23, has started every game this year and is playing almost 30 minutes per. Trey Burke is also having his best season in a diminished role. Honestly, these guys could use a point guard, and they should struggle while Gobert is out, but Favors and Hayward will keep them competitive.
13. Charlotte (14-8): Nic Batum is one of four players averaging at least 16.5 ppg/6.5 rpg/4.5 apg—along with LBJ, Russell Westbrook, and Blake Griffin. Not bad company. Of those players he is the only one also making at least 2 three’s a game. Kemba Walker is averaging 17+ ppg for the fourth consecutive year and his career-high shooting % has helped him boast a PER of 20.4. Al Jefferson is averaging under 30 minutes a game for the first time in ten years and is currently out with injury and suspension. The Charlotte Hornets rank top ten in both offensive and defensive efficiency, and have six players getting 10+ points/gm. They play at a middling pace and shoot a ton of threes, especially for Charlotte. Keep an eye on Kemba and Batum, who are both having the best three point shooting seasons of their careers. But there’s no denying the Hornets have earned their spot in the Eastern hierarchy by going 14-5 after an 0-3 start. These guys were the hardest team to rank, I should have run this by my Charlotte insider…
12. Chicago (12-8): Jimmy Butler’s all around play can boost this team on a bad night, as he continues to be one of the better players in the league. Fred Hoiberg had not gotten great early returns, as he has struggled to find a starting lineup or concrete team identity. Derrick Rose is somehow leading the team in shots per game despite shooting 36%. Something there has to give one way or the other—either Rose has to take a smaller role or his play has to greatly improve. Some outsiders have complained that Pau Gasol is locked into the starting lineup, but he’s a Hall-of-Famer still producing near his career averages. The two-time NBA champion is currently averaging 15.3 ppg/10.8 rpg/ 2.2 blk. He may be slow footed but he is clearly the second most productive player on the team. Once Mike Dunleavy returns and the team stabilizes, the question, like it was at the start of the year, is who starts next to Pau at the four?
11. Dallas (13-10): The Mavs replaced three of their starters after last year’s 50-win season. Deron Williams is enjoying having no pressure on him after carrying so much weight in Brooklyn. Zaza Pachulia is averaging a double-double and contributing sound play as starting center. Wes Matthews is not yet the player he was in Portland—in fact he is shooting 36% from the field—but he is still a three-point bomber and veteran NBA player who takes him job seriously. Their second hobbled wing who should be a strong two way player, Chandler Parsons, is their other returning starter next to Dirk. Parsons is currently even more diminished than Matthews is, but the hope is that the two of them will play better in the second half of the season than the first. Meanwhile Dirk Nowitzki is anchoring everything, while having his minutes beautifully managed by Rick Carlisle. Devin Harris has quietly contributed a lot to this franchise, and owner Mark Cuban is confident he can put together a decent squad every single summer. A shallower Western Conference has come at the right time for the Dallas Mavericks.
10. Memphis (13-11): Blowout losses have weakened this team’s statistical profile and overall vibe this season. But on the surface, a 13-11 stretch for a team with such long-term stability should not be overly concerning. Zach Randolph doesn’t eat up smaller or lazier players with the same impact that he used to. He can do it on a given night, but it takes much more energy. Mike Conley is in a contract year, but it seems he will earn a max deal regardless of his play, which takes off some of the pressure. He is currently shooting 40% from the field, much lower than his career average 44%. Marc Gasol, 30, is in the first year of a $110M deal that will take him through his age 35 season. Despite not bringing the pop yet this season that he brought in others, he has still been the Grizzlies best player. He hasn’t been as active on defense so far this year, but plays a large role on offense. Gasol is the least of my worries… this year. The big three could use a little more help around them, but at least newcomer Matt Barnes has provided the best buzzer beater of the year.
9. Toronto (15-9): If LeBron and PG have been the top two players in the East, Kyle Lowry has been third. He’s averaging 22 ppg so far, which is third in the conference, to go along with career high production from the arc and the free throw line. He is the team’s alpha dog and has helped them earn wins againt the Spurs, Cavs, Thunder, Clippers, and Pacers. Lowry’s 41 points in a loss to the Warriors has to be one of the best performances in a losing effort this season. DeMarre Carroll and Cory Joseph have both contributed a good amount in their first year with the team and seem to be worth their new contracts. DeMar DeRozen will be someone to watch this summer when he’s an FA, as he is currently having another DeMar DeRozen-esque season, meaning effective but not $20M-effective. He is a candidate to receive more money than he is worth in exchange for going to a worse team—gotta love those guys. Jonas V is hurt right now, but he is an asset worth having for this franchise, even as he still figures it out on the court.
8. Atlanta (14-10): The Hawks have made the playoffs for eight straight years with Al Horford as a cornerstone and look to do so again this year. The Millsap/Horford frontline is what makes this team special. Paul Millsap, age 30, is off to potentially the best season of his career coming off a new contract. And he should feel vindicated in earning $19M this year after never earning eight digits in a year before. He currently leads this team in points, rebounds, and steals. His strength, speed, and skill level go a long way on both ends of the floor—he can bang or switch on defense, and on O he can shoot, pass, dribble, or throw down. Horford, meanwhile, is simply one of the most fundamentally sound players in the league. For the Hawks everything starts with having two big men who can pass and shoot while still doing big-man things at a top level. Add in Jeff Teague, aka poor man’s Mike Conley, and Kyle Korver, who likes to run on the ocean floor while carrying large rocks, and you got a team. Tiago Splitter has not been especially impactful off the bench, but Dennis Schroder never fails to bring sparks.
7. Indiana (13-8): Another surprise team high in the rankings, Indy is led by comeback POY, Paul Geoge, who has returned as a better player than pre-injury. Through the first 20 games of ’13-14 George averaged 23.3 ppg—through 20 games this year he is putting up 27.9, to go along with 8.2 rpg/4.3 apg. He is an elite athlete, defender, and now offensive creator. One question is whether PG can maintain his elite defense while taking on such a big role everywhere else. The Pacers are currently seventh in defensive efficiency. After George, the roster is not made up of particularly scary NBA players. But they play as more than their sum because they possess a core team identity and because that identity plays to their players’ strengths. That is one of a few similarities between this team and the ’13-14 Suns. Lastly, five players in the league are averaging >3 made threes a game: Curry (Warrior), Klay Thompson (Warrior), Paul George (Pacer), CJ Miles (Pacer), and Kyle Lowry (Raptor).
6. LA Clippers (13-10): So far this has been the season that Chris Paul has turned the keys over to Blake a little bit. Blake’s putting up a 24/9/5 while shooting 52% from the field—he’s on pace for a career high 25.8 PER. Early struggles drew headlines as the team actually spent two nights, late November, with a below .500 record. But they’ve won 7 of their past 10 games and Chris Paul appears to be back to his normal self. Yet some chemistry issues are still present. DeAndre Jordan is the only player in the league to be averaging over 10 rebounds per games but takings less than 6 shots per game. Despite contributing 13.4 rpg and 2.5 bpg and being the proud new owner of a $90 million contract DeAndre is averaging his fewest shots/gm in four years. Pierce doesn’t fill as big a role as in Washington, and the other acquisitions have not played to expectations. Amidst the LA drama, the Clippers are similar to the Thunder in that their two superstars need only take the court for the team to win.
5. Heat (12-9): A surprise in the top five of these rankings, the Heat have put together an elite defense thanks to front-line anchors Chris Bosh and Hassan Whiteside. There are some pretty good 4/5 defensive combos (Favs/Gobert, Draymond/Bogut, Dunc/Aldridge, Blake/DeAndre, Millsap/Horford), but Bosh and Whiteside have to be up there. Wade isn’t scoring 20 points/gm like last year, but he is still able to create consistent offense at age 33 and 11 months. Hassan Whiteside can be hard to put a finger on. He has been a monster this year, averaging 4.3 blocks and 10.4 rebounds a game. He seems like an elite rim deterrent anchoring an elite defense, but Spoelstra is only giving him 27.6 min/gm. You don’t always feel great in terms of what might be going through Hassan’s brain while he’s on the court, but his impact is enormous. I’d like to seem him become the third player on the team, along with Bosh and Dragic, to be playing 30 minutes a game.
4. OKC (15-8): Westbrook and Durant are second and third in the L in PER. Westbrook is averaging 26.1 ppg/7.3 rpg/9.8 apg. Durant is averaging 27.3 ppg and shooting 53% from the floor. But this team is still not firing on all cylinders. Billy Donovan hasn’t been getting great reviews so far. Serge Ibaka is still a terrific defensive big, in the athlete mold, but he is not hitting a three a game like last year. But an offense with Durant and Westbrook is automatically elite, despite being below average in assists and made threes a game. Durant has played 17 games and I expect the team’s win/loss record to sharpen as he plays more. This regular season just has me itching to see Kevin and Russell teamed up in the playoffs again. The roster doesn’t look any more complete than it has in recent years, in terms of having more than two players who can create a shot, but once they get rolling I expect this team to be quite imposing.
3. Cavs (15-7): The fact that the Kevin-Love-as-sidekick Cavs are first in the East should empower K-Love going forward. The return of scoring savant, Kyrie Irving, however, will turn the Cavs from run-of-the-mill one seed to legitimate powerhouse. Remember that in the last 35 games James, Irving, and Love have played together the Cavs are a ridiculous 32-3. Kyrie may be a three time All-Star, but he has yet to start his age 23 season. I expect LeBron, who does not look diminished if you ask me, to let Kyrie take as much offensive burden as he wants, and for the big three to reach new heights together in their second year, similar to the Miami trio. The team’s wing depth has been in question lately, with some questionable players getting real playing time, and it might be alright for LeBron to have a backup small forward. He’s carried as big a burden as ever this year, with the Cavs often stepping up their intensity in the fourth quarter, but hopefully during the year’s doldrums he can reap the benefits of having twenty-somethings as sidekicks.
2. Spurs (19-5): While teams like Indiana, Washington, Chicago, and Charlotte have followed league trends and gone smaller and faster this year, the Spurs, who prefer to set trends, are playing big and slow again. The Duncan/Aldridge front line is reminiscent of the Duncan/Robinson line that started off the Popovich era. Being a superstar seems to fit Kawhi Leonard quite nicely, as the former Defensive Player of the Year and Finals MVP is a lock earn his first All-Star appearance. 22 games in, Leonard is scoring a career high 20.8 ppg , is shooting 50% from the field, 49% from three point range, and has a PER of 26.6, fifth in the league. Parker and Ginobili have exceeded expectations so far (knock on wood) and the number one defense in the league seems to have unlimited options on offense, including LaMarcus Aldridge as a second option.
1. GSW (24-0): Questions: Is this the fastest that a player has ever locked up an MVP award? Is Curry the best player of the LeBron generation? How will the Warriors fare in their eight games against the Spurs, Cavs, and Thunder? Finally, how are they, like, doing this? Answers: If Steph stays healthy it is unfathomable that he would lose MVP. Besides LeBron, Curry is the only player of this generation with an MVP and a Championship, so yes, other than LeBron, he’s the best player of the generation (players from the previous generation with a ship and MVP: Duncan, Kobe, Dirk, Garnett). The Spurs, Cavs, and Thunder should have the necessary lockdown defense and offensive firepower to get in some punches. So I donno but I can’t hardly wait. How are they doing this? I have no idea but I sure wish the Wizards had picked Draymond Green instead of Tomas please-join-the-team-next-year Satoransky in 2012. Or Klay Thompson instead of the Dunking Ninja in 2011. Or Steph freaking Curry instead of trading the pick for Mike Miller and Randy Foye in 2011.