Here is the insight Ben Taylor the author of Thinking Basketball came up with just the other day, we hope you enjoy it!
If you partook in the Thinking Basketball win prediction contest, you can now see the-seat-of-my-pants win totals that I projected on the eve of the 2020 season. Those kinds of predictions are made with oodles of imperfect information; we forecast injuries like Sandra Bullock in Bird Box and we project player changes based on limited preseason stints. But what would change after two weeks of new information?
Many Patreon subscribers have asked for a power rankings, and this is a great place to unveil them. That also gives me a chance to talk about what has changed — at least for me — with two weeks of games in the books.
Rankings are based on a team’s odds of winning a title based on its seed positioning and projected health. That means if a player is injured for 2 weeks but expected to return, his team’s ranking will not be downgraded by his temporary absence.
30. New York (preseason projection: 29 wins)
The worst part about a power rankings is being forced to rank the bottom of the barrel. The Knicks probably won’t finish with the worst record, and it’s weird to think of them as the “worst” team in the league because they offer a puncher’s chance on most nights. But they are basketball dysfunction to me. This team has basically one positive NBA player right now (Robinson) and its second-best player entering the year (Morris) is spotty and flanked by 16 other combo forwards. No thanks.
29. Charlotte (preseason projection: 20 wins)
In the preseason, I vacillated back and forth on the Hornets. On one hand, they don’t have any high-end shot creators or offensive weapons. Terry Rozier will likely do Terry Rozier things, which actually might help a low-end offense be respectable. They also have serviceable players, which has proven time and time again to inflate victory totals over the course of a season. However, I’m not ready to say they can push 30 wins — they’re still near the bottom of the league in their defensive Moreyaball profile (the percentage of shots at the rim or from 3-point range they surrender), which is a problematic sign.
28. Cleveland (preseason projection: 23 wins)
I’ve barely seen the Cavs play, but I’m ready to move them up the respectability rankings a touch based on the Tristian Thompson revival tour. I’m not entirely sure what’s happening and will dig into it in the future, but the Cavs early-season defensive returns are better than expected, and a lot of this (apparently) has to do with Thompson.
27. Memphis (preseason projection: 27 wins)
The Grizzlies are going to win some games. It won’t be a lot, but as Ja Morant adjusts to NBA life, he and Tyus Jones give them shot creation to pair with flashes of scoring from players like Jonas Valanciunas and Dillon Brooks. Memphis’ defense has been shaky, and I am a touch more concerned about that today than I was in the preseason given how often Jaren Jackson is fouling.
Not Very Good
26. Washington (preseason projection: 24 wins)
This is a weird spot for a team that still might only win 25 games. But, as long as Bradley Beal is running the show they are more competitive than the prior teams in my estimation. Given that their defensive shot profile early in the season actually ranks in the middle of the pack — despite playing Houston, a team allergic to the midrange — the Wizards defense might actually be…dare I say…passable? (I thought it would be really, really bad in the preseason.)
25. Chicago (preseason projection: 38 wins)
I’m not totally out on the Bulls yet, but they’re walking the wrong end of the tightrope for me. Thad Young has looked noticeably worse on defense in the minutes I’ve seen from him. Otto Porter has not looked good either. These were supposed to be steadying forces, and instead I see a team that lacks identity and discipline and its individual parts are all stumbling. There’s a lot of talent (and time) to right the ship, but if they play like this for a season they’ll be one of the worst teams in the league.
24. Sacramento (preseason projection: 39 wins)
I suppose there are two angles to take for the Kings. The first is that Hield and Bogdanovich won’t play like they did last year and that Luke Walton is a coaching downgrade and that they’re terrible in the half court. The other is that they’re hung over from the India trip, they have a new coach which takes time (especially given the lack of training camp continuity) and their shooting will regress back up. I’m leaning toward the latter, which the notable caveat that Sacramento still probably isn’t a very good half court team. Also, the upcoming schedule is brutal which would wreak psychological havoc on them if the losses pile up.
23. Oklahoma City (preseason projection: 34 wins)
It’s a weird stat, but the Thunder are +7 with Steven Adams on the court this year. They’ve lost a bunch of close games, and have a positive point differential when adjusted for schedule (SRS). I think the larger question with them is Chris Paul — does he have anything close to All-Star (or even sub All-Star) play left in him? So far, it’s not looking promising, and that dings their ability to win games, even if they are otherwise competitive.
22. Golden State (preseason projection: 43 wins)
The easy play is to just slot them at 30th and be done with it. But I think the spirit of a power ranking is to project a (realistically) healthy team; Curry, Green, Russell and Looney all return but Klay does not. What’s apparent for the Warriors is that they lack point-of-attack defenders which has exposed their weak backline defense. Draymond Green is great, but he’s not designed to clog the lane as a shot-blocking backstop. Curry (and probably Green) likely won’t press the accelerator to the floor whenever they return to the court, which makes them a strange team to “power” rank…they probably could beat a few teams ahead of them in a playoff series, but I don’t think we’ll see that level of play even when they are at full health this year.
21. New Orleans (preseason projection: 35 wins)
I haven’t changed my outlook much at all on the Pels since the preseason. They have talent, and can be competitive. They come in waves. But the sum is less than the parts on both sides of the court. They’re young, and that means a fast pace amplifies a lack of discipline, and I don’t love their chances in a bunch of close games. Zion’s return should help, but he looked shaky on defense in the preseason.
20. Detroit (preseason projection: 35 wins)
19. Indiana (preseason projection: 38 wins)
I haven’t see much of these teams either and so I’ll just leave them right here in purgatory for now. Even with Blake, I’m not sure if Detroit is better than any of the teams above them. Indiana, on the other hand, might jump up if Oladipo is about 80 percent of what he was prior to the injury. I don’t know if the parts can fit together, but the Pacers are still…what’s the word…stingy.
18. Atlanta (preseason projection: 35 wins)
Yeah, I said it. The Hawks aren’t bad. It was only four games, but Atlanta was +10 with Trae Young on the court, who was playing like a clear-cut All-Star (even with his terrible, albeit improved defense). That gives me hope that Atlanta can be one of the better offenses in the league once John Collins (and Young) return.
17. Brooklyn (preseason projection: 43 wins)
I don’t love the whole situation in Brooklyn. It appears Kyrie is going to take a lot of shots and dribble a lot. Time will tell how much this clashes with the chemistry that the Nets cultivated last season. Still, I’m uneasy about where to place them right now.
16. Orlando (preseason projection: 44 wins)
Is Nikola Vucevic a one-hit wonder? I didn’t expect him to repeat his 2019 performance, but without good play from him Orlando loses some its potency. They seem to be moving to Fultz as a starter (although that doesn’t mean he’ll play over 30 minutes a night), and while the defense looks strong, the offense could be a limiting factor if Vucevic can’t play better.
15. Phoenix (preseason projection: 33 wins)
I expected a nice improvement from the Suns this year, and they’ve slightly exceeded that expectation in the first two weeks. Despite some protestations on the Nerder She Wrote podcast, I think this team needs to be considered for around 40 wins and one of the final playoff spots in the west. As discussed in a recent video, they’re well-coached on both ends, and Devin Booker has improved on defense while excelling in a smaller, more focused role on offense.
14. Portland (preseason projection: 50 wins)
After years of doubting the Blazers, I finally succumbed to the charm of their new uniforms and the reality that they always over perform. (Really, they’re backcourt is just good.) But a decent amount of that optimism was Zach Collins playing well, if not “breaking out” as a much-needed forward, and I thought some of his minutes were great before injury his shoulder. With him likely out for the entire regular season, this is still a somewhat optimistic forecast for the Blazers who are now incredibly shaky outside of their guard play.
13. Minnesota (preseason projection: 38 wins)
12. Dallas (preseason projections: 42 wins)
These are the other two teams who could challenge for a West playoff spot. Dallas has the higher ceiling if Luka can play like a monster all season, but I’ve been pretty clear from the beginning that I like this team for its bench, not necessarily it’s high-end starting units. To wit, Luka is 6th in my BPM model right now but Dallas is just +2 with him on the court (and 6 points better per 100 with him off the court). It’s obviously a small sample, but a reminder that his great play doesn’t necessarily take this team’s starters to an elite level. Towns, by the way, is first in my BPM model, pushing MVP consideration himself. I like enough of the role players in Minnesota (Covington, Okogie) to make the Wolves consistently more competitive than the teams behind them.
11. Miami (preseason projection: 44 wins)
Between Jimmy, Spo, Bam, point-Winslow, Dragic and everyone’s South Beach Diet, this team is feisty. Feisty! They have a +14 SRS after six games, which is not to be taken lightly. While it’s a small enough sample that they may end up being, say, a 45-win team, everything is pointing toward Miami being one of the better teams in the East and a strong defensive unit all season.
10. San Antonio (preseason projection: 43 wins)
The Spurs are Old reliable. Aldridge might be fading but Dejounte Murray is rising next to DeRozan to give them perimeter-oriented punch on offense. Their defense is always respectable, and that makes them the definition of solid.
9. Boston (preseason projection: 49 wins)
This is shaping up like a dangerous, classic Brad Stevens team. A lot of balanced scoring, strong forward play, side-to-side movement, and so on. Only this year the key guys can get to the free throw line. The chemistry is stronger on both ends, but without a high-end offensive force or a strong defensive center, it’s hard for me to see them being among the league’s elite in April.
8. Toronto (preseason projection: 51 wins)
It appears Pascal Siakam does indeed have another gear, which makes Toronto a touch more dangerous than I thought. But the idea of the Raptors was always regular-season driven to me, because the team’s construction requires a scorer to step up in the playoffs, and that’s a giant TBD. Also, Marc Gasol doesn’t look great, which offsets some of that Siakam growth for me. Also, it would help if their depth pieces could play well enough to stay on the court.
7. Denver (preseason projection: 52 wins)
I’m not sounding the alarm. Denver might be slightly discombobulated right now, but it’s likely peripheral pieces on their bench that are regressing slightly. The Nuggets are 22 points worse per 100 (!) with Jokic on the bench right now, and even though he hasn’t been lights out, players like Monte Morris and Torrey Craig can’t throw it in the ocean. There was likely some regression coming after last season for their bench players, but I don’t think it will be this extreme for the rest of the season.
6. Houston (preseason projection: 54 wins)
Houston is a reminder that this is listed in tiers. I’m not sure if they are the best of this group because of their pedigree and James Harden’s one-man offense (which isn’t quite as dangerous in the playoffs), or if they should be at the back of this group and bleeding into the next collection of teams. The single issue for me is their defense, which sort of just looks…broken. I’ll likely have more content on this later, but my instinct is that they’re too small up front and their wing defense is shoddy.
5. Utah (preseason projection: 55 wins)
Mitchell’s up but Conley’s down. Royce is playing defense but Ingles has been off. This is all small sample stuff, but my hunch here is that Mitchell has indeed improved and that Conley will turn it around, even if he isn’t quite where he was at his peak. I’m still not seeing enough to make me think they can win three or four playoff series, but this team can win a bunch of regular season games.
4. Milwaukee (57)
3. Philadelphia (54)
Outside of Houston looking less dangerous, nothing has really changed for me at the top. Giannis and the Bucks are doing their thing, but all the supporting parts give me pause for a late playoff series against elite defenses. The 76ers defense looks awesome — in 76 minutes with Embiid, the defensive rating is 89 — but some offensive identity around Joel still hasn’t formed.
2. Clippers (50)
1. Lakers (51)
The Lakers defense looks great, especially if Dwight Howard plays like this in the postseason, but they still need another ball-handler/scorer (not named Rajon) to help provide bite against the best teams. Meanwhile, the Clippers look great too, except for my lingering concern about their interior defense. The Clippers are 16th in DRTG, 3rd in ORTG, whereas the Lakers are 1st in DRTG but 16th in ORTG.