Saturday, April 15, 2017

Final 2017 NBA Power Rankings

Well, it wasn't exactly the last day of 2015 with most of the playoff proceedings already decided, but there was still some drama to close the season, albeit of the lottery variety. Here's a look at where every team ended up ranking with a little tidbit for each, and I put my first round playoff predictions after the lower seeds.

1. Golden State Warriors (1st in the West) 67-15
Point Differential: +11.6 (1st), Offense: 113.2 (1st), Defense: 101.1 (2nd)

They didn't match last season's record of 73 wins, due in part to a 2-5 stretch when Kevin Durant went down and resting their starters down the stretch of Monday's Jazz game that snapped their 14 game winning streak, but I'd say they're actually better overall than last year's squad that was unbelievably good in close games, including a 6-1 record in overtime games compared to 0-3 this season. In fact, they have a higher point differential this year, and it's the fourth best of all time, which is part of why they are the runaway favorites to reclaim the title, especially with KD back.

2. San Antonio Spurs (2nd in the West) 61-21 
Point Differential: +7.2 (2nd), Offense: 108.8 (7th), Defense: 100.9 (1st)

They lost 4 out of 5 to close the season since they limited the minutes of their key players once it was clear they weren't catching the Warriors for the best record, and yet they still ran away from the rest of the field. You can't really go wrong with any of the MVP candidates, but I would give it to Kawhi Leonard for leading this team into the post-Tim Duncan era without missing a beat despite being their only All-Star (although LaMarcus Aldridge had a case). In addition to being the best perimeter defender in the league, he took on a heavier scoring load to increase his career-high again to 25.5 points per game on an efficient 48.5%/38.1%/88% shooting line for .264 Win Shares per 48 minutes and a 27.5 Player Efficiency Rating.

3. Houston Rockets (3rd in the West) 55-27 
Point Differential: +5.8 (3rd), Offense: 111.8 (2nd), Defense: 106.4 (T-17th)

James Harden finished with more total Win Shares than Leonard due to playing more minutes for a total of 15 and would likely be my second choice if I had an MVP ballot. He led the league with 11.1 assists per game while finishing second with 31.6 points per game to drive the second best offense in the league to the third best record. For putting him in this position to succeed and turning the team around from a 41-41 season, Mike D'Antoni edges out Gregg Popovich for Coach of the Year in my mind, and although they'll have the toughest road to get there, many would argue that they pose the biggest threat to Golden State getting out of the West.

4. Toronto Raptors (1st in the East) 51-31 
Point Differential: +4.2 (5th), Offense: 109.8 (6th), Defense: 104.9 (T-8th)

Kyle Lowry is back healthy, and having the fourth best defense since the acquisition of Serge Ibaka and P.J. Tucker has pushed them into the top-10 overall on the season. That puts them in elite company with just the Warriors and Spurs as the only teams to rank that high on both ends of the floor, and they have a deep and versatile lineup now to compete with anyone, as evidenced by their 18-7 record since the All-Star Break, second best behind only Golden State.

5. Cleveland Cavaliers (2nd in the East) 51-31
Point Differential: +3.2 (7th), Offense: 110.9 (3rd), Defense: 108.0 (T-22nd)

After being a season-high 20 games above .500 on January 8th, they went 23-23 the rest of the way, as Marc Stein pointed out. Don't worry: veteran "tough guy" Dahntay Jones was re-signed this week to get them back in line. I actually do like the prospects of massive 25 year old center Walter "Edy" Tavares down the line after the Larry Sanders experiment didn't work out, but for them to defend their title right now, they'll need LeBron James and their core rotation to flip the proverbial switch back on, particularly with their defensive intensity.

6. Los Angeles Clippers (4th in the West) 51-31
Point Differential: +4.3 (4th), Offense: 110.3 (4th), Defense: 105.8 (13th)

They were 43-18 with CP3 healthy.
They've had a season of peaks and valleys with their 22-8 start before Chris Paul joining Blake Griffin on the shelf spurred a 6 game losing streak before winning 7 straight until another Paul injury at 29-14. After a 15-16 stretch with the two of them coming back at different times, they ended the season on another 7 game winning streak to give them home-court advantage in the first round.

7.  Utah Jazz (5th in the West) 51-31
Point Differential: +3.9 (6th), Offense: 107.4 (12th), Defense: 102.7 (3rd)

They lost home-court due to injuries all season and the fact that they're 1-3 against the Clippers this season, which brings them to 18 losses in the last 20 meetings between the two. That history doesn't necessarily mean a ton given team turnover over the years, but given LA's ceiling, I don't think Utah will turn the tables on them despite finally getting mostly healthy now. Clippers in 7.

8. Boston Celtics (3rd in the East) 53-29
Point Differential: +2.7 (8th), Offense: 108.6 (8th), Defense: 105.5 (12th)

It's hard to shake the feeling of how they played in back to back losses to Cleveland and Atlanta in high profile games, but the fact that they bounced back to win three straight and take the top seed is encouraging. Although they may have overachieved a bit based on their point differential, they have the coaching, talent, and playoff route to make a run here.

9. Washington Wizards (4th in the East) 49-33
Point Differential: +1.8 (9th), Offense: 108.5 (9th), Defense: 106.9 (20th)

I want to pick this team to go far due to the star power of John Wall and Brad Beal, coach Scott Brooks' and the team's playoff experience overall, and how they've done in the past against Atlanta and likely second round opponent Boston. That being said, I don't trust their defense that was 27th in the league since acquiring Bojan Bogdanovic, and the Ian Mahinmi injury is quietly a big concern for their potential.

10. Oklahoma City Thunder (6th in the West) 47-35
Point Differential: +0.8 (11th), Offense: 105.0 (17th), Defense: 105.1 (10th)

Yes, if I have Leonard as my MVP and Harden second, that means I would vote Russell Westbrook third just like Oscar Robertson finished when he averaged a triple-double before him. Yes, it is an amazing accomplishment, but the argument that just because he set the record with 42 of them to average it on the season automatically makes him the MVP is foolish and reminds me of when Miguel Cabrera won the 2012 MVP just because he won the Triple Crown. It's a stat about hitting arbitrary round numbers in individual games, and here's another one: Harden had more double-doubles 64 to 62, big deal. Westbrook also took 370 more field goal attempts than anyone in the league, became the first player in league history to have a 39% or higher usage rate, and along with Harden, broke the turnover record. If anything, his MVP argument should be based on how he won so many close games for them, as they had a league-leading 12 wins by 3 points or less to help them overachieve since they had the point differential of a 43 win team. He might single handily win a couple of games against Houston, but in the heat of the playoffs, I don't see them having the firepower to advance. Rockets in 6.

11. Memphis Grizzlies (7th in the West) 43-39
Point Differential: +0.5 (T-12th), Offense: 104.7 (T-18th), Defense: 104.5 (T-6th)

They limped to the finish line a bit with a 3-9 finish to the season as they dealt with some injuries, and now Tony Allen will likely miss the series with the Spurs due to a strained calf, which can be a tricky injury. That will of course affect their defense's ability to keep them in games, and with their limited firepower against San Antonio's #1 defense, it's hard to see them taking more than one game from them. Spurs in 5.

12. Miami Heat (5th in the East) 41-41
Point Differential: +1.1 (10th), Offense: 105.2 (16th), Defense: 104.1 (5th)

By now you've heard about how they had a symmetrical 30-11 second half of the season after an 11-30 start, which will deservedly give Erik Spoelstra some Coach of the Year votes, but they needed one more win in there since they lost the tiebreaker to Chicago. The back to back losses at home to New York and Denver two weeks ago hurt, and they only went 7-6 down the stretch after Dion Waiters was injured. Despite barely missing the playoffs, they played like one of the best dozen teams in my book, and they're looking at an interesting summer with the #14 pick in a good draft and Waiters, James Johnson, Willie Reed, and Luke Babbitt likely to test the free agency waters.

13. Milwaukee Bucks (6th in the East) 42-40
Point Differential: -0.2 (T-16th), Offense: 106.9 (13th), Defense: 106.4 (T-17th)

They only finished 5-5 after getting two games above .500, but they're still 17-6 overall with Khris Middleton in the starting lineup. There's also an argument to be made that likely Most Improved Player Giannis Antetokounmpo will be the best player in the series against Toronto after becoming just the fifth player to lead his team in points, rebounds, assists, steals, and blocks and the first ever to rank in the top 20 of each of those category totals across the whole league. However, their slow start to the season has resulted in them facing the team I consider to be the best in their conference right now, so I don't think they'll hold up on either end to pull off the upset. Raptors in 6.

14. Chicago Bulls (7th in the East) 41-41
Point Differential: +0.4 (14th), Offense: 104.6 (T-20th), Defense: 104.5 (T-6th)

On the one hand, this has been such a hard team to figure out with their ups and downs, but on the other, it makes sense that when they actually had some real spacing on offense, they did well. Jimmy Butler of course makes this team go, but I would point to Nikola Mirotic's insertion into the starting lineup on March 18th as what led them to finish the season 9-4 to tie for the last playoff spot. Despite obviously being the better player, I'm not sure how much having Dwyane Wade back healthy and in the place of a shooter like Paul Zipser will help next to Rajon Rondo, but it probably won't matter against a clearly better team in Boston. We can at least hope for some fireworks reminiscent of that 2009 series with Rondo on the other side and Butler facing the team that tried trading for him as the best player on the floor, but I'm counting on them. Celtics in 5.

15. Atlanta Hawks (8th in the East) 43-39
Point Differential: -0.9 (19th), Offense: 102.3 (27th), Defense: 103.1 (4th)

They were just 11-15 after the Break with a painful 7 game losing streak, but the strength of their defense along with the track record of Coach Bud gives them a chance despite their overall profile. Going against Washington's suddenly porous defense will help negate their poor offense, and now they're seemingly at full strength after some nagging injuries contributed to their second half struggles. However, I think the talent of Wall will help Washington outrun them in the end. Wizards in 6.

16. Indiana Pacers (9th in the East) 42-40
Point Differential: -0.2 (T-16th), Offense: 106.2 (15th), Defense: 106.3 (T-15th)

Paul George caught fire once the calendar hit March to average 28.5 points a game on 50.5%/42.2%/86.2%, but it took a 5 game winning streak to end the season in order to secure a playoff spot after not having any back to back wins before that since February 6th. Although it will be fun to see PG13 and King James go at each other, I don't think this is the team to expose Cleveland's defense. Cavaliers in 5.

17. Portland Trail Blazers (8th in the West) 41-41
Point Differential: -0.5 (18th), Offense: 107.8 (11th), Defense: 107.8 (21st)

After starting 22-33, they went 14-5 once Jusuf Nurkic became the starting center in his second game after the trade with a 113.3 offensive rating and 103.7 defensive rating while he was on the floor. There's a chance he could come back from his non-displaced fibular fracture thanks to the drawn out schedule, but in any case, their perimeter defense isn't likely to make Golden State work too much in what should be a dominating playoff run. Warriors in 4.

18. Denver Nuggets (9th in the West) 40-42
Point Differential: +0.5 (T-12th), Offense: 110.0 (5th), Defense: 110.5 (29th)

Their 14-23 start proved to be too difficult to overcome with inconsistent lineups due to injuries and some questionable experimentation. They were 32-27 with skilled big man Nikola Jokic in the starting lineup as he led such a potent offense with an incredible 28.7 assist percentage. Funnily enough, he's their lowest paid player, and they could have some free agency decisions to make with Danilo Gallinari and Mason Plumlee after using what will likely be the 13th pick in the draft.

19. Charlotte Hornets (10th in the East) 36-46 
Point Differential: +0.2 (15th), Offense: 106.4 (14th), Defense: 106.1 (14th)

5 straight losses to end the season will make their season look worse than it was, but resting Kemba Walker the last couple did help them secure the 11th slot in the lottery. That only provides chances of 0.8%, 0.9%, and 1.2% for the top spots, but they can get a good player in this strong draft at #11.

20. Detroit Pistons (11th in the East) 37-45
Point Differential: -1.1 (20th), Offense: 103.3 (T-25th), Defense: 105.3 (11th)

After starting 6-3 after the Break, losing 8 of 9 at the end of March sunk their playoff aspirations. With Kentavious Caldwell-Pope likely to get a huge offer sheet in restricted free agency and no cap room to speak of anyway, they'll have to rely on internal improvement, what will likely be the 12th pick, and trades to return to the playoffs in their new arena next season.

21. New Orleans Pelicans (10th in the West) 34-48 
Point Differential: -2.1 (22nd), Offense: 103.3 (T-25th), Defense: 104.9 (T-8th)

They would have tied with Dallas for the 9th worst record if not for outscoring Portland 25-15 in the 4th quarter to win by 3 despite Anthony Davis and Boogie Cousins sitting out. That would have meant 14 lottery ball combinations rather than just 11, and although that's only a 0.3% difference in winning the #1 pick (with just a 1.4% chance of becoming the unlikeliest winner ever), it is the difference between a 5.05% chance of keeping their top-3 protected pick and their actual 4% of it now.

22. Minnesota Timberwolves (11th in the West) 31-51
Point Differential: -1.1 (T-20th), Offense: 108.1 (10th), Defense: 109.1 (T-26th)

They followed up a 6 game losing streak in March with a 1-7 record in April, but on the bright side, that contributed to them landing in a tie for the 6th slot in the lottery, meaning they'll have a 5.3% chance of winning the #1 pick, a 6% chance for #2, and a 7% chance for #3. Now they'll just need Karl-Anthony Towns and Andrew Wiggins to commit to the defensive end full time in Tom Thibodeau's scheme as they obviously have the physical capabilities and talent.

23.  Dallas Mavericks (12th in the West) 33-49 
Point Differential: -2.9 (23rd), Offense: 103.7 (23rd), Defense: 106.3 (T-15th)

You can't fault players for competing to win, but that last one to end the season dropped them from a tie for the 8th best odds and either 23 or 22 lottery ball combinations depending on a coin flip to the 9th slot and just 17 chances. For context, that goes from an 8% chance of moving into the top-3 to 6.1%. The 2008 Bulls and 2014 Cavs both miraculously won the #1 pick from this slot, but there's just a 1.7% chance of doing so.

24. New York Knicks (12th in the East) 31-51 
Point Differential: -3.7 (24th), Offense: 104.7 (T-18th), Defense: 108.8 (25th)

Like Dallas, their last second win on Wednesday dropped them from the 6th best lottery odds with 63 lottery ball combinations to a tie with Minnesota, meaning they'll split the chances to 53 each with a coin flip to determine who will pick 6th or 7th in the event that neither jumps into the top-3. Maybe the basketball gods will look favorably upon their efforts and reward them with the top spot like when Portland won the 2007 lottery with these same odds.

25. Sacramento Kings (13th in the West) 32-50
Point Differential: -3.9 (25th), Offense: 104.6 (T-20th), Defense: 109.1 (T-26th)

They closed the season 7-9 shortly after Buddy Hield established himself in the starting lineup, and it didn't prove too costly for their draft pick as they still managed to land in the 8th slot. That was sneakily important since they owe a top-10 protected pick to Chicago, and there's virtually zero chance of three teams behind them moving up to drop them now. It also means there's only a 2.8% chance of them landing the #1 pick, so they likely won't have to suffer the embarrassment of moving up only to lose it in the pick swap they owe Philadelphia.

26. Philadelphia 76ers (13th in the East) 28-54
Point Differential: -5.7 (27th), Offense: 100.7 (30th), Defense: 106.4 (T-17th)

If you add Sacramento's 2.8% chance to their own odds, they have a 14.7% chance of landing the #1 pick to pair a sweet-shooting combo guard like Markelle Fultz with point forward Ben Simmons. In usual tanking fashion, they lost 8 straight to end the year and 11 of 13 to get that 4th slot in the lottery, and it will be especially rewarding if they move up to knock Los Angeles out of their top-3 protected pick.

28. Orlando Magic (14th in the East) 29-53 
Point Differential: -6.6 (28th), Offense: 101.2 (29th), Defense: 108.0 (T-22nd)

Against a Detroit team that had nothing to play for, they also won on Wednesday like New Orleans, Dallas, and New York to drop them from a tie for the 4th best lottery odds to being 5th outright. So instead of either 104 or 103 lottery ball combinations depending on a coin flip, they'll have just 88 combinations and a 29.2% chance of jumping into the top 3. It's a little ironic that Philadelphia is who they lost those combinations to since both of them are hoping to move up and drop Los Angeles down due to the pick protections, as I've spent so much virtual ink on.

28. Phoenix Suns (14th in the West) 24-58
Point Differential: -5.6 (26th), Offense: 103.9 (22nd), Defense: 109.3 (28th)

It was nice that their surprising back to back wins to snap their 13 game losing streak didn't cost them in lottery positioning, and they got a good look at what they have in some of their young players. They're guaranteed a top-5 pick and with 19.9%, 18.8%, and 17.1% chances for the 1st, 2nd, and 3rd spots, they have a good shot at adding an elite talent to their core.

29.  Brooklyn Nets (15th in the East) 20-62
Point Differential: -6.7 (29th), Offense: 101.9 (28th), Defense: 108.0 (T-22nd)

Despite their league-worst record, I decided to bump them up a spot because down the stretch they showed that they can be competitive with competent perimeter play as they went 11-15 after the All-Star Break and were 13-20 overall with Jeremy Lin in the starting lineup on the season. Now that they only owe next year's unprotected draft pick, the end of this hopeless stretch is almost in sight while they settle for Boston's #27 and #57 picks due to their pick swap in this draft to go along with #22 coming from Washington in the Bojan Bogdanovic deal.

30.  Los Angeles Lakers (15th in the West) 26-56 
Point Differential: -6.9 (30th), Offense: 103.4 (24th), Defense: 110.6 (30th)

I was remiss to forget to mention Tyler Ennis in my last post since he was playing well for them, and in fact, his +5.4 net rating ended up leading the team by far as he helped drive their remarkable 5 game winning streak in April. That dropped them to the 3rd slot in the lottery, so there is a 46.9% chance of winning a top-3 pick this year to keep it and their 2019 pick, in which case they would instead lose their second rounder this year (#33) and both their first and second round picks next year. Thus, this year's lottery will affect their next three drafts with the following possibilities of what they'll have:
  • 46.9% chance of a top-3 pick this year and their 2019 1st
  • 53.1% chance of the 33rd pick this year and their 2018 1st and 2nd
Outside of that, they're already out their 2019 2nd but do have this year's 28th overall pick from Houston, a 2018 2nd from Denver, and a 2019 2nd from Chicago.

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