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December 29, 2008
Prospectus Hoops List
December 26, 2008

by Bradford Doolittle

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With the final Hoops List of 2008, we're not going to follow a theme this week, but instead hammer on some key issues facing each team.

This is the eighth Hoops List of the season. Before I show you a table of all the rankings to date, I want to comment on the bottom row, which shows the correlation between each week's ranking with the current ranking. After some early volatility, the rankings solidified in the fourth week and have only changed a few spots here and there since then. We'll see what happens in the long run, but I suspect that November basketball tells us more than most would care to admit.

Team       11/6 11/13 11/20 11/27 12/4 12/11 12/18 12/25

Celtics       8     1     2     3    3     3     1     1
Nets         12    23    17    20   19    18    22    21
Knicks       23    16    20    23   22    22    18    22
76ers        25    12    18    19   20    21    19    20
Raptors       3    10     7    16   15    19    20    19
Bulls         9    13    11    15   17    14    15    16
Cavaliers    19     4     3     2    2     1     2     2
Pistons       2     8     1     6    7    13    14    15
Pacers       14     9    13    13   13    17    17    18
Bucks        10    14    14    17   18    20    16    14
Hawks         1     2     9     9   10     9     9     9
Bobcats      13    21    25    26   23    25    24    23
Heat         18    18    23    18   14    16    21    17
Magic        22    20    19    11   11    10     8     4
Wizards      28    26    28    28   27    27    28    28
Mavericks    15    22    12    12    9     8    10    10
Rockets       7     7    16     8    8     6     7     7
Grizzlies    20    17    21    27   28    26    23    26
Hornets       5     5    10    10    6     7     6     8
Spurs        30    25    22    21   21    15    12    11
Nuggets      16    15     6     5    5     5     5     5
Timberwolves 24    30    30    25   26    29    29    29
Thunder      26    28    29    30   30    30    30    30
Blazers      21     3     5     4    4     4     4     6
Jazz          4    19    15    14   16    12    13    13
Warriors     17    29    24    24   25    24    26    25
Clippers     29    24    27    29   29    28    25    24
Lakers        6     6     4     1    1     2     3     3
Suns         11    11     8     7   12    11    11    12
Kings        27    27    26    22   24    23    27    27

corr. 
w/ current  .48   .72   .79   .90  .92   .96   .98  1.00

RANK (Last Week) Team (Power rating) [ WIN PACE / PYTHAGOREAN PACE / PRESEASON PROJECTION ]

(Statistics through Dec. 25)

1. (1) Boston Celtics (67.8) [ 73 / 66 / 63 ]
Rankings: NET: 2; OFF: 5; DEF: 1; PACE: 15

The Celtics end the year where they ended last season--as the best team in the NBA. You have to look close to find any chinks in Boston's armor, but there are two areas where Doc Rivers can point to as potential concerns. First, the Celtics still have the NBA's second-worst turnover rate. The number of turnovers is not necessarily a problem. Boston is fifth in overall offensive efficiency. What probably agitates Rivers more is the type of turnovers the Celtics seem prone to committing: careless outlet passes, the kind of which were on full display in the Christmas Day loss in Los Angeles. Center Kendrick Perkins ranks 238th of 240 qualifying players in turnover rate. The other problem area for Rivers is the overall play of his second unit. According to 82games.com, Boston ranks in the top five in winning percentage for the first, third and fourth quarters. However, the Celtics are middle of the pack in the second quarter, winning just 51% of those frames. Big Baby Davis (35.7% from the field) has played poorly, but the real problem for the reserves is the lack of a three-point threat to complement Eddie House. Doc Rivers hasn't used first-round pick J.R. Giddens yet this season, second-round pick Bill Walker has played just six minutes and Sam Cassell is more or less an assistant coach. Those three, along with Patrick O'Bryant, Gabe Pruitt and Brian Scalabrine, give Boston a 15-man roster that Rivers seems to feel is 40 percent unusable. There will be a couple of additions in the new year. As strange as it is to observe this about a team that has lost just three games, new blood is sorely needed.

2. (2) Cleveland Cavaliers (65.5) [ 70 / 71 / 44 ]
Rankings: NET: 1; OFF: 1; DEF: 2; PACE: 24

Does Mo Williams really make that much of a difference? Can the addition of a sharp-shooting, score-first, defensively-challenged point guard really push a 45-50 win team into the 65-70 win stratosphere? You'd think not, but other than Williams, there are no new major players on the Cavs getting significant minutes. Williams has relegated Sasha Pavlovic to mop-up duty and has compensated for so-so seasons by fellow perimeter scorers like Wally Szczerbiak and Daniel Gibson. You also can't overlook the resurgence of Ben Wallace as a dominant defensive force, one season after I had declared his days as a starting-caliber role player to have reached an abrupt end. According to 82games.com, the Cavs' three-man rotation of big men--Wallace, Zydrunas Ilgauskas and Anderson Varejao--have allowed the lowest opponent PERs at both the center and power forward positions. Finally, all of this aside, the more you squint at Cleveland's profile for brush strokes, the more likely you are to forget about the dominant figure in the portrait. LeBron James is playing the best all-around basketball of his career and, according to NBAPET, has emerged as a clear front-runner for his first MVP award.

3. (3) Los Angeles Lakers (64.4) [ 67 / 64 / 49 ]
Rankings: NET: 3; OFF: 3; DEF: 4; PACE: 4

With road wins in New Orleans and Memphis and the big home win over Boston all coming within a span of four days, it's safe to say that suggestions that LA's terrific season is on the rocks have been quieted. To keep that talk at bay, however, Phil Jackson is going to have to come up with an answer for Jordan Farmer's eight-week absence due to knee surgery. At this point, Farmar is a better player than Derek Fisher who, in fact, has been the worst player in LA's ten-man rotation. With Farmar on the shelf, Fisher has posted the following gRATE and minutes-played totals: -3.0/41, -5.2/41, -7.5/39, -2.2/35. That's tough for any team to absorb. Nevertheless, Jackson seems intent to let Sasha Vujacic play the position in a pinch, with Luke Walton getting more time, and to allow the play-making to be absorbed by the egalitarian qualities of the triangle offense.

4. (8) Orlando Magic (53.9) [ 65 / 59 / 43 ]
Rankings: NET: 4; OFF: 7; DEF: 3; PACE: 9

After a terrific West Coast swing that included wins in Portland and Salt Lake City and a one-point loss in Phoenix, the Magic returned home and have since beaten the Spurs, Lakers, Warriors and Hornets. As a result, Orlando's strength of schedule has caught up with its performance and anointed the Magic as the top team in the NBA's second tier. (It is a second tier, with a 10.5 game drop from the Lakers to the Magic.) Orlando's roster is still top-heavy, but that works when you have four players ranked in the NBA's top 20 in wins produced. On a per-minute basis, Jameer Nelson (15.8 WP3K) has not only been the Magic's best player, he has been the second-best player in the NBA. His 59.7% eFG ranks sixth in the league. No player has been as hot from the outside as Nelson, and he is also doing a much better job of getting to the basket. If starting All-Star berths were handed out for all five actual positions and were determined by merit rather than popularity, there would be a terrific battle between Nelson and Rajon Rondo to be the East's starting point guard in Phoenix. The Magic's four-spot leap from eighth-place last week is the biggest upwards move in the rankings this week.

5. (5) Denver Nuggets (53.3) [ 50 / 51 / 43 ]
Rankings: NET: 8; OFF: 12; DEF: 6; PACE: 6

The second half of the NBA season will likely feature a spirited eight-team battle royale for the seven Western Conference playoff spots behind the Lakers. All eight of those teams can claim legitimate aspirations for the second seed in the West bracket. Right now, the Nuggets are second-best West team on the Hoops List, while the Rockets and Spurs own the second-best actual record. Only 2.5 games separate those two and the West's ninth seed, Utah. In a race this close, little things could make a big difference. For Denver, the mild disparity between its power ranking and its actual record could be traced to poor free-throw shooting. The Nuggets are the best team in the league in getting to the foul line, but rank 18th in free-throw percentage. The Nuggets have played just four games decided by five points or less, which is tied for the fewest in the NBA with Detroit, Cleveland and New Orleans. Denver has split its close games, so you can't say the free-throw percentage has played a huge factor but, then again, the Nuggets are only on pace to under-perform their power ranking by 2.3 wins for the season. Still, because of the frequency that Denver gets to the charity stripe, their performance in free-throw percentage bears watching.

6. (4) Portland Trail Blazers (53.1) [ 49 / 51 / 38 ]
Rankings: NET: 5; OFF: 2; DEF: 22; PACE: 30

The Blazers continue to play the slowest pace in the league, which drives me crazy. However, to Nate McMillan's credit, the offense is the second-most efficient in the league and when you consider that the only pure point guard on the roster--Sergio Rodriguez--is only getting 31% of available minutes, perhaps this is the way Portland has to play. If it were me, I'd start Rodriguez, who has the NBA's seventh-best assist rate, alongside Roy and I'd push the tempo to take advantage of my deep roster. But that's just me. As it is, Portland's bench is sixth in the league in plus/minus so McMillan seems to be getting plenty from his reserves. Also, in terms of plus/minus per 40 minutes played, the Blazers have been better with Steve Blake on the floor (+4.3 for Blake to +2.2 with Rodriguez). I'm not an NBA coach. I just play one on the Internet.

7. (7) Houston Rockets (52.8) [ 53 / 53 / 61 ]
Rankings: NET: 7; OFF: 11; DEF: 5; PACE: 23

The Rockets have been holding steady for most of the season, ranking seventh on the Hoops List in four of eight weeks and coming in sixth, eighth and eighth in three other weeks. That's consistent, but not exactly what NBAPET projected in the preseason, when it saw Houston as the cream of the crop in the West, with 61 wins and a Finals matchup with the Celtics in the offing. As mentioned, the Rockets are currently second in the West but are in an eight-team scrum to head up the bracket opposite the Lakers when April comes around. If you were to try to pinpoint why Houston is seven wins off pace from its projection, I'd point at two things: Yao Ming and player availability. Injuries have conspired to keep starting guards Rafer Alston and Tracy McGrady under 56% of available minutes and key role player Shane Battier has missed 16 games. As for Yao, he projected to post a 12.0 WP3K. His unadjusted figure is exactly half that. Yao's problems have flown under the mainstream radar because they've primarily come on the defensive end. Yao has allowed the third-most points over average of any player in the league. His counterparts are actually producing at a nudge under their normal rate, but he's faced a group of opponents that is 4.4% below the league average. His opponent PER is a grisly 18.8. This is why Houston cleared cap space with the Steve Francis-to-Memphis trade in order to make a run at bringing Dikembe Mutombo back for another half-season.

8. (6) New Orleans Hornets (52.3) [ 52 / 50 / 45 ]
Rankings: NET: 11; OFF: 8; DEF: 13; PACE: 29

Rough week for the Hornets, who fell two places from their No. 6 ranking of a week ago but actually had risen all the way to No. 4 if you drill down into the daily rankings. If the home loss to the Lakers was a letdown, the blowout loss at Orlando on Christmas was an embarrassment. Despite having one of the best offensive players in the league in Chris Paul, New Orleans ranks eighth in offensive efficiency while playing the league's second-slowest pace. Unlike Portland, this doesn't really bother me because other than Paul, most of New Orleans' talent is better suited for a half-court style. However, if they are going to play a slow tempo, you'd like to see a little better inside-outside balance. Of course, last season the Hornets were the third-most perimeter-oriented team in the league while ranking fourth in offensive efficiency. This season, there are six teams below them on the balance scale. New Orleans is shooting 47.1% on two-point shots, 19th in the league, after shooting about 49% inside the arc last season. Tyson Chandler is shooting 8% worse than last season and Peja Stojakovic's numbers are off as well. The shooting decline is exacerbated by a six-spot drop in defensive efficiency from last season. Shooting numbers fluctuate, but defensive numbers are more steady, at least within the context of a season. When you step back, look at all of this, and consider the jumbled race in the West to come, you have to point at Chandler and say, "You better get your britches in gear." Or some such silly thing like that.

9. (9) Atlanta Hawks (50.9) [ 52 / 48 / 38 ]
Rankings: NET: 9; OFF: 9; DEF: 11; PACE: 25

Atlanta has ranked ninth for the last six weeks, except for a one-week drop to 10th on Dec. 4. The Hawks ranked ninth or 10th most of the month that Josh Smith missed because of injury. They've held steady, but have not gotten better, in the three weeks since he returned. While Smith was out, the Hawks stayed competitive thanks to the backcourt of Mike Bibby and Joe Johnson, a scheme which made the Hawks a perimeter team that managed to play solid defense despite the absence of their best help defender. Since Smith's return, Johnson and Bibby have remained strong. However, the Hawks haven't received the anticipated bump from Smith, who has struggled with his shooting and hasn't really helped to improve the team's defensive standing. Smith is basically giving the Hawks what they were getting from replacements like Flip Murray and Maurice Evans. As a result, voila, you have a solid team in a holding pattern. As Smith gets more healthy and more comfortable playing in a guard-oriented attack, and as Al Horford, who is well off his rookie numbers, regains some of his previous productivity, the Hawks can be even better after the turn of the calendar. Atlanta still may challenge the Magic for the No. 3 seed in the East.

10. (10) Dallas Mavericks (48.1) [ 49 / 48 / 51 ]
Rankings: NET: 12; OFF: 13; DEF: 12; PACE: 13

Would it help if Rick Carlisle settled on a two-guard? Jose Barea, Jason Terry, Jerry Stackhouse, Gerald Green, Antoine Wright and, most recently, Josh Howard have all gotten cracks at the position. Overall, 82games.com has Dallas ninth in the league with a +1.5 net PER at shooting guard. All the options have their virtues and their drawbacks. Barea is a nice spot-up shooter, but is more valuable playing the lead guard. If he does that with the first unit, that relegates Jason Kidd to standing on the three-point line. Terry is the best player in the group, but because he also likes to have the ball in his hands, he has been a better fit coming off the bench. Stackhouse is pretty much washed up. Green is an inconsistent shooter. Wright just isn't a starter. Howard has played the spot recently with Devean George stepping in at three. Any move that gets George on the floor is going to be a net loser. I don't know the answer here, but the small lineup with Barea, Kidd, Howard, Terry and Nowitzki has been doing well finishing games of late. More often than not, the best option is the one that gets the best players on the floor at the same time.

11. (12) San Antonio Spurs (47.1) [ 53 / 50 / 55 ]
Rankings: NET: 6; OFF: 10; DEF: 7; PACE: 27

Slow and methodical is the m.o. of the Spurs and so it has been with San Antonio's gradual climb up the Hoops List. With an 0-4 start, the Spurs were No. 30--dead last--on the first Hoops List. This week, they climb to a season-best No. 11 on the strength of Roger Mason's buzzer-beating three-pointer on Christmas Day. As mentioned, the Spurs are currently tied with Houston with the second-best record in the West They are lucky to be that high. The Spurs have played 16 of 29 at home and rank 27th in strength of schedule. Despite, or maybe because of, the relatively easy slate, the Spurs are 3.1 games better than their Pythagorean pace, giving them the third-highest "luck" factor in the West. Finally, San Antonio is now 6-3 in close games, another figure that ought to regress. All of this points to harder days to come for the Spurs. Yet if they go on to win the 54 games that they are on pace to win, I doubt if many people would be surprised.

12. (11) Phoenix Suns (47.0) [ 46 / 41 / 49 ]
Rankings: NET: 13; OFF: 4; DEF: 23; PACE: 10

Speaking of Mason's game-winner on Thursday--what, if anything, was Jason Richardson doing on that play? As Tony Parker drove the left side of the lane for San Antonio, Richardson sort of shuffled over to Parker's general vicinity, leaving Mason uncovered in the corner. Parker fed Mason, who is shooting 47.6% on three-pointers this season, for the wide open shot. If the idea was to blitz Parker and force him to scramble to give up the ball, that'd be one thing. However, there was very little in Richardson's actions that resembled a true double team. Nor were there any other defenders in position to rotate over to pick up Mason, as you'd expect there to be if Richardson was following some sort of defensive scheme. That doesn't even address the mathematics of the situation. Yes, Parker is a dangerous player on the drive, but no matter what kind of shot he gets in that situation, the worst the Suns could do was to go to overtime. Mason, because he could end the game from beyond the arc, was the real threat on the play and Richardson should have stuck to him like glue. Any help should have come from someone defending an interior player. It was a severe mental breakdown, presumably by Richardson, which might help to explain why Larry Brown was so eager to get rid of a guy with so many physical gifts.

13. (13) Utah Jazz (45.2) [ 46 / 49 / 50 ]
Rankings: NET: 10; OFF: 14; DEF: 9; PACE: 14

As it stands now, the Jazz is ninth in the West in both actual record and in NBAPET power rating, which would leave Utah on the outside looking in when April rolls around. With no timetable yet being affixed to Carlos Boozer's return from knee trouble, Utah now additionally faces 7-10 days without Paul Millsap, who has emerged to prove that he can maintain the excellent production he provided off the bench in a more expansive role. Millsap is averaging 18.9 points and 11.4 rebounds per 40 minutes while shooting 57% on two-points shots. Excellent numbers, but still not the production of Boozer. Jerry Sloan will trot out project big men Kousta Koufos and Kyrylo Fesenko for more minutes as he tries to tread water before the rest of the West gets away. Fesenko averages 14.1 rebounds per 40 minutes but isn't much of an offensive threat and his 10.3 fouls per 40 suggests he won't actually be spending much time on the floor. Koufos has played better as a rookie than I anticipated, though, and I like his long-term upside. He is the Jazz's best percentage shot blocker.

14. (16) Milwaukee Bucks (43.8) [ 38 / 41 / 31 ]
Rankings: NET: 16; OFF: 24; DEF: 8; PACE: 11

Take a look at the Bucks' metrics and then those of the team ranked below them. Who'd of thunk it? Milwaukee, one of the worst defensive teams in recent memory last season, ranks 11 spots higher in defensive efficiency than the Pistons do. The offensive ranking isn't as impressive, but the net effect of a 43.8 power ranking means that Scott Skiles has the Bucks pointed towards the back of the Eastern Conference playoff bracket in his first season at the helm in Milwaukee. Can it last? I don't see why not. Milwaukee has underperformed its point differential by 3.7 games per 82, has played 18 of 30 games on the road against opponents that have won a total of 51 percent of their games, are a nothing-special 4-3 in close games and have a young team still getting used to each other and a new coach. I'd be surprised if the Bucks don't make the playoffs.

15. (14) Detroit Pistons (41.6) [ 47 / 40 / 55 ]
Rankings: NET: 15; OFF: 15; DEF: 19; PACE: 26

I know that the macro view is more important when discussing the Pistons these days, but as the season plays out, it's hard to ignore the micro. Six weeks ago, the Pistons enjoyed a one-week stint on top of the Hoops List. Actually, it was only one day, it just happened to be the cut-off day for that week. Since then, Detroit has dropped every week, including a one-spot slide this week that leaves the once-vaunted Pistons at No. 15--as average as it gets. The power ranking supports that standard of mediocrity and, worse, the Pistons have compiled these marks against one of the league's easiest schedules. Since Michael Curry decided to go with a small starting lineup, Detroit is 5-3. However, those five wins have come against teams with a combined record of 41-104. Against the weak opposition, the Pistons' defensive efficiency with the new lineup is 97.0 and the efficiency margin is a robust +12 even though the unit has been outrebounded, has a deficit in free-throw rate and has allowed a 48.2% eFG (thanks to 82games.com for most of those figures). So even though the move creates a glut of big men on the bench--Amir Johnson, Jason Maxiell, Kwame Brown and Antonio McDyess--Curry is apparently doing the best with which he has to work. Still, even if the new starting group is holding its own, the Pistons slide in the power rankings still needs to be explained. One reason is the bench--last year's team strength has been outscored by 93 points on the season. This may be where Curry's unconventional lineup is really causing the problem.

16. (15) Chicago Bulls (40.4) [ 38 / 34 / 43 ]
Rankings: NET: 18; OFF: 20; DEF: 18; PACE: 5

The Bulls find themselves in another rebuilding campaign, playing just-below-average basketball at a fast pace and suffering from the same problems that have plagued them in the recent past. Chicago still has too many redundant parts. Derrick Rose is awfully talented and Bulls fans should be glad to have him, but the team's imbalance is more maddening than ever to watch. At least Rose provides a semblance of an inside game with whirling-dervish drives to the basket that would make Rumi himself proud. Ben Gordon is a good match on the offensive end with Rose. Well, at least he is as long as he keeps shooting as efficiently as he has this season. Defensively, it's another story. Where will Kirk Hinrich fit into all of this? Why does Larry Hughes ever step foot on the floor? Luol Deng and Andres Nocioni remain an "either/or" but not "both" proposition. Joakim Noah and Tyrus Thomas have different levels of athleticism and efficiency, yet they don't seem to complement each other either on the floor together or when working tag-team. The roster is like a puzzle made from a jumble of Renoir and Picasso portraits. The individual pieces are beautiful, but they don't fit together. The next GM is really going to have to make some hard choices. As it is, the Bulls will muddle along in pursuit of .500. They'll win some games they shouldn't on nights the jumpers are falling. Other nights, they'll look like the worst team in the league. They could make the playoffs, but to what end?

17. (21) Miami Heat (37.4) [ 45 / 41 / 35 ]
Rankings: NET: 14; OFF: 16; DEF: 16; PACE: 22

To say that the Heat is much improved over last season is true, but really not too surprising. Miami is now on pace to win 47 games, which would be a 32-game leap from last season. Impressive. You can also make the argument that they'll continue to improve as the season goes along. Mario Chalmers is a rookie learning to run an NBA team. Michael Beasley is still figuring out how to deploy his considerable talents. James Jones, a free-agent acquisition in the offseason, has yet to make his season debut because of an injury. Yet every indicator I look at suggests that Miami is in for some rough times. The Heat have a win pace that is 4.3 games better than its Pythagorean pace. They are 6-2 in close games. They've played 15 of 28 games at home. They've faced the easiest or second-easiest schedule in the league (depending on which day you check). At the same time, they face the NBA's hardest schedule over the rest of the season. They'll be an interesting team to watch in the new year.

18. (17) Indiana Pacers (36.7) [ 29 / 34 / 41 ]
Rankings: NET: 17; OFF: 21; DEF: 17; PACE: 3

The Pacers have been a hard-luck team, playing the NBA's second-toughest schedule and going just 3-8 in close games. If Jim O'Brien really wanted make a push for the eighth spot in the East bracket, he might have a chance to get there. However, what would we really know about where the Pacers are headed? We know that Danny Granger is a good player and, at 26, is a guy you can count on as one of a solid future core trio. T.J. Ford has been outplayed by his backup, Jarrett Jack. Mike Dunleavy has yet to suit up, which leaves a key question--how he fits with Granger and Brandon Rush--dangling. Rush hasn't taken the league by storm, to say the least. Roy Hibbert has struggled to get court time. O'Brien needs to sort out what he has before Larry Bird can decide what to do next.

19. (20) Toronto Raptors (35.5) [ 32 / 30 / 42 ]
Rankings: NET: 21; OFF: 19; DEF: 20; PACE: 19

The enigmatic Raptors are possibly the league's most disappointing team this season. What does this team do well? It can shoot. Toronto leads the league in free-throw percentage and is eighth on three-pointers. They get to the line at a decent rate, ranking ninth in that area. They pass the ball well, ranking second in assist percentage. They've committed the seventh-fewest rate of turnovers in the NBA. Yet all of this adds up to a ho-hum 18th place in offensive efficiency. The Raps are dead last in offensive rebounding and only four spots better on the defensive boards. That hurts, but does it really explain a team that is on pace for a 10-game shortfall from its preseason projection? By point differential, Toronto should actually be a few games worse. The schedule does get easier, so maybe Toronto will get things rolling. The first order of business should be to shelve Andrea Bargnani, then deal him after the season.

20. (19) Philadelphia 76ers (35.2) [ 35 / 37 / 38 ]
Rankings: NET: 20; OFF: 27; DEF: 10; PACE: 17

Samuel Dalembert is annoyed that rookie Marreese Speights is getting crunch-time minutes at his expense. He should be annoyed--at himself. Dalembert (3.7 WP3K) has been outplayed by Speights (5.5) this season and has fallen well short of his projection (5.8). With his shooting percentage down, his turnovers up and even his vaunted shot-blocking at a career low, Dalembert is having his worst NBA season. Is this because of Elton Brand? Dalembert has seen fewer offensive opportunities this season, but that could be a result of his four-percent drop in field-goal shooting more than Brand's presence. However, two of Dalembert's better games this season have come in the four games since Brand was injured. Speights, however, has continued to outshine Dalembert offensively.

21. (22) New Jersey Nets (34.6) [ 41 / 34 / 38 ]
Rankings: NET: 19; OFF: 6; DEF: 27; PACE: 18

I've tended to grumble over the praise being heaped upon Jersey's backcourt because of ugly defensive ratings. True, Devin Harris (18.4% worse than average) and Vince Carter (15.2%) have tended to allow big games by their opposition. However, the duo are still outproducing those opponents, so the perhaps the point is moot. This is one of those efficiency vs. production head-scratchers that is at the crux of basketball analysis. Take Harris. By my numbers, he's allowed 126.5 points per 100 possessions to his counterparts--an abysmal number. His comparable offensive rating is 111.2. So Harris is having a terrible season, right? No. In basketball, it's not just about how well you do something, it's about how often. Harris has used 545 possessions offensively while his opponents have used 405. As a result, Harris' points created total is 606 against just 512 for his counterparts. For every 40 minutes Harris is on the floor, the Nets are gaining four points to the positive. That's borderline All-Star production. Nevertheless, the Nets have been awful on defense and the backcourt is a big reason for that.

22. (18) New York Knicks (34.6) [ 33 / 31 / 33 ]
Rankings: NET: 23; OFF: 17; DEF: 24; PACE: 2

I think we all see the positive effect Mike D'Antoni has had on the Knicks. However, a five-game losing streak has dropped New York into the Atlantic Division basement. As a result, the Knicks' power rating (34.6) is rapidly approaching the team's preseason projection (33 wins). Does that mean that D'Antoni hasn't had any real effect on the Knicks? No. It just means that there is a lot of work left to be done.

23. (24) Charlotte Bobcats (29.7) [ 28 / 34 / 38 ]
Rankings: NET: 22; OFF: 26; DEF: 14; PACE: 28

Looking for THE hard-luck story in the NBA this season? Look no further than Charlotte, where Larry Brown's squad is 1-10 in games decided by five points or less, and that doesn't include Saturday night's loss in overtime to the Nets. Add five wins to the Bobcats' bottom line and suddenly you have a team a game or two over .500 and Brown is being touted as a coach-of-the-year candidate. It doesn't get easier for Charlotte: 18 of its 30 games have been at home.

24. (25) Los Angeles Clippers (24.9) [ 23 / 24 / 33 ]
Rankings: NET: 25; OFF: 29; DEF: 15; PACE: 12

The Clippers have to be encouraged by the play of rookie Eric Gordon, who hasn't turned out to be the remorseless gunner that I had him pegged to be. Gordon has a 51.8% eFG and a nice foul-drawing rate, resulting in 1.33 points per field goal attempt, the top figure on the Clippers. Gordon still has a lot of rough edges--too many turnovers, an inability to get his own shot--but he his having a nice rookie season.

25. (26) Golden State Warriors (24.8) [ 21 / 24 / 35 ]
Rankings: NET: 26; OFF: 18; DEF: 29; PACE: 1

Don Nelson recently appointed assistant Keith Smart as his defensive coordinator in hopes of improving the team's No. 29 ranking on that end of the floor. He could probably do a lot to help the Warriors' defense by using players that have the physical attributes to defend similar players on opposing teams. When you regularly use lineups of three or four shooting guards, why is it surprising that you can't stop the other team? Smart should try to convince Nelson to start Anthony Randolph at the four-spot alongside Andris Biedrins while, at the same time, Nelson discourages Randolph from ever attempting any shot other than a dunk. Randolph has been excellent on the boards and has shown a propensity for blocking shots. These are things that can improve a club's defensive efficiency.

26. (23) Memphis Grizzlies (24.1) [ 26 / 25 / 19 ]
Rankings: NET: 24; OFF: 23; DEF: 21; PACE: 21

What is the future of Memphis' point guard position? In one corner, you have Kyle Lowry, 23, in his third year out of Villanova, with a 3.6 WP3K. In the other corner, you have Michael Conley, 22, in his second year out of Ohio State, with a 4.0 WP3K. Conley has played 54% of available minutes while Lowry is at 47%. Lowry has been better offensively, while Conley is better on defense. Lowry gets assists at a higher rate but Conley commits fewer turnovers. Conley is a better shooter, but Lowry is better at getting into the lane and drawing fouls. The answer to this question is not an easy one. Perhaps the question is wrong. Maybe it would be better to ask, "Who fits better alongside O.J. Mayo?" For that answer, we turn to the player pair tandem figures at 82games.com. There we find that Memphis is -52 with Mayo and Lowry playing together. In a similar amount of minutes, the Grizzlies are -112 with Conley pairing with Mayo. Does that help? Maybe Steve Francis will be the answer.

27. (27) Sacramento Kings (19.7) [ 19 / 18 / 39 ]
Rankings: NET: 29; OFF: 25; DEF: 30; PACE: 8

The Kings have "emerged" as the league's worst defensive team. You can't point at any one position--they've all been bad--but Sacramento's defensive standing has me taking a hard look at Brad Miller. He just doesn't fit with this young, developing team anymore. The Kings need to quit wasting minutes on Miller and Bobby Jackson, who aren't really providing any more than the youngsters, and explore what, if any, trade market there is for the pair.

28. (28) Washington Wizards (18.3) [ 12 / 22 / 32 ]
Rankings: NET: 27; OFF: 22; DEF: 28; PACE: 20

There are whisperings that Washington may hold Gilbert Arenas out all season, which would be a wise choice for a franchise that should be thinking in terms of lottery balls.

29. (29) Minnesota Timberwolves (17.3) [ 12 / 20 / 26 ]
Rankings: NET: 28; OFF: 28; DEF: 26; PACE: 16

Congratulations, Kevin McHale. First you draft O.J. Mayo, the NBA's second-best rookie, and trade him for a player you basically already have in Kevin Love. Nevertheless, the best lineups your team can field include Love and Al Jefferson at the same time. That doesn't faze you, though. With absolutely nothing to play for except for player development, you slash Love's court time against the kind of high-caliber opposition he needs to gain experience against in favor of the likes of Craig Smith and Ryan Gomes. Way to go.

30. (30) Oklahoma City Thunder (12.9) [ 8 / 16 / 23 ]
Rankings: NET: 30; OFF: 30; DEF: 25; PACE: 7

I don't know about you, but I'd like to see what a backcourt of Russell Westbrook and Kyle Weaver could do.

Definitions:

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. You can contact Bradford by clicking here or click here to see Bradford's other articles.

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