Once again, there is a new team atop the Hoops List. The Lakers have completed their inevitable climb to the top of the heap. I have a feeling that spot in the rankings is going to be much more stable from here on out.
Just below the Lakers, the Cavaliers have solidified their early status as the team to beat in the East, with the Celtics not far behind. Cleveland has played inspired basketball so far this season, as Anthony Macri highlighted in his recent piece. The Cavs are 12-3 and join Portland as the only team with a perfect home record. Their Pythagorean winning percentage (.820) exceeds their actual winning percentage (.800). They've accomplished this against an aggregate opponent winning percentage of .504, giving them a strength of schedule in the upper half of the league. Cleveland leads the NBA in offensive efficiency and is eighth in defensive efficiency. It really looks like Danny Ferry has found the right mix of players with which to surround LeBron James. I'm already looking forward to that Boston/Cleveland matchup in the Eastern Conference finals.
This week, I'm going to break format just a bit. Normally the team comments are meant to be little nuggets of analysis, quick riffs on the major issues of each team. Sometimes, like last week, I might play off a theme, looking at the same issue from 30 different perspectives. Today, however, I'm going get corny and nostalgic, probably influenced by the holiday and a digestion system overwhelmed with turkey, ham and about five kinds of pie.
It's late at night in the Midwest as I write this. I'm in a tiny little town called Versailles, Missouri. It's not my hometown--I grew up in Iowa--but it's where my mother lives now, so it's where my family often congregates for the holidays. For my brother and I, it's a chance to get a fix for some much-needed NBA chatter. I don't get enough of it in the flesh in Kansas City and he certainly doesn't get enough of it in St. Louis. We probably covered all 30 teams while watching the TNT doubleheader Thursday night--players, announcers, everything, comparing everything to our favorite memories and our sometimes eccentric set of proclivities. We know each other so well that we usually don't even have to express complete thoughts. I might just say "J.R. Smith" and he'll immediately know that I'm referring to our mutual admiration for streak shooters, from World B. Free to Vinnie Johnson to Ben Gordon. We comisserated about the loss of the Sonics, which means one less late-night matchup to watch before bed on many nights and the absence of the fine announcing duo of Kevin Callabro and Steve "Snapper" Jones.
This got me to thinking about my favorite Sonics memories. The Dennis Johnson/Jack Sikma/Gus Williams/Freddie Brown title team is just within my memory. I can remember asking my parents to stay up late to watch the tape-delayed broadcasts then falling asleep before halftime. I can remember some of the old basketball cards, given to me by my uncle, which I still have--Spencer Haywood and Lenny Wilkens were the stars. But there was also Don Kojis, who played against my eighth-grade basketball coach in college, and Lee Winfield, whose son Julian later played for Mizzou. I remember with special fondness when the Bulls and Sonics played in the 1996 finals. I was living in Chicago and it was my first experience living in a city with a championship team. After the Bulls won, I walked around Wrigleyville smoking a big cigar and wearing a Michael Jordan jersey, exchanging high fives with strangers and listening to the cars honk their horns in celebration.
So I'm going keep strumming this nostalgic chord and highlight the one memory that will stay with me if, like the Sonics, each team were wiped from existence.
RANK (Last Week) Team (Power rating) [ WIN PACE / PYTHAGOREAN PACE / PRESEASON PROJECTION ]
(Statistics through Nov. 26)
1. (4) Los Angeles Lakers (72.6) [ 75 / 72 / 49 ]
Rankings: NET: 1; OFF: 3; DEF: 1; PACE: 3
The Lakers have had more great moments than most franchises, so there's a lot from which to pick. Still, I don't have to go back far for my favorite: 81. Kobe Bryant, on Jan. 22, 2006, scored 81 points against the Toronto Raptors. I was working at the Kansas City Star that night, doing...I don't know what. I noticed somewhere around the 45-point mark that Kobe was piling on the points rapidly and, best of all, the game was close. I tuned in the Web audio and listened to most of the second half and caught the video later. The problem with most outbursts of that ilk is that the game usually turns into a blowout and the stars have to sit. Earlier that season, Bryant had put up 62 in three quarters against Dallas, but the game wasn't close and he sat out the fourth quarter. That raised the question: Just how high could Kobe go? On Jan. 22, we got our answer.
2. (3) Cleveland Cavaliers (69.2) [ 65 / 67 / 44 ]
Rankings: NET: 8; OFF: 1; DEF: 8; PACE: 23
Another easy one. My brother Brian worships LeBron James. He also works in the media and when we decided to meet up in Chicago to take in a Cavs/Bulls game last year, I wanted to write a feature story about how our mutual love of sports has allowed us to remain close in adulthood even though we live in different cities. We stay in much more consistent contact than we otherwise would because we always want to know about what the other thought about this performance or that game. I thought it would be cool for that story if we both got postgame credentials and the Bulls were kind enough to oblige. We went downstairs after the game and headed straight for Cleveland's surprisingly cramped locker room. Now, we're both professionals, so it's not like I was worried about Brian running in there and wrapping his arms around LeBron or asking for his autograph, but I was sort of curious to see how he would handle himself. Myself, I wanted to chat with Drew Gooden, who got lit up by Tyrus Thomas that day, and I did. But the real material for my story was watching my brother talk to his favorite current player. He had plenty of competition in James' corner of the locker room, but he waited out the other vultures and had a brief exchange with James before the Cavs' media flak cut off the questions. He took his notes and used the material for his online column. It was all very professional, but I know that brief moment meant much more to him than he'd ever care to admit. Then I decided to sprint down to the Bulls' locker room to see if I could catch Kirk Hinrich. I was too late and Ben Wallace almost ran me over coming out of the locker room.
3. (2) Boston Celtics (64.3) [ 71 / 61 / 63 ]
Rankings: NET: 2; OFF: 12; DEF: 2; PACE: 14
Geez, I thought I'd be digging up a lot of OLD memories here, but here's another one even more recent than the others. I grew up in the 1980s, when the Larry Bird Celtics were on national television just about every Sunday. I never liked those Celtics teams, even though I now watch Hardball Classics reruns of that squad on NBATV and find myself admiring the amazing precision of their halfcourt offense. Still, the season that will stand out for me was last year, when Boston showed that when you get a talented bunch of players and the stars sublimate their individual egos for the betterment of the team, the game of basketball can be beautiful to watch. Plus, there was probably no active player that I more wanted to see get a ring than Kevin Garnett. Mission accomplished.
4. (5) Portland Trail Blazers (58.0) [ 51 / 53 / 38 ]
Rankings: NET: 20; OFF: 2; DEF: 20; PACE: 29
I don't know how well I remember it, but the images of Bill Walton celebrating the '77 championship with Dr. Jack Ramsey, wearing that red bandana, will always be the ultimate Blazers moment for me.
5. (6) Denver Nuggets (52.7) [ 54 / 47 / 43 ]
Rankings: NET: 6; OFF: 18; DEF: 6; PACE: 5
I loved the Doug Moe Nuggets teams of the 1980s, with my favorite player being Alex English. One Sunday, I think it was, Brian and I were in a furniture store in Omaha with my parents and snuck off to the television section to watch whatever Celtics game was on that day. It was halftime and they showed highlights of the Nuggets' 186-184 triple-overtime loss the night before to the Pistons. We were stunned and probably made some crack about Kelly Tripucka's hair. The Nuggets scored more than 100 points in 80 of 82 games that season and averaged 124 points per game. How beautiful is that?
6. (1) Detroit Pistons (51.7) [ 52 / 41 / 55 ]
Rankings: NET: 23; OFF: 10; DEF: 23; PACE: 25
Before they became the Bad Boys and before Isiah Thomas became a train wreck, I actually liked the Pistons. At least they weren't the Celtics. I can't tell you how long Brian and I sat in silence after Larry Bird stole that pass away from Thomas and fed Dennis Johnson for the winning layup in 1987. It was a long time.
7. (8) Phoenix Suns (51.1) [ 56 / 47 / 49 ]
Rankings: NET: 17; OFF: 6; DEF: 17; PACE: 18
I think Suns, I think Paul Westphal winning that H-O-R-S-E contest they had at halftime of NBA broadcasts in the '70s. There have been many exciting players and moments for this team, but that's what I think of.
8. (16) Houston Rockets (49.8) [ 51 / 50 / 61 ]
Rankings: NET: 4; OFF: 20; DEF: 4; PACE: 26
The whole reason I got interested in basketball statistics was because of the rebounding spree Moses Malone went on in the 1980-81 season. He had better rebounding seasons, but I just remember a stretch that season when he was getting 20+ every night. I started my Statis-Pro Basketball league, which still exists, because of Moses. It's funny to look at his career statistics now and see that he played for the Rockets for only six of his 21 professional seasons. For me, Moses Malone is and always will be the quintessential Rocket.
9. (9) Atlanta Hawks (49.5) [ 52 / 45 / 38 ]
Rankings: NET: 19; OFF: 5; DEF: 19; PACE: 19
I've always had a soft spot for the Hubie Brown Hawks that featured "Fast" Eddie Johnson, Tree Rollins, John Drew and Dan Roundfield. They played great defense at a time when such a thing was a rarity in the NBA and built up rabid following and great home advantage at the old Omni. Plus, a lot of the games were on WTBS.
10. (10) New Orleans Hornets (46.7) [ 50 / 54 / 45 ]
Rankings: NET: 12; OFF: 7; DEF: 12; PACE: 28
A nouveau franchise for which I've never really rooted. When they were still in Charlotte, I went to a first-round playoff game against the Bulls in Chicago. If my memory serves--and it's 3:44 a.m., so it's hard to say--I seem to recall Michael Jordan denying Hersey Hawkins on a last-minute drive. I was happy. The memory may not be accurate, but that's the one I have. I suspect there will be a Chris Paul-related memory that supplants that before long. (Quick jump back into the current season: My metrics have Paul playing even better than he did last season and is my MVP to date.)
11. (19) Orlando Magic (46.4) [ 58 / 55 / 43 ]
Rankings: NET: 3; OFF: 15; DEF: 3; PACE: 8
I moved to Chicago at a bad time for sports. Michael Jordan was retired. The 1994 baseball strike began the very day I moved into my Wrigleyville apartment. The next spring, I had purchased tickets to a Bulls/Magic game, more to see Shaquille O'Neal and Anfernee Hardaway and to boo Horace Grant than to really root for the Bulls. Then came the greatest sports headline that I've ever seen: I'M BACK. Jordan's first home game after coming out of retirement turned out to be that Magic game. He didn't have a great game and the Magic won, but the pregame introductions were incomparably electric.
12. (12) Dallas Mavericks (45.5) [ 41 / 45 / 51 ]
Rankings: NET: 9; OFF: 19; DEF: 9; PACE: 9
The Mark Aguirre Mavs were a favorite around my house. When Dallas almost knocked off the Lakers in the 1988 West finals, it looked like the Mavericks were going to be the next great team. The missing ingredient had been discovered: A dominant big man in young center Roy Tarpley. We know how that turned out--within five years, Dallas suffered a 71-loss season.
13. (13) Indiana Pacers (45.3) [ 35 / 45 / 41 ]
Rankings: NET: 7; OFF: 21; DEF: 7; PACE: 6
Reggie Miller hits a three, knocks down John Starks (or was it somebody else?), picks up the steal and nails another three. The Pacers complete an impossible comeback against the Knicks.
14. (15) Utah Jazz (42.7) [ 51 / 51 / 50 ]
Rankings: NET: 16; OFF: 4; DEF: 16; PACE: 21
Believe or not, despite my affinity for the current Jazz and my face-to-face interactions with a number of Utah's players, coaches and GM Kevin O'Conner, my favorite Jazz memory goes back to the eighties. Utah made the playoffs during John Stockton's rookie season, when he backed up Ricky Green. This was no small feat--at the time, it was akin to the Detroit Lions making the playoffs in the contemporary NFL. They played the Rockets in the first round of the playoffs. In one of the games, I forget which one, the Jazz trailed by, like, 10 points with about two minutes left. All of a sudden, Darrell Griffith went on a three-point spree that actually put the Jazz ahead. It was chilling. Ultimately, John Lucas stole the ball from Stockton on the last play and the Rockets won.
15. (11) Chicago Bulls (42.3) [ 35 / 31 / 43 ]
Rankings: NET: 18; OFF: 24; DEF: 18; PACE: 4
There are a ton of memories to choose from, but I'll go with my first real-live Michael Jordan encounter. It wasn't even a real game, and not even a Bulls game. Scottie Pippen staged a charity game in which a number of prominent players, like Jason Kidd, Horace Grant and others, were slated to play at Chicago Stadium in what was to be the last basketball game played before they tore the old place down. New to the city, I'd never been to the arena and wanted to see it at least one time. In another bit of Jordanesque verisimilitude, No. 23 showed up to play one last game at his favorite building. Suddenly, the place came alive just as it had time and again during Jordan's career there. This was during his "retirement" and his shot was a little rusty, but he scored about 55 points and before the game ended, he walked to the middle of the court, knelt and kissed the Bulls logo. Then he walked off the court and disappeared down the tunnel. Awesome.
16. (7) Toronto Raptors (42.0) [ 41 / 37 / 42 ]
Rankings: NET: 22; OFF: 9; DEF: 22; PACE: 22
Hmmmm. Tough one. Chris Bosh's jump shot is really humming this season.
17. (14) Milwaukee Bucks (40.8) [ 33 / 36 / 31 ]
Rankings: NET: 11; OFF: 25; DEF: 11; PACE: 17
Brian Winters' beard. Yep, that's what I think of.
18. (23) Miami Heat (36.5) [ 41 / 42 / 35 ]
Rankings: NET: 15; OFF: 11; DEF: 15; PACE: 20
I still remember the Heat losing the first 17 games of its existence. How could they have stuck the great Jon Sundvold on that team?
19. (18) Philadelphia 76ers (35.4) [ 38 / 46 / 38 ]
Rankings: NET: 5; OFF: 26; DEF: 5; PACE: 10
What basketball fan around my age didn't love Dr. J as a kid? For a period of time, I wasn't aware that Dr. J and Julius Erving were, in fact, the same person. Hey, I was young. I recall very clearly that when Erving walked off the court after his last game, a loss in the playoffs to Milwaukee, I knew that a precious part of my childhood was at an end.
20. (17) New Jersey Nets (35.3) [ 41 / 28 / 38 ]
Rankings: NET: 29; OFF: 8; DEF: 29; PACE: 16
Even when the Nets have been good, they've been hard to watch and I'm not old enough to remember the ABA teams. I guess my favorite memory of the Nets was when Bernard King scorched them for 40 points in the first half on Christmas Day in 1984.
21. (22) San Antonio Spurs (32.9) [ 46 / 26 / 55 ]
Rankings: NET: 10; OFF: 13; DEF: 10; PACE: 24
The successful Spurs teams of the early 1980s played as fast as the current Spurs semi-dynasty plays slow. I always had a special affection for Johnny Moore and, of course, George Gervin. But I guess my standout memory of San Antonio was the first NBA game I ever saw in person. It was a nondescript regular-season game against the Warriors and an already-ruined Ralph Sampson. We were sitting under one of the baskets very close to the court. The guy sitting next to us kept yelling at Sampson, calling him a dog and barking at him--literally. Poor Ralph. I now wonder how things would have turned out for him if they had microfracture surgery in those days.
22. (26) Sacramento Kings (31.5) [ 24 / 40 / 39 ]
Rankings: NET: 30; OFF: 14; DEF: 30; PACE: 27
The bastards left Kansas City.
23. (20) New York Knicks (31.3) [ 38 / 31 / 33 ]
Rankings: NET: 27; OFF: 16; DEF: 27; PACE: 1
My level of affection for Bernard King is borderline embarrassing. My personal pantheon of heroes is made up of athletes from my youth and literary figures from my adulthood. King, Jordan, John Elway, George Brett, Ernest Hemingway and Henry Miller. That's my dream team.
24. (24) Golden State Warriors (26.9) [ 27 / 32 / 35 ]
Rankings: NET: 26; OFF: 17; DEF: 26; PACE: 2
I'm not old enough to remember it firsthand, but videos I've seen and books I've read on the Warriors' 1975 championship run are the first thing that leaps to mind, with the memory personified by the young face of Rick Barry.
25. (30) Minnesota Timberwolves (25.1) [ 18 / 32 / 26 ]
Rankings: NET: 21; OFF: 23; DEF: 21; PACE: 15
Lakers/Timberwolves Western Conference final in 2004. Yeah, it was that recent. Minnesota won 58 games that season. By playoff time, my dad was in the hospital in Columbia, Missouri. I watched most of those games in a Columbia hotel room.
26. (25) Charlotte Bobcats (24.2) [ 23 / 27 / 38 ]
Rankings: NET: 13; OFF: 27; DEF: 13; PACE: 30
I got nothing. I was pretty mad when the Bobcats went into Boston and won last season. It just didn't make any sense.
27. (21) Memphis Grizzlies (21.7) [ 21 / 23 / 19 ]
Rankings: NET: 14; OFF: 28; DEF: 14; PACE: 12
Has to be the image of Michael Dickerson missing a forced three-pointer before a comatose Vancouver crowd...or maybe the beautiful way the Grizz blossomed under Hubie Brown and Jason Williams developed a real affection for the old coach.
28. (28) Washington Wizards (18.1) [ 13 / 24 / 32 ]
Rankings: NET: 28; OFF: 22; DEF: 28; PACE: 13
Dudley Bradley chucked in a banked three-pointer at the buzzer of a playoff game against the 76ers in the 1980s. That was an ugly team, those Bullets.
29. (27) Los Angeles Clippers (14.6) [ 10 / 16 / 33 ]
Rankings: NET: 24; OFF: 29; DEF: 24; PACE: 11
Any game Bill Walton called with Ralph Lawler will always have a special place in my heart.
30. (29) Oklahoma City Thunder (7.8) [ 5 / 10 / 23 ]
Rankings: NET: 25; OFF: 30; DEF: 25; PACE: 7
Well, they beat somebody.
Adjusted winning percentage (AWP) = ((home wins x 0.6)+(road wins x 1.4)) / (((home wins x 0.6)+(road wins x 1.4)) + ((home losses x .1.4)+(road losses x 0.6)))
Opponents winning percentage (OWP) = aggregate percentage of games won for each team's opponents, based on the number of times the team has faced that opponent.
Pythagorean winning percentage (PYTH) = uses the basketball-reference formula of Games x (Points scored^14) / ((Points scored^14) + (Points allowed^14))
Power rating = (((PYTH + AWP)/2)*(OWP/.500)) x 82
WP82 = wins produced per 82 games, adjusted for playing time
WP3K = wins produced per 3,000 minutes
RANKINGS: NET = net efficiency ratio; OFF - offensive efficiency; DEF - defensive efficiency; PACE: average possessions per game
Bradford Doolittle is an author of Basketball Prospectus.
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