Sunday, March 26, 2017

2017 NBA Home Stretch Power Rankings

Now that I can breathe again after that incredible Elite Eight win by North Carolina over Kentucky, I wanted to take a temperature check of the pros as we approach the final 7-10 games before the end of the regular season. These will be quick hitters since I went in depth before the season and after the Trade Deadline, and as always, I'm using their overall point differential along with offensive and defensive efficiency numbers from

1. Golden State Warriors (1st in the West) 59-14 (35 H, 38 R)
Point Differential: +11.6 (1st), Offense: 113.0 (1st), Defense: 101.0 (T-1st)

Since losing 5 of 7 after Kevin Durant suffered a sprained MCL and tibial bone bruise during that arduous part of the schedule, they've won 7 straight thanks to Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson busting out of their shooting slumps during that stretch. They've had the best defense since the All-Star Break at 99.1 per 100 possessions despite their defensive rebounding percentage going from 75.8% before Durant went down to 73.6% after, which would be the worst in the league. If that overall rating keeps up, Draymond Green needs to be holding the Defensive Player of the Year award at season's end. And there's this to provide optimism for the playoffs:

2.  San Antonio Spurs (2nd in the West) 56-16 (35 H, 37 R)
Point Differential: +7.9 (2nd), Offense: 109.5 (6th), Defense: 101.0 (T-1st)

That slight shooting slump I mentioned for Kawhi Leonard last month has manifested itself in 47.7%/32.5%/83.6% shooting since the Break compared to 48.8%/39.6%/89.9% prior as he's made just 26 of his last 80 3's, but that hasn't stopped him from still doing it all for this team as he's scoring 26.4 with 4.0 assists compared to 25.9 and 3.3 beforehand. Combine that with his usual amazing defense, and he just might be my MVP.

3. Houston Rockets (3rd in the West) 51-22 (37 H, 36 R)
Point Differential: +7.0 (3rd), Offense: 112.5 (2nd), Defense: 105.9 (T-16th)

James Harden obviously has his own case for MVP along with Mike D'Antoni for Coach of the Year as this team already has 10 more wins than all of last year. They're 11-4 since the Break with the best offensive rating at 116.1 leading to the best point differential at +8.9, but a team that was already going small with Harden and Ariza at the forward spots often due to Lou Williams' arrival will be pushed further with Ryan Anderson's new ankle injury sidelining him for a bit. Sam Dekker has been a useful bench piece in what is essentially his rookie season after back surgery last year, but they're thin at that spot overall.

4. Cleveland Cavaliers (1st in the East) 47-25 (36 H, 36 R)
Point Differential: +3.7 (5th), Offense: 111.4 (3rd), Defense: 108.1 (23rd)

There's a certain understanding with a defending champ coasting a bit, but they're only 8-9 since the Break and are just barely ahead of the Lakers for the worst defense in the league during that stretch. Usually you need to be in the top-10 on that end to win the title, with the lone exceptions being title defenders, as John Schumann pointed out. However, is it really coasting when Lebron James is pushing for the lead league in minutes per game (in another MVP-caliber campaign)?

5.  Boston Celtics (2nd in the East) 48-26 (36 H, 38 R)
Point Differential: +2.7 (8th), Offense: 108.5 (8th), Defense: 105.4 (T-10th)

A 102.7 defensive rating that's good for 5th best since the Break has pushed them up and into a tie with the Cavs for the #1 seed. They're struggling a bit on the road with bad losses in Phoenix, Denver, and Philadelphia while barely hanging onto a win in Brooklyn, but the good news is that 5 of their last 8 are in Boston to help them potentially win home-court throughout the East.

6. Toronto Raptors (3rd in the East) 44-29 (36 H, 37 R)
Point Differential: +4.1 (4th), Offense: 109.7 (5th), Defense: 104.9 (8th)

Cory Joseph has been solid, but they need Lowry for the playoffs.
I would've kept them at 5th like in the last rankings if there was some certainty around Kyle Lowry's health since they've been a bit up and down without him: winning their first 3 and then dropping 4 of 6 before their current 5 game winning streak. That being said, the additions of forwards Serge Ibaka and P.J. Tucker have improved the defense as expected with a rating of just 100.9 since the Break, 2nd best in the league behind the Warriors and just above the Spurs.

7.  Washington Wizards (4th in the East) 45-28 (39 H, 34 R)
Point Differential: +2.4 (9th), Offense: 108.4 (9th), Defense: 106.1 (19th)

Trade addition Bojan Bogdanovic has been a flamethrower for them, averaging 14.8 points in 24.4 minutes on 47.3%/40.5%/93.7% shooting, but their defensive rating has dropped to 109.4 since the Break, 24th in the league over that span. The small lineups with him and Otto Porter Jr. as the forwards have gotten mostly torched for points, so they may need to save those looks for just Kelly Oubre Jr., who has come back on strong over their last 6 games after initially losing minutes after the trade.

8. Utah Jazz (4th in the West) 44-29 (36 H, 37 R)
Point Differential: +3.6 (6th), Offense: 106.9 (13th), Defense: 102.5 (3rd)

They've struggled of late with just a 9-7 record since the Break, including a 3 game losing streak to end their East coast trip, but the peripheral signs are still strong. They're still likely to stay in the 4-5 matchup for the playoffs, so they'll have to play like they did in their March 13th win against the Clippers rather than how they did yesterday and in 17 of the last 18 matchups between the two before this month.

9. Los Angeles Clippers (5th in the West) 44-31 (36 H, 39 R)
Point Differential: +3.4 (7th), Offense: 109.3 (7th), Defense: 105.9 (T-16th)

It's hard to describe how bad today's loss to the Kings was since they blew an 18 point lead with just 5:16 left at home, but in their defense, they did just play the aforementioned tough game against the Jazz yesterday. Maybe a home-heavy schedule the rest of the way will wake them up from their 9-10 malaise that includes just the 22nd ranked defense since the Break at 108.6.

10. Oklahoma City Thunder (6th in the West) 41-31 (37 H, 35 R)
Point Differential: +0.8 (11th), Offense: 105.4 (15th), Defense: 105.5 (12th)

Russ Westbrook really could follow in the Big O's footsteps. (H/T ESPN)
The additions of Taj Gibson and Doug McDermott have bumped their offense up from a 104.0 rating to 110.8 along with their opponents, from 105.0 to 107.4, since the Break, with the new numbers ranking 4th and 18th over the span, respectively. They've gone 9-6 to push them into the conversation for the 4-5 side of the playoff bracket, but 6 of their last 10 are on the road, where they're just 14-21.

11. Memphis Grizzlies (7th in the West) 40-33 (35 H, 38 R)
Point Differential: +0.5 (13th), Offense: 104.7 (19th), Defense: 104.3 (7th)

They broke their 5 game skid with a 4 game winning streak, but now they've lost all 3 games on their current road trip. After all sorts of lineup experimentation during that losing streak, they seem to have settled on their current unit with Vince Carter shooting well as a starter, due in part to Chandler Parsons finally being shut down due to a partial meniscus tear in his left knee. This is likely a short-term upgrade since Parsons was struggling mightily, but it's not a good sign in the first year of his four year max-deal.

12. Milwaukee Bucks (5th in the East) 37-36 (38 H, 35 R)
Point Differential: +0.3 (T-14th), Offense: 107.5 (T-11th), Defense: 106.6 (20th)

Before today's killer loss at home to Chicago, they had been 12-2 with Khris Middleton healthy and back in the starting lineup. They do have a tough schedule remaining that's road-heavy, but with him and Tony Snell as versatile wing defenders next to Giannis Antetokounmpo at point forward and possible Rookie of the Year Malcolm Brogdon as a 3-and-D combo guard, #FearTheDear may be back.

13. Miami Heat (6th in the East) 35-38 (37 H, 36 R)
Point Differential: +0.7 (12th), Offense: 104.9 (17th), Defense: 104.1 (6th)

The Dion Waiters injury is cause for concern, but they have the 8th best record since the Break with the 3rd best point differential and 6th best offensive rating to go with the 6th best defense. They have a tough end to the schedule, but getting the Pistons during their rough patch and a home and home with the Knicks should give them a little breathing room.

14. Indiana Pacers (7th in the East) 37-36 (37 H, 36 R)
Point Differential: -0.9 (T-16th), Offense: 105.3 (16th), Defense: 105.9 (T-16th)

They alternated between a win and loss every game since the Break before back to back losses this past week. Monta Ellis was inserted back into the starting lineup in today's win and was a +12, but as Zach Lowe pointed out, the lineups with either C.J. Miles or Glenn Robinson III in his place have done much better. That could be something to watch in the playoffs as their spot is likely safe with just 5 of their remaining games on the road, where they're 11-25.

15. Portland Trail Blazers (8th in the West) 35-38 (34 H, 39 R)
Point Differential: -1.0 (19th), Offense: 107.5 (T-11th), Defense: 108.0 (22nd)

You can't overstate how important Tuesday's home matchup with the Nuggets is since they're tied in the standings and a win would clinch the tiebreaker for the Blazers, 3-1. They would appear to be in the driver's seat for that last playoff spot anyway with the more favorable schedule and former Denver center Jusuf Nurkic looking reborn in Rip City to help drive a 12-5 record since the Break with the #5 offense (110.6) and #10 defense (104.9).
This trio has put up a +9.5 net rating together to put them firmly in the playoff picture.
16. Denver Nuggets (9th in the West) 35-38 (39 H, 34 R)
Point Differential: +0.3 (T-14th), Offense: 109.9 (4th), Defense: 110.7 (29th)

Considering that they're just 14-20 away from home, it doesn't bode well for them that they only have 2 games left in the Pepsi Center. Even if they win Tuesday's big game in Portland, the next tiebreaker is division record, which they would still trail 6-8 to 8-4 with the Blazers getting the struggling Timberwolves two more times, so the Nuggets need to actually finish ahead of them. The good news is that Gary Harris is averaging 17.1 points on 53.4%/44.0%/89.2% shooting since the Break, and rookie Jamal Murray is playing well enough to be the third guard behind him and new starting point guard Jameer Nelson since Emmanuel Mudiay has been benched by Mike Malone.

17. Atlanta Hawks (8th in the East) 37-36 (37 H, 36 R)
Point Differential: -1.4 (21st), Offense: 102.3 (27th), Defense: 103.6 (4th)

Today's home loss to the lowly Nets punctuated their free fall as their current 7 game losing streak has allowed the Bucks and Pacers to tie them for the 5th spot, with just a 2.5 game gap separated them from dropping out of the playoffs altogether. Thabo Sefolosha joined fellow injured starters Paul Millsap and Kent Bazemore on the bench today with a strained right groin, and although rookie Taurean Prince has held up role in more minutes of late, they lack the firepower to make any push if in the postseason with the worst offensive rating in the league since the Break at an even 100.0.

18. Charlotte Hornets (9th in the East) 33-40 (37 H, 36 R)
Point Differential: +0.9 (10th), Offense: 106.2 (14th), Defense: 105.2 (9th)

Oh what could have been if not for their 0-6 record in overtime. Or 0-9 record in games decided by 3 or less. Or their 3-17 record when center Cody Zeller was out. Their point differential is slightly inflated by a couple of huge blowouts, but with overall rankings in the top half of the league on both ends of the floor, it is apparent that this team had some tough luck leading to a missed postseason appearance. They may only be 2 games back of the Heat with a home matchup against them looming on April 5th, but every team left on their schedule is currently in the playoffs.

19. Chicago Bulls (10th in the st) 35-39 (37 H, 37 R)
Point Differential: -0.9 (T-16th), Offense: 104.4 (T-20th), Defense: 105.7 (T-13th)

Mirotic's play has earned praise and some money this summer.
On the complete other end of the spectrum from the Hornets, this team ends their season with 6 games against the tanking Knicks, 76ers, Nets, and Magic, giving them every opportunity to back into the playoffs. They're nearly impossible to figure out, though, with Rajon Rondo, Michael Carter-Williams, Jerian Grant, and Cameron Payne juggling minutes in and out of the rotation next to Jimmy Butler, Denzel Valentine, and Paul Zipser ever since Dwyane Wade ended his season with a fractured shooting elbow. At least Nikola Mirotic has regained his form since the Break to average 14 points in 27 minutes on 49.0%/40.4%/71.4% shooting and has especially caught fire since finally being inserted into the starting power forward spot, draining 51.5% of his 3's and 58.9% of his shots overall to average 16.8 points in 28.6 minutes over their last 5 games.

20. Detroit Pistons (11th in the East) 34-39 (37 H, 36 R)
Point Differential: -1.1 (20th), Offense: 103.3 (24th), Defense: 105.4 (T-10th)

Losing 6 of their last 7 with the lone win being against the tanking Suns will likely mean the end of their season since they have some tough road games left with home matchups against the Raptors and Wizards in there, as well. I don't like this recent switch to Ish Smith over Reggie Jackson at point guard, and it hasn't ignited an offense that ranks 27th since the Break with just 102.1 points per 100 possessions. They could get back in shape with tomorrow's game in New York to end their road trip before hosting the Heat in that crucial game on Tuesday, but I'm not holding my breath.

21. New Orleans Pelicans (10th in the West) 31-42 (37 H, 36 R)
Point Differential: -1.9 (22nd), Offense: 102.6 (26th), Defense: 104.0 (5th)

Adjusting to playing with Anthony Davis has been a bit of a struggle for DeMarcus Cousins overall, and while they're 8-8 since trading for him, Boogie didn't play at all in 3 of those wins and was left on the bench after some foul trouble in another. They haven't been good enough to climb to the 8 seed but did just enough that they can't reasonably tank to try and keep their top-3 protected pick that's still in the 9th spot, barring some Chicago in '08/Cleveland in '14 Lottery luck. Thus, they'll just have to play it out and determine how well the All-Star bigs fit so that they can decide how to proceed this summer before Cousins enters the last year of his contract.

22. Dallas Mavericks (11th in the West) 31-41 (38 H, 34 R)
Point Differential: -2.4 (23rd), Offense: 103.7 (22nd), Defense: 105.7 (T-13th)

Despite being eased in with just 23.6 minutes a game, new center Nerlens Noel has been about as good as advertised with the best net rating on the team since his arrival at +5.7, and they've gone 8-4 when he plays. With a road-heavy schedule and 3.5 game gap to close, they aren't likely for the playoffs, but they can definitely look forward to re-signing the soon-to-be 23 year old in restricted free agency this summer as they found their center at last.
Yogi Ferrell was recently benched, but him and Noel have been great young additions around Dirk.
23. Minnesota Timberwolves (12th in the West) 28-44 (37 H, 35 R)
Point Differential: -0.9 (T-16th), Offense: 107.7 (10th), Defense: 108.2 (24th)

They had a 9-5 stretch shortly after Zach LaVine's torn ACL in which they looked legitimately dangerous with wins over the Raptors, Jazz, Clippers, Warriors, and Wizards and an overtime loss in San Antonio where they led by 8 going into the fourth quarter, but now they've lost 6 straight to dash any hopes of making the playoffs. This skid started when stretch 4 Nemanja Bjelica went down with a fractured navicular bone in his left foot, and it's too bad since he was averaging 8.0 points, 5.7 rebounds, 1.6 assists. 0.6 steals, and 0.6 blocks in just 23.0 minutes with 44.9%/37.5%/75.0% shooting during that strong 14 game stretch as basically the only big off the bench behind strong twin towers Karl-Anthony Towns and Gorgui Dieng, with the 4th best net rating at +8.6. On the bright side, they have a shot at another strong lottery pick since they're tied for the 7th fewest wins in the league.

24. Philadelphia 76ers (12th in the East) 27-46 (36 H, 37 R)
Point Differential: -5.3 (26th), Offense: 100.4 (30th), Defense: 105.7 (T-13th)

Dario Saric has been great in his starting role since the Break with averages of 19.2 points, 7.8 boards, 3.8 assists, 0.9 steals, and 0.6 blocks on 45.0/30.9%/79.2% shooting in 32.1 minutes, and although his 3.0 turnovers a game are a bit high, this extra offensive freedom might win him Rookie of the Year with fellow rookie Joel Embiid needing surgery for a left meniscus tear. They've gotten the offense up to 102.7 per 100 possessions during that span, good for 24th in the league, to go along with their solid defense, and they've even gone 4-4 in their last 8. I continue to also like rookie wing Timothe Luwawu-Cabarrot, who became a starter the game before this stretch started, and his per-36 minute averages in these 9 games are 12.5 points, 3.9 rebounds, 2.6 assists, and 0.8 steals with 42.0%/35.3%/91.7% shooting as a 21 year old.

25. Orlando Magic (13th in the East) 27-46 (37 H, 36 R)
Point Differential: -5.9 (28th), Offense: 101.0 (29th), Defense: 107.3 (21st)

What do you know, they've gone 6-9 since the Break thanks to playing Aaron Gordon at his natural power forward spot, and the offense is up to a 102.6 rating during that span to rank 25th, which doesn't sound like much until you realize they were 29th at 100.5. He's improved his scoring by 3.4 points a game in just 1.4 more minutes thanks to 59.5% shooting on his 2's with the extra spacing compared to 49.9% beforehand. Furthermore, perhaps the reason why Gordon's rebounding has still been a bit disappointing is that point guard Elfrid Payton has been a vacuum on the glass since the Break, putting up 4 triple-doubles and averaging 7.9 boards with a more efficient 12.1 points and 7.6 assists compared to 12.5, 3.8, and 5.7 prior.

26. New York Knicks (14th in the East) 27-46 (34 H, 39 R)
Point Differential: -3.7 (T-24th), Offense: 104.8 (18th), Defense: 108.8 (26th)

I'm still amazed they beat the Spurs in that Sunday matinee game on ABC in mid-February since they've lost 17 of their other 21 games. To follow up on my post at the Trade Deadline, they are now 11-33 since a 16-13 start to the season, but rookie Willy Hernangomez has continued to impress with regular minutes and is putting up 11.1 points, 9.8 boards, 1.6 assists, 0.8 steals, and 0.9 blocks in 26.2 minutes across 13 starts overall.

27. Sacramento Kings (13th in the West) 28-45 (36 H, 37 R)
Point Differential: -3.7 (T-24th), Offense: 104.4 (T-20th), Defense: 109.0 (27th)

Between winning their first game post-Cousins and today's crazy comeback, they had 8 and 4 game losing streaks surround their back-to-back wins against their fellow bottom-dwellers, the Magic and Suns, so their overall tanking strategy has worked out. Rookie Buddy Hield has done much better as the focal point on his new team than in New Orleans, as he's averaged 16.2 points, 4.8 rebounds, 2.4 helpers, and 1.0 steals with 48.2%/41.1%/83.3% shooting in 30.7 minutes a game across his 9 starts after being eased into the lineup. Fellow rookie Skal Labissiere has averaged 10.3 points and 6.3 boards in 19.1 minutes since the trade, and #13 pick George Papagiannis has shown flashes, as well.
It still wasn't a great trade, but like I said at the time, Hield's story is still far from written.
28. Phoenix Suns (14th in the West) 22-52 (36 H, 38 R)
Point Differential: -5.8 (27th), Offense: 103.5 (23rd), Defense: 109.1 (29th)

If it weren't for a couple of ridiculous buzzer beaters against the Celtics and Mavs, they'd be working on a 12 game losing streak as it's been a magnificent tank job with Eric Bledsoe recently shut down for the season, joining Brandon Knight and Tyson Chandler as inactives since the Break. That has force-fed minutes and shots to Marquese Chriss, T.J. Warren, Tyler Ulis, and Devin Booker, with the latter guard putting up an incredible 70 point performance in Friday's loss in Boston as a 20 year old. Even with a couple of timeouts and intentional fouls to get him a few more points for that round number, that's an impressive feat for such a young player growing his game.

29. Los Angeles Lakers (15th in the West) 21-52 (36 H, 37 R)
Point Differential: -7.4 (30th), Offense: 103.2 (25th), Defense: 111.1 (30th)

Speaking of shutting down players down to tank, doing that to your big free agent signings Timofey Mozgov and Luol Deng isn't the best look, but rookie coach Luke Walton knows what's at stake with their draft pick protection situation as they've barely passed the Suns for a 55.8% chance of a top-3 pick. These different lineup experimentations have created plenty of opportunities for losses with so much small ball despite Julius Randle's defensive weaknesses and D'Angelo Russell and Jordan Clarkson alternating between who is coming off the bench before now starting together. The extra offensive duties have been received well for the most part by all three of them along with rookies Brandon Ingram and Ivica Zubac, and the second round center's play might be the most rewarding result given expectations. I liked him in the draft, but there's no way I could have expected him to be putting up per-36 averages of 18.6 points, 9.5, rebounds, 2.4 assists, 0.5 steals, and 1.4 blocks on 60.8% shooting in these past 8 games since becoming a starter right before his 20th birthday. He might almost be playing too well and hurt their Lottery odds, so this will be a fun couple of weeks.

30. Brooklyn Nets (15th in the East) 16-57 (37 H, 36 R)
Point Differential: -7.3 (29th), Offense: 102.2 (28th), Defense: 108.7 (25th)

I strongly considered moving them up based on recent play since they're 7-8 this month...but that still only brought their win total to 16. There's some irony to this strong run during March Madness while they have no shot at getting one of the top prospects during the tournament since their pick swap will almost assuredly give the Celtics the best odds at winning the Lottery. At least the Lakers passed them for the worst point differential! You can build on this, Kenny Atkinson!

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