Welcome to the second half of our power rankings. If you want to read the first half, check out this link! Here we will be looking at the best fourteen teams in the NBA and the order that we believe the should be ranked. Thus, without further ado…
14. Memphis Grizzlies – 31-22
The Grizzlies are and have always been a tough, physical basketball team. Even though they lost their heart, Marc Gasol, Memphis should continue to be equally as physical. Yesterday the team traded their best shooter – Courtney Lee – for a combination of players, including Chris “Birdman” Anderson. And while this trade will allow the Grizzlies to be as physical as ever, it highlights a huge problem with the current roster construction, Memphis cannot shoot the ball. Out of the fourteen playoff teams, the Grizzlies have the third lowest three-point percentage (ahead of Miami and Dallas) and the lowest eFG%. This, along with losing their best player for the season, results in them lacking the threatening presence posed by other playoff teams.
13. Chicago Bulls – 27-25
Despite Jimmy Butler’s amazing season, despite having a new coach, and despite the emergence of Doug McDermott and Bobby Portis Jr., the Bulls are effectively the Grizzlies of the East. They play solid defense – although it is not what it was under Tom Thibodeau – but, overall, are too predictable on offense. They simply do not have the weapons. Nothing explains this more than their transition offense, which is ranked last in the NBA, mortifyingly bad for a playoff team. Regardless, they are also the best team at defending transition offense. This will allow them to stay in games against teams who like to push the pace. Nonetheless, unless Jimmy Butler can develop further into an offensive superstar, where he can dictate his team’s offensive production, the Bulls will be relegated into an early round playoff exit this season.
12. Miami Heat – 29-24
The Miami Heat were having an incredible season. Their defense was better than it had been since LeBron returned to Cleveland. Why am I using the past tense? Because Chris Bosh is having another blood clot scare, resulting in him needing to take blood thinners again, and consequently causing the potential for another missed season. This is predominantly sad because a man’s life – and to a lesser extent, livelihood – is at serious risk.
For the Heat, though, this loss poses serious problems. Bosh has, in many instances, been single handedly willing Miami to victory. He is second in the league, behind Blake Griffin, in scoring frequency on isolation possessions this season. Meanwhile, he is a top-ten isolation defender and a top-two pick-and-roll defender. Thus, the loss of Bosh should put a damper on the Heat’s season.
Nevertheless, if Wade and Whiteside can play at their highest level throughout the rest of the season, Miami will make the playoffs. And their, with the team’s experience and Eric Spoelstra’s genius, the Heat could pose problems to a higher seed.
11. Portland Trailblazers – 27-27
Portland has a really underrated, young, offensive powerhouse of a team. Damian Lillard is a poor-man’s Steph Curry, CJ McCollum may become the next Dwayne Wade, and Terry Stotts has turned a miserable season into a feel-good story. Now, the team has a few statement wins against the Cavaliers and Thunder, but they have an otherwise easy schedule (ranking eighth easiest this season). Essentially, this team may be more than they are hyped up to be.
Nonetheless, they do certain things very well. Namely, they rank fourth in the NBA in ball handler scoring off of pick-and-rolls. This is important, because the Blazers use it on 19.9% of all plays, which per Synergy is utilized this play significantly more by them than any other play type (the second most frequent are spot-ups at 19.1% of total plays and then transition scoring at 12.8% of total plays). Consequently, the offense is simplistic, but the Blazers have the talent to make it work.
This team’s biggest weakness is its inability to score easy buckets. More than anything, they are horrendous at scoring easy buckets in the post. They run post-ups on less than 3% of all plays, which is the worst in the association, and have the fifth worst scoring frequency on these possessions. More importantly, per SportVU, the Blazers have the least amount of shot attempts in the painted area in the association. Thus, when the going gets tough, the Blazers crumble.
10. Indiana Pacers – 28-25
Paul George is the story of the year. After having an injury many suggested he would not return from, George overcame the odds, and has played the seventh most minutes out of any other player this season. Additionally, in terms of the widely lauded Player Efficiency Rating, George is having the best season of his career.
But looking at the Pacers as a whole, the decision to speed up their pace may have long-term benefits, although short-term consequences. The George-Hilbert-West core had been to the playoffs, almost came back to make it last year, and more than likely would’ve out-toughed their way to the playoffs this year. More than that, they would have been able to contend against iso-heavy teams such as Toronto and Cleveland due to the trio’s defensive prowess. Nonetheless, everyone knew that core was limited. Building around Paul George and budding star Myles Turner provides a more sustainable model with infinitely higher upside.
9. Atlanta Hawks – 31-24
Let’s begin with what is good. They are one of six teams in the NBA with a eFG% above 50%, an opponent’s eFG% below 50%, and a win percentage above 50%. Yet, per our Dominance Metric, they are the sixth most dominant out of all six teems. Nonetheless, that still does count for something, the Hawks can play.
Here is the downside. The Hawks have reached their potential, and that happened last season. This team, as currently constructed, will not win the East. More importantly, due to a filled roster and salary cap, this team has little room to improve. Consequently, and for other reasons I have detailed, there are serious rumors about the Hawks rightfully trying to trade Kyle Korver, Al Horford, Paul Milsap, Thabo Sefolosha, and Jeff Teague.
8. Dallas Mavericks – 29-26
I recently wrote about this team, and frankly, not much has changed. This is not inherently bad. Dallas is outplaying its expectations. To use a common Bush-ism, many in the association “misunderestimated” the Mavericks going into the 2015-16 season. The team has used a system eerily similar to the 2014-15 Atlanta Hawks’ offense, combined it with the star power of Dirk Nowitzki, and rolled the dice.
Dallas’ offense is much more advanced than Chicago and Memphis, however, they suffer from one similar fault: shooting. Out of all of the current playoff teams, Dallas shoots the second lowest three-point percentage and the sixth lowest TS%. Due to their high assist percentage, though, this is not a kiss-of-death like it is for Memphis and Chicago. Dallas is an advanced tactical team with a less than talented roster. Nonetheless, they can give the best teams trouble, and are not who the Warriors would want to face in the first round.
7. Boston Celtics – 32-23
Boston is an interesting team, quite resembling last year’s Atlanta Hawks, at least on the surface. The Celtics lack the presence of a true superstar. Sure, Isaiah Thomas is a very good player, Jae Crowder is becoming great for defensive versatility, and Marcus Smart is, at worst, a pesky defender, but the team simply does not have a go-to scorer who can will them to victory. I have detailed previously how this is important, and won’t re-hash here, but it is really irrelevant for the Celtics.
The reasoning why is because Boston possesses the Brooklyn Nets’ 2016 first round pick. It is highly unlikely that the Celtics use this asset to draft a player; rather, Danny Ainge will most likely flip it for a superstar. Until that point, though, do not expect the Celtics to make any deep playoff runs.
Nevertheless, this team is fun to watch. They are pesky, force the second most steals in the NBA, and hit game winners like this:
6. Los Angeles Clippers – 35-18
The Clippers are simultaneously a mess and a title contender. On one hand, the trio of Chris Paul, Blake Griffin, and DeAndre Jordan has failed. On the other, though, the Clippers have only lost five games since Blake Griffin’s injury. Moreover, since the new year, the Clippers’ lineup of Paul, Redick, Crawford, Mbah a Moute, and Jordan has been the best offensive lineup in the NBA.
What explains this paradox? The common analysis suggests that between Chris Paul’s good but not great jump shot, Blake Griffin’s limited range, and DeAndre Jordan’s complete lack of range, the Clippers’ “big three” is an offensive nightmare. Funnily enough, though, the Clippers are only three points better per 100 possessions since Griffin has been hurt. This is not significant enough to determine games.
Rather, I’d posit something slightly less quantifiable: Blake Griffin likes to shoot and dominate the ball, without him though, the rest of the Clippers’ team can be involved. This can be seen in Griffin’s 29.6% usage percentage, and without it, guys outside of Chris Paul and DeAndre Jordan like Jamal Crawford, CJ Wilcox, Cole Aldrich, and JJ Redick get more useful touches. Thus, in the case of the Clippers, addition really has occurred via subtraction.
5. Toronto Raptors – 35-17
Toronto is a team that for the past three years has been irrelevant come postseason. This is simply because the Raptors have not demonstrated any ability to win playoff games. Yet, skinny Kyle Lowry and the always consistent DeMar DeRozan smell blood, and are planning to win the East.
Similar but better than Portland, Toronto excels at their ball handlers scoring off of pick-and-rolls, as they rank second in the NBA. Unlike Golden State, though, they do so with slashers, not just three-point shooters. This will ultimately make them a tough out come playoff time, and moreso if DeMarre Carroll can fully recover from his injury.
4. Cleveland Cavaliers – 38-14
I have written in a variety of mediums about the Cavaliers. Consequently, I will not re-hash many of my same opinions here. What I will say, though, is there have been certain offensive improvements since the Blatt firing. A few stats: their pass efficiency has improved by .6%, they’ve added nearly four elbow touches per game, and they perform much better at the start of games.
The issue comes with that last statement.
What this chart shows is that the Cavs come out with much more energy under Ty Lue, but struggle significantly more to close games. This has happened for a few reasons. First, the Cavs defense is about six points worse per 100 possessions. This is especially harmful late in games. Second, throughout his career, David Blatt has been known for late-game success. And finally, the Cavs new pace-conscious system wears the players out, which results in worse play to end games. Overall, for the Cavs to move up the rankings, they will need to improve this figure.
3. Oklahoma City Thunder – 40-14
There are two things to note about the Thunder this year that is different from past years. First, their offense, while still isolation heavy, has absolutely improved. In fact, over the course of the season, the Thunder have the second best offensive lineup in the association, which is made up of Westbrook, Waiters, Durant, Ibaka, and Kanter. Positive Residual, writing for Nylon Calculus, explains why:
“If the potential benefits seem minimal, the downside risks are nothing to ignore. As Seth Partnow suggests, one of the drawbacks of increased passing is that the ball may be out of Durant’s and Russell Westbrook’s hands when shot creation is needed. This presents a significant opportunity cost by my estimation. Durant and Westbrook are the only teammates that rank among the top five in Offensive Box Plus/Minus, Offensive Real Plus-Minus, Daily RAPM Estimate, and HBox. Although we have to be cautious about placing too much stock in all-encompassing metrics, I think the rankings reinforce the idea that OKC has a rare comparative advantage, which it should fully exploit or at least think twice about sacrificing.
Tactically, increased passing could also carry the risk of additional turnovers. As it is, OKC has one of the higher ratios of bad-to-made passes.”
Essentially, by running a heavy isolation offense, the Thunder have maximized their teams’ potential.
The second biggest difference, though, is that the Thunder have found more bench depth, especially in rookie Cameron Payne, who has the highest offensive rating out of any current rookie.
2. San Antonio Spurs – 45-8
The Spurs’ season has been ridiculous. They are on pace for a seventy win season, they’ll set an NBA record for point differential, they have their best roster since the beginning of the Duncan era, and the best defense since the Duncan era. Regardless, most experts don’t have them winning the West. The reason why is, because as Spurs’ coach Greg Popovich and guard Manu Ginobili pointed out, the Warriors are kind of unsolvable.
Nonetheless, the Spurs provide a challenge for the Warriors. San Antonio only allows scoring possessions against the ball handler pick-and-roll 37.4% of the time, allow opponents to score in transition a mere 47.6% of the time, and allow a score frequency of only 35.6% on spot-up shots. Essentially, the Spurs’ defense is best where the Warriors’ offense is best. Thus, for San Antonio to beat Golden State, they will need to take advantage of these mismatches.
- Golden State Warriors – 48-4
Golden State is unbelievably. Frankly, it’s hard to find an interesting series of stats to talk about with them. Their small ball lineup is historically great, and moreover, they have the three most dominant lineups in today’s NBA. The Warriors have a historically great offense to go along with a top-five defense. And finally, they’ve led our Dominance Metric for two months straight.
More scary than anything, though, is their incredibly large margin for error. Because the Warriors can create eight point swings like nobody else, they can mess-up like nobody else, and this creates horrible mismatches. We saw this last year in the NBA finals, where Timofey Mozgov was destroying the Warriors’ defense, but Golden State still won games handily. The scariest part, this team is much better this year than it was last year.
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