When trying to place this NBA regular season in historical context, I keep coming back to the 1990-91 season. This is impossible to do before the playoffs, but I have an inkling that this season is playing out the same way.
The '90-'91 campaign was the first championship season for the Michael Jordan Bulls. After serving an apprenticeship of six seasons, the mix of a more teammate-friendly Jordan, the maturation of Scottie Pippen and Horace Grant, and a roster full of role players that fit around that core wonderfully helped the Bulls break through as the league's best team from start to finish. (The Blazers actually had a better regular-season record, but the Bulls had a better point differential.)
I don't remember what the general perception was at the time. I'm sure that plenty of pundits thought that despite the Bulls' regular-season dominance, they still might come up short in the postseason against the two-time champion Pistons or even the veteran Celtics, who won 56 games that season. The Bulls actually started the season with a pedestrian 10-6 record. But a 51-15 finish, which included one 20-1 stretch, should have served notice that the Michael Jordan era had arrived. It would be nearly a decade before Jordan was finished winning titles. If he had never retired and played straight through until 2001 or 2002, the Bulls may well have won nine or 10 straight titles before they finished.
These things were on my mind this week after the announcement of the next basketball Hall of Fame class, which of course included a kicking-and-screaming Jordan. (One trait that I share with MJ, and there aren't many: I get irked by things that remind me that I am indeed getting older. I wonder if he shares my disdain for birthdays?) The news made me think of LeBron James. It seems inevitable that there is going to be a LeBron James Era in the NBA. Not just a period of time when he is the league's most marketable star or the MVP or leading scorer, but a period when teams built around his transcendent talents are simply too good to be denied a string of championships.
My brother Brian, an NBA fanatic and expert of the highest order, has watched almost every game that James has played since he entered the NBA. A couple of years ago, he pointed towards this season as the probable start of the LeBron James championship years. This was back when the Cavs still had Drew Gooden and well before Delonte West and Mo Williams took over in the backcourt. As I watch this season unfold, and watch my own power rankings in which the Cavs continue to sit in the 65-67 win level while the other NBA elites slip back into a hard-to-separate group at 60-62 wins, it now seems obvious that Cleveland has established itself as the clear-cut favorite to win the NBA championship.
That James (age 24) would get to this level before Jordan (age 27) did is only the latest example of the heightened acceleration of James' rise to prominence. Once he gets started, it's frightening to think of how many titles he could win. There are many variables in that equation, many things that could go wrong. However, everything in James' life has unfolded pretty much according to plan. Why shouldn't that continue?
(Statistics through April 7)
Rank. (Last week) Team (Power rating) [Win pace / Pythagorean win pace / Preseason projection ]
1. (1) Cleveland Cavaliers (65.4) [ 66 / 64 / 44 ]
Rankings: NET: 1; OFF: 4; DEF: 3; PACE: 25
If there is one area of vulnerability for the Cavs, it's on the defensive end, where NBAPET has Mo Williams as a basically neutral defender. Admittedly, this is really looking hard for chinks in Cleveland's armor. The Cavaliers rank third in defensive efficiency, so it's not an overarching concern, just something to watch for in specific matchups. Kevin Pelton did a terrific analysis of Cleveland's defense in last Sunday's game against the Spurs. I found it interesting that he noted how Tony Parker was scoring at will until Mike Brown switched LeBron James onto Mr. Longoria. That is exactly the kind of thing that NBAPET can't capture with the available data at this point. I wonder if I could talk Kevin into giving me one of those defensive box scores for every game?
2. (2) Boston Celtics (62.4) [ 61 / 62 / 63 ]
Rankings: NET: 2; OFF: 5; DEF: 1; PACE: 20
Kevin Garnett first went down with his knee injury against Dallas on Feb. 12. He's played in five games since, playing less than 18 minutes in each. When Garnett was injured, Boston was 44-11 and had an efficiency margin of +10.4 points per 100 possessions. Since then, Boston has gone 15-8 with a margin of +5.8. The offense has barely dropped (113.2 offensive effiency down to 112.9) but the defensive efficiency has risen by 4.3 points. That's the effect of Kevin Garnett. With a full-strength Garnett, the Celtics are right there with the Cavs, Magic and Lakers. Without him, they're at the approximate level of the Blazers or Spurs. That's the difference between being a good team and a title contender. So you have to agree with Doc Rivers' plan to rest Garnett until he's as close to 100 percent as he can get before the playoffs. Boston must have Garnett to repeat, and even then the Celtics' road is an awfully tough one.
3. (3) Los Angeles Lakers (60.9) [ 65 / 60 / 49 ]
Rankings: NET: 4; OFF: 3; DEF: 5; PACE: 7
The Lakers are another team that had to deal with a key injury to a frontline player. However, the effect of Andrew Bynum's injury on the Lakers was different than the consequences of Kevin Garnett's injury for the Celtics. For a while, the Lakers seemed to be actually playing better without Bynum, which was also the case when Bynum went out last season. Bynum is a wonderful young big man, but L.A. may just function more efficiently. given its current roster, with Pau Gasol at center and Lamar Odom playing the four. However, the longer Bynum has been out, the more apparent it has become that the Lakers are better with him. When Bynum was hurt on Jan. 31, L.A. was 37-9, with an efficiency margin of +9.4. Since then, the Lakers are 25-7 and +6.3. Unlike the detrimental effect the loss of Garnett had on Boston's defense, Bynum's absence seems to have done more harm to L.A.'s offense. The Lakers' defensive efficiency with Bynum healthy was 107.0. Since then, it's 106.2. On offense, however, L.A. has dropped from 116.4 to 112.6. With the Cavaliers separating themselves from the pack, L.A. needs Bynum to come back (which he did on Thursday) to be in the best possible position for a finals showdown with the Cavs.
4. (4) Orlando Magic (60.4) [ 60 / 60 / 43 ]
Rankings: NET: 3; OFF: 6; DEF: 2; PACE: 12
One of the fascinating aspects of this NBA season has been how three of the four elite teams in the league have suffered potentially devasting injuries. Whereas the Celtics and Lakers look like they'll have Kevin Garnett and Andruw Bynum, respectively, back in time for the playoffs, Orlando has no such hope for a miracle return from Jameer Nelson. Magic GM Otis Smith tried to remedy that crisis by dealing for point guard Rafer Alston just before the deadline. At the time, I lauded the deal, but said for it to really pay off Alston was going to have to play better than he did in Houston. So how has it worked out?
OEFF DEFF NEFF W L PCT
With Nelson 112.8 103.8 9.0 36 11 .766
No point guard 109.0 108.1 0.9 3 3 .500
With Alston 111.0 103.3 7.7 19 6 .760
The Magic aren't quite as good with Alston in place of Nelson, but they're close enough to give hope for Orlando fans hoping for a big splash in the postseason. Well played, Mr. Smith.
5. (5) Portland Trail Blazers (53.1) [ 52 / 53 / 38 ]
Rankings: NET: 5; OFF: 2; DEF: 17; PACE: 29
The Blazers continue to be one of the league's most efficient offensive teams, a fact mostly lost on the mainstream because of the slow pace at which Nate McMillan prefers to play. The defense is still middling and it really isn't getting any better. I thought that perhaps such a young team, with so many rookies, would up its defensive play as the season progressed. However, when I looked at 20-game rolling averages of the Blazers' defensive efficiency, Portland has basically been around its season mark (110.0) since the first quarter of the season. Let's face it, this is an offensive team that plays at a slow pace. Regardless, it's working out fine for the Blazers, who still have a shot at the second seed in the West. I'm looking forward to a potential second-round showdown with the Rockets.
6. (6) Denver Nuggets (52.9) [ 54 / 51 / 43 ]
Rankings: NET: 6; OFF: 8; DEF: 7; PACE: 5
The Nuggets need two more wins to surpass the 1987-88 Doug Moe-coached edition as the winningest team in Denver's NBA history.
7. (8) Houston Rockets (52.7) [ 52 / 52 / 61 ]
Rankings: NET: 8; OFF: 16; DEF: 4; PACE: 19
The Rockets feature two of the better wing defenders this decade in Ron Artest and Shane Battier. This season, both have had injury problems from time to time and as a result, Houston has had both players at its disposal in just 46 of 78 games. I thought it would be telling to divide the Rockets' game logs into 'With Artest/Battier' and without. I naturally assumed that Houston was more successful with both of them playing, with the better results coming from a stingier defense. I was right on the first count, but not the second. Houston is 32-14 in games in which Artest and Battier have both appeared versus 18-14 otherwise. However, the Rockets' defensive efficiency (106.1 to 106.3) is practically the same. Houston has actually been better on offense with both players in action: 112.7 to 107.2 points per 100 possessions. Live and learn.
8. (7) San Antonio Spurs (51.3) [ 53 / 51 / 55 ]
Rankings: NET: 7; OFF: 13; DEF: 6; PACE: 27
Here we are, the second-to-the-last Hoops List of the season, and we still can't really anticipate any playoff matchups in the West. One possible matchup, however, is the Blazers against the Spurs. When the teams hooked up Wednesday in San Antonio, you couldn't help but feel like you were watching the NBA's past against the NBA's future. With Manu Ginobili out for the season and Tim Duncan's knees rendering him largely ineffective, the Spurs have quickly gone from the Lakers' most-likely challenger in the West to the one team that you want to play in the first round.
9. (9) Utah Jazz (49.5) [ 50 / 50 / 50 ]
Rankings: NET: 9; OFF: 9; DEF: 11; PACE: 10
The Jazz are a 50-win team. Utah's power rating (49.5) rounds to 50, it's on pace to win 50, its Pythagorean pace is 50--even its NBAPET preseason projection was for 50 wins. Fifty wins don't buy as much as they used to. The fractured nature of Utah's season (with Boozer/without Boozer) and their inability to win on the road have left the Jazz squarely in the sights of a Lakers team that could well go four-four-four to get into the NBA Finals.
10. (10) New Orleans Hornets (48.2) [ 51 / 47 / 45 ]
Rankings: NET: 10; OFF: 12; DEF: 9; PACE: 28
I'm pretty well convinced that Chris Paul is having the best season ever for a player listed at six-foot or under. To check this, I figured out the per-game efficiencies using the basic EFF formula used by the NBA and first used by my Kansas City Star blog partner Martin Manley a couple of decades ago. I can only go back to the NBA/ABA merger because of the lack of data from previous seasons, but Paul's 30.1 EFF tops the list. His 27.9 from last season is second. Then it drops to Allen Iverson's 26.1 in 2005-06. Paul is having the best season ever by a player shorter than me--I'm sure of it. Paul's PER from the last two seasons also tops the list, which includes all of NBA history.
11. (12) Dallas Mavericks (47.0) [ 48 / 45 / 51 ]
Rankings: NET: 12; OFF: 7; DEF: 16; PACE: 16
The Mavericks are in the playoffs and may not even have to face the Lakers in the first round. Any team that falls into the lower half of the West brackets (the 2/7, 3/6 matchups) has to be considered a threat to advance to the conference finals. There's just not that much separation in the conference. Last season was similar in that regard, but when the playoffs rolled around, the seeds held true. So while Dallas is playing its best basketball of the season, the Mavs are likely to go up against a Denver team in the first round that is also on top of its game. Without home-court advantage, Dallas is still looking at a first-round exit.
12. (11) Atlanta Hawks (46.9) [ 46 / 45 / 38 ]
Rankings: NET: 13; OFF: 11; DEF: 12; PACE: 24
The Hawks emerged from a 2-6 slump during a particularly rough stretch of their schedule with a firm grasp on the East's fourth seed. Atlanta has been consistent all season and returned to its winning ways with a pair of road wins this week. With one more win, the Hawks will clinch the four-seed and its accompanying home-court advantage for a probable first-round matchup against Miami.
13. (13) Phoenix Suns (45.5) [ 44 / 45 / 49 ]
Rankings: NET: 11; OFF: 1; DEF: 25; PACE: 4
The jig is up in the desert and, going forward, you get the feeling that the Suns are going to look very different. The process of rebuilding could be a painful one, especially given the seeming impatience of Phoenix owner Robert Sarver.
14. (14) Miami Heat (42.6) [ 43 / 41 / 35 ]
Rankings: NET: 15; OFF: 17; DEF: 13; PACE: 21
In the latest edition of my WP82 ratings for this year's rookie class, Mario Chalmers (6.1) ranks behind only Derrick Rose (6.6). I don't get the feeling that Chalmers will get many Rookie of the Year votes, however. So much of Chalmers' value in my system comes from his defense; I think the Heat have one of the better defensive backcourts in the NBA in Chalmers and Dwyane Wade. At the same time, Chalmers has served as a nice complement to Wade on the offensive end by being a good passer and hitting a good percentage of his three-point shots. Add it all up and Chalmers is one of the league's top first-year players.
15. (15) Philadelphia 76ers (41.6) [ 42 / 42 / 38 ]
Rankings: NET: 14; OFF: 20; DEF: 10; PACE: 18
I cannot understand why Donyell Marshall doesn't get more consistent playing time off the Sixers' bench. Philadelphia is once again the league's worst three-point shooting team. Marshall, meanwhile, is shooting 45% from beyond the arc while taking an incredible 11.7 three-point attempts per 40 minutes. Yeah, he's old and one-dimensional, but its a dimension the Sixers really need.
16. (16) Chicago Bulls (40.2) [ 39 / 39 / 43 ]
Rankings: NET: 16; OFF: 18; DEF: 18; PACE: 9
The Bulls are 8-12 in close games (those decided by five points or less) but if you watch Chicago on a regular basis, it seems worst than that. The Bulls just can't seem to hold a lead, and when they get into a situation where a big shot will win a game, they can't convert. A lot of this seems due to Derrick Rose's inexperience. According to the clutch stats at 82games.com, no Bulls player is shooting 50 percent from the field in last five minutes of close games this season.
17. (17) Detroit Pistons (39.2) [ 39 / 38 / 55 ]
Rankings: NET: 17; OFF: 22; DEF: 15; PACE: 30
The Pistons clinch a playoff spot with one more win, but whether it's the Cavs, Celtics or Magic in the first round, Detroit is looking at four-and-out. Then Pistons fans will look to pick up the pieces from the Allen Iverson Era.
18. (18) Charlotte Bobcats (37.0) [ 36 / 38 / 38 ]
Rankings: NET: 19; OFF: 27; DEF: 8; PACE: 26
The Bobcats have improved, both since last season and as this season has progressed. The roster is stronger, but it's taken the acquisition of some veterans with limited upside to get there. With the playoffs still a rumor in Charlotte, how does Michael Jordan build on this?
19. (19) Indiana Pacers (36.6) [ 35 / 36 / 41 ]
Rankings: NET: 20; OFF: 19; DEF: 19; PACE: 3
The Pacers have taken the wraps off Brandon Rush, starting the rookie in their last eight games. Rush has had a couple of good outings, including back-to-back 29-point games. However, he's shown a lot of the passivity that sometimes plagued his college career at Kansas. Rush is deferential by nature, and while that might make him a good teammate, it doesn't help him take full advantage of his considerable physical gifts. In these last eight games as a starter, Rush has attempted a total of five free throws, but he's taken 33 three-point shots. He's too athletic to be that perimeter-oriented.
20. (20) Milwaukee Bucks (35.8) [ 34 / 37 / 31 ]
Rankings: NET: 18; OFF: 23; DEF: 14; PACE: 11
Not many teams could survive the pair of injuries that have wrecked the Bucks' season. Andrew Bogut and Michael Redd have played a combined 69 games, yet the Bucks are going to win at least six more games than they did last season. All in all, Scott Skiles' first season as Milwaukee's coach has to be considered a success.
21. (21) New Jersey Nets (33.9) [ 34 / 34 / 38 ]
Rankings: NET: 21; OFF: 14; DEF: 23; PACE: 22
For a couple of months, the Nets looked like playoff contenders, but this has never been a playoff-caliber team. Still, the Nets have found a couple of rookie keepers in Brook Lopez and Ryan Anderson. Even Chris Douglas-Roberts has been OK in limited minutes. The Yi Jianlian trade doesn't look too good right now--Yi ranks 238th of 250 qualifying players in WP82. Yi may still grow into his body and, right now, he looks to have potential as a rebounder and shot blocker. However, you have to worry about a seven-footer that barely tops 40 percent on two-point field goals.
22. (23) Toronto Raptors (33.2) [ 31 / 32 / 42 ]
Rankings: NET: 22; OFF: 21; DEF: 21; PACE: 15
Andrea Bargnani's gradual improvement continues. The third-year Italian has become an efficient and often dangerous outside shooter and has improved his rebounding, though he's still weak on the boards for a player his size. The next step for Bargnani will be to improve as a passer and defender. There are still a lot of rough edges in his game. Nevertheless, he may be the face of the franchise if Chris Bosh leaves.
23. (22) New York Knicks (32.7) [ 31 / 33 / 33 ]
Rankings: NET: 23; OFF: 15; DEF: 24; PACE: 2
The Knicks are perceived to be an overachieving team even though they're on pace to fall one win short of the 33 wins NBAPET projected for them before the season. New York is a more viable franchise on the court than it was at this time last year. The Knicks are much more fun to watch, Mike D'Antoni has restored order to the bench and Donnie Walsh has knocked off some major housecleaning items from his to-do list this season.
24. (24) Golden State Warriors (30.0) [ 29 / 31 / 35 ]
Rankings: NET: 24; OFF: 10; DEF: 28; PACE: 1
The Warriors' rep is as a three-point mad, jump-shooting team but, in reality, Golden State is second in the league in free-throw attempts. Too bad Don Nelson hasn't been able to coerce his troops into applying some of that physicality at the defensive end of the floor.
25. (25) Minnesota Timberwolves (26.7) [ 24 / 27 / 26 ]
Rankings: NET: 26; OFF: 25; DEF: 27; PACE: 14
I'm looking for positive things to write for Minnesota fans, but the franchise is still a mess. Kevin Love has the fourth-best offensive rebounding rate in the NBA and looks to me to be a future All-Star caliber power forward. However, that's the one position Minnesota already had filled. I think the T-Wolves are still two players short of a core.
26. (27) Memphis Grizzlies (23.8) [ 22 / 24 / 19 ]
Rankings: NET: 25; OFF: 28; DEF: 22; PACE: 23
With such a young starting lineup and plenty of payroll flexibility moving forward, Grizzlies fans can look forward to plenty of improvement if none of their best players decide to turn pro.
27. (26) Oklahoma City Thunder (22.6) [ 22 / 23 / 23 ]
Rankings: NET: 27; OFF: 30; DEF: 20; PACE: 8
OKC is last in plenty of things, most of which have to do with scoring. The Thunder have got to uncover some inside players that can convert two-point field goals. Kevin Durant looks like he's going to be a 30-points-per-game scorer while still being fairly efficient. However, his running mate at forward, Jeff Green, is a talented but redundant stylistic facsimile of Durant. Green needs to be less reliant on his three-point shot and become more of a force in the lane. Plus, Russell Westbrook has to become a better mid-range shooter. With another key piece coming in the next lottery, these improvements could put Oklahoma City next year where the Blazers were last year: the next up-and-coming power in the West.
28. (28) Los Angeles Clippers (19.4) [ 18 / 18 / 33 ]
Rankings: NET: 29; OFF: 29; DEF: 26; PACE: 13
The Braves/Clippers franchise had three playoff appearances in the '70s, zero in the '80s and three in the '90s. The Clippers had their improbable run to the Western Conference semifinals three seasons ago, but it looks like L.A. is going to finish this decade with that campaign as it's only playoff appearance. Yes, I'm already writing off next season. If there is anyone in the world that happens to be an avid fan of both the Arizona Cardinals and the L.A. Clippers, I feel for that person. But if he/she thinks the Cardinals' Super Bowl appearance means that perhaps the Clippers can get to the finals someday, forget it. As long as the current ownership group is in place and as long as the Clippers exist as a second-class tenant in their own arena, this franchise is never going to make the championship round. It's hopeless.
29. (29) Washington Wizards (19.3) [ 18 / 20 / 32 ]
Rankings: NET: 30; OFF: 26; DEF: 29; PACE: 17
Gilbert Arenas' return has to bring a little bit of light to a dark season for Wizards fans. He's now played 15 games in the last two seasons.
30. (30) Sacramento Kings (18.1) [ 17 / 20 / 39 ]
Rankings: NET: 28; OFF: 24; DEF: 30; PACE: 6
Jason Thompson has been OK in his rookie season, but frankly I expected more. The particular area of disappointment for me is his shot-blocking. Thompson has a lower block rate than teammate Francisco Garcia--a wing player. In his senior season at Rider, Thompson had one of the 50 best block rates in the nation, and that's a area that usually translates well to the NBA. He's long and athletic and for him to become an above-average NBA player, he's going to have to become a more focused defender in the years to come.
NBAPET = stands for National Basketball Association Projection, Evaluation and Tracking = A database and system of metrics for analyzing professional basketball.
gRATE = a one-game metric that measures a player's offensive and defensive contribution and expresses it as a net point total. The sum of a team's gRATE figures for a game will equal its actual point differential for that game.
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)))
LUCK = the difference between a team's 82-game win pace and its 82-game Pythagorean win pace.
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
NOTE: Permanent credits are due to 82games.com and basketball-reference.com, both sites which are used liberally when compiling the Hoops List.
Bradford Doolittle is an author of Basketball Prospectus.
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