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December 20, 2012
December Only
Team Ratings

by Kevin Pelton

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The key component missing from the schedule-adjusted point differential ratings I use is any measure of momentum. This is by design; generally speaking, season-long performance tends to predict the future better than smaller units of performance. It's still worthwhile from time to time to take a look at recent performance, and we're now far enough into December that considering only results from this month is reasonable. (We're also far enough into December that shopping days are running short.)

So, if we consider this month to be its own season, here's what our rankings would look like, showing point differential, the adjusted version that factors in opponent and location, and the difference between them (schedule strength):

Rk  Team   Diff     Adj     SOS  Rk
-----------------------------------
 1  LAC    16.0    13.6    -2.4  28
 2  OKC    10.0     8.9    -1.1  23
 3  SAS     6.0     6.8     0.8  10
 4  DEN     4.0     6.1     2.1   4
 5  MEM     3.1     4.7     1.6   7
 6  ORL     4.4     4.6     0.2  13
 7  GSW     3.8     4.0     0.2  15
 8  MIA     6.6     3.9    -2.7  29
 9  MIN     3.4     3.1    -0.3  18
10  IND     3.7     2.8    -0.9  21

Rk  Team   Diff     Adj     SOS  Rk
-----------------------------------
11  ATL     2.0     2.8     0.8   9
12  NYK     4.1     1.9    -2.2  27
13  UTA    -0.7     1.6     2.3   2
14  CHI     2.8     1.0    -1.8  26
15  HOU     1.9     0.9    -1.0  22
16  PHX    -0.1     0.7     0.8   8
17  DAL     0.2     0.5     0.3  11
18  LAL    -0.4    -1.0    -0.6  19
19  POR     1.1    -1.7    -2.9  30
20  BOS    -0.6    -1.8    -1.2  24

Rk  Team   Diff     Adj     SOS  Rk
-----------------------------------
21  MIL    -1.9    -2.2    -0.3  17
22  TOR    -3.7    -3.4     0.3  12
23  BKN    -4.7    -4.5     0.2  14
24  WAS    -6.2    -4.5     1.7   6
25  SAC    -7.8    -4.9     2.9   1
26  NOH    -7.7    -5.5     2.3   3
27  DET    -4.9    -5.5    -0.6  20
28  PHI    -8.6    -8.6     0.0  16
29  CLE    -7.8    -9.3    -1.5  25
30  CHA   -11.8   -10.0     1.8   5

The top three teams in the league, and four of the top five, should come as no surprise. With the East's best lagging in the month of December, the best four teams in the Western Conference have separated themselves from the pack as clearly the NBA's top contenders at this point. Right now, the league is unusually top-heavy. On Twitter, Heat.com's Couper Moorhead pointed out yesterday that the league is on track to have more teams win at least 70 percent of their games through the month of December than any season since 1996-97.

Interloping among this group are the Denver Nuggets, who seem to have righted the ship after their slow start. They're 6-3 in the month despite playing six of the nine games on the road, and the three losses have come by a combined 13 points. The Nuggets have some close wins to their credit in that span too, but blasted the Sacramento Kings by 25 on the road and beat both the Memphis Grizzlies and the San Antonio Spurs in the last week. Denver is likely too far back to make a run at home-court advantage in the first round, but the fifth seed is still realistic.

With each win by the Orlando Magic, the debate grows about whether the Magic is better off making a run at a playoff spot or adding another lottery pick to their post-Dwight Howard core. The assumption is that Orlando would sneak into the postseason and end up as fodder for a team like Miami. If the Magic keeps up its December level of play, we'll have to rethink that. Behind the league's best finishing lineup, Orlando has nearly climbed out of a 5-10 hole from November by going 6-3 this month. Believe it or not, the Magic rates as the East's best team in December. Is it too early to vote Jacque Vaughn for Coach of the Year?

Moving outside the top 10, we find the New York Knicks much lower than their 8-2 record this month would suggest. Aside from their blowout win at Miami without Carmelo Anthony, the Knicks have relied on close wins. The real issue is their schedule. They've left New York just three times all month and have played two of the league's worst teams, which should inflate their point differential more than it has.

You could have gotten good odds on the Phoenix Suns outplaying the Los Angeles Lakers in December. While the Suns are riding an unexpected four-game winning streak, even the Lakers' wins feel like losses lately. Their one-point victory over the Charlotte Bobcats on Tuesday rated as 11 points worse than average. The Lakers' differential is still slightly better than their 4-6 record in the month, but neither are particularly impressive. Get well soon, Steve Nash.

The Brooklyn Nets have dropped more from November to December than any other team. Over the course of the season, they still rate third in the East in adjusted point differential. During December, they place in among lottery teams, as their 2-8 record would suggest. Speaking of struggling playoff contenders, the Philadelphia 76ers have been just awful in the month, going 2-8 with an even worse differential than the Nets. Philadelphia hasn't lost too much ground in the playoff race, but at this point they're just hanging on until when (if?) Andrew Bynum returns.

At the bottom of the league, all the good will from Charlotte's 7-5 start has been lost during a 13-game losing streak. While the Bobcats aren't nearly as woeful as last year's historically bad team, they've found their level at the bottom of the NBA. Charlotte does have company in the form of the Cleveland Cavaliers, who have been nearly as bad when schedule is considered. Cleveland has gone 1-10 despite playing just two of the league's top 10 December teams.

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

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