Please be fully aware that this piece is a direct product of Ben Taylor and his blog Backpicks
here is the link to the original posting:
- New York (previously 30th)
The Knicks are a team assembled from a bunch of first-order principles like points per game and points per game (not a typo), and any semblance of defense, ball movement or court balance were ignored like it was a pickup game. And that’s New York — they are a basketball sandwich made entirely of wonder bread. And the chef was just fired because the restaurant manager wanted a Croque Madame…and bought him more wonder bread in the off-season.
- Golden State (previously 22nd)
[dropped a tier] The drop is primarily from Steph Curry’s absence. This is still a G-League roster after D’Angelo Russell, Draymond Green and Kevon Looney. One subplot for me: Golden State having a “rest year” and landing a high draft pick is probably a best-case scenario for 2020 and beyond once Klay Thompson went down in the final game of 2019. There’s a flip side though. Stumbling towards 20 wins makes it harder to trade Russell like for All-Star value.
- Cleveland (previously 28th)
I still have an aversion to watching the Cavs, but we’re developing a large enough sample where numbers can give us an idea of team strength. In 17 games with Kevin Love, Cleveland is 4-13 with a -9 net rating. That’s the hallmark fragrance of a cellar-dweller.
- Charlotte (previously 29th)
The Hornets are moving up! Devonte Graham has been awesome and PJ Washington has been one of the better rookies thus far, but still, 30 wins won’t be easy to reach. They have an ugly -7.7 adjusted point differential (SRS). The offense has shown signs of life, largely thanks to Graham (21st in the league in efficiency), but the defense is giving up 114 points per 100, 27th in the league, and I’m not sure how much growth they can squeeze out on that end from the likes of Bismack Biyombo and Cody Zeller.
- Memphis (previously 27th)
With a 6-15 record and a -7 SRS, the Grizzlies are headed for just under 30 wins. Rookie Brandon Clarke has played well, but Jaren Jackson Jr. has had a bumpy sophomore start. I’ll have more on this in a future 5 Thoughts installment, but Jackson has struggled with fouling and his defense has suffered because of it. Remember, growth is not always linear.
Not Very Good
- Chicago (previously 25th)
For all intents and purposes, there are three levels of regular season coaching in the NBA: (1) Hurts the team, (2) neutral, (3) helps the team. I failed to account for Jim Boylen falling in the first category, particularly because of the moving parts and lack of feel on this team, and so I think it’s time to sell on any idea that they could push 40 wins without a coaching change.
- Washington (previously 26th)
OK, so it does indeed look like the Wizards defense is not passable. But they’ve leaned into this! They just play offensive-heavy lineups and let Davis Bertans sling 3s and it’s delightful. It’s also helped them sneak their way to a -3 SRS and given them a puncher’s chance on most nights…although I think there’s a little Fool’s Gold here if they were to ever match up with the same team for a full series.
- Sacramento (previously 24th)
The fun question in Sacramento: Are the Kings much better when De’Aaron Fox returns? He played poorly in his first nine games, and if that continues, I’m not sure they are. Sac has been sneaky competitive (-3.7 SRS) behind a stingier-than-expected defense — a trademark of Luke Walton teams — and they’re getting enough on offense from Buddy Hield, Harrison Barnes and even Nemenja Bjelica to make it work. I’m assuming both Fox and Bagley help the offense, but I’m not sure the net gain when they return will be that great.
- Atlanta (previously: 18th)
[dropped a tier] What to make of the reeling Hawks? They have the 25th-ranked offense in the league, scoring only 105 points per 100. But in 10 games with Kevin Huerter and Trae Young, Atlanta is 4-6 with a -4 net rating and a 107 offensive rating. In the four games with John Collins, the Hawks were actually +0.2. Someone like Huerter isn’t a world-beater, but he adds critical shooting and spacing around Trae Young. Fun fact: Right now, Young has the second-worst set of shooting teammates in the league per my basic spacing metric. And since the defense is already porous, I think bringing back Huerter and Collins will only serve to boost that sputtering offense to…league average-ish?
- New Orleans (previously: 21st)
[jumped a tier] We might get to see an in-season chemistry experiment! If Zion comes back at the end of this month (fingers crossed) and gives their offense another dimension, will it mesh with Brandon Ingram’s isolation game or will Ingram bleed some value over to Williamson? The framework is definitely there for a .500 team, but with a sloppy defense (28th) I don’t love their ceiling right now. NB: They’ve played a brutal schedule, and have a -3 SRS despite their 6-16 record.
20. Detroit (previously: 20th)
Every indicator about the Pistons is that they are average. Slightly above-average offense. Slightly below-average defense. Average starters. Average bench performance. They are, perhaps, slightly better than average with Blake Griffin playing well, but I kind of prefer what the team ahead of them is building.
- Orlando (previously: 16th)
From last month:
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.
I still don’t know how to answer this. Vucevic hasn’t been bad — this is the second-best year of his career in my box model — but his scoring needs to be better to help Orlando’s struggling offense. On the other hand, the Magic defense alone is so good that it can keep them around .500 in the East. One ray of hope: The Magic starters have good plus-minus numbers, and Orlando is actually +6 with Vooch on the court. I’m interested to see how this develops…
- Portland (previously: 14th)
This is brutal. Portland has suffered season-ending injuries to Jusuf Nurkic (last year), Zach Collins and now Rodney Hood (torn achilles). The Blazers needed a forward who could score and Carmelo Anthony has filled that role very well thus far, but the team is now a train-wreck behind Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum. Portland is about +6 per 100 with both Dame and CJ, scoring around 117 points per 100 (!), but when either one hits the bench, they’ve played around -9 per 100. They lack enough defensive punch for the backcourt to “carry” them to great heights, but they also lack secondary offensive firepower to win as an offensively dominant team. Still, when Nurkic returns I can see them playing above .500 ball.
- San Antonio (previously: 10th)
[dropped a tier] The Spurs (-4.1 SRS) have had slow starts in recent seasons. Most of their issues are on defense, which is uncharacteristic of a Gregg Popovich team, and that makes me think some upward swing is coming. However, unless one of their young guards can find a groove, it’s hard to see that upward swing making them much better than, say a .500 team the rest of the way. There’s a lot to figure out in San Antonio, and I wouldn’t be surprised if this team fluctuates in the January or February edition of these rankings.
- Minnesota (previously: 13th)
The Wolves (-2.2 SRS) simply lack a strong bench, lack a consistent second scorer around Towns and struggle to get good minutes at point guard. I think this is just who they are this year — a team fighting to play .500 basketball and sneak into a playoff spot behind the offensive brilliance of Karl-Anthony Towns.
- Oklahoma City (previously: 23rd)
Here’s what I wrote last month about OKC:
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.
Paul hasn’t exactly been an All-Star, but he’s been spunky enough to help Adams, Danilo Gallinari and Shai Gilgeous-Alexander look like a .500 team. If the Thunder don’t sell at the trade deadline, dare I say…they might make the playoffs.
- Brooklyn (previously: 17th)
The Nets (-2 SRS) have played an easy schedule without Kyrie Irving, but they also have an incredible backup playmaker in Spencer Dinwiddie. The big question moving forward is whether Irving and Dinwiddie can play together. Neither packs a lot of off-ball punch, and the Nets definitely maximize their off-ball motion sets for guys like Joe Harris and Garrett Temple. (Taurean Prince is shooting well too.) Which makes it really hard to figure out how they can run that offense (15th-ranked offense, 115 points per 100 with Dinwiddie on) and optimize both Spencer and Kyrie. In other words, I don’t expect them to be too much better with Irving back.
- Phoenix (previously: 15th)
I’m pretty sold on the quality of the Suns at full strength. Heck, I think with some of Monty Williams coaching and the spacing their bigs are providing, they would be an annoying playoff matchup. Baynes’ shooting will come back to earth, but when Ricky Rubio is in the lineup this is a seriously feisty team that is…above average. Above average!
12. Indiana (previously: 19th)
[jumped a tier] I called Indiana “stingy” last month, and that was an understatement. Malcolm Brogdon has given the offense viable chops, and the Pacers have a +3.4 SRS (10th in the league) behind the 8th-ranked defense and 13th-ranked offense. With Brogdon in the game, the offensive rating is 114! I’m not going to bake in Victor Oladipo’s return just yet (we don’t know when and how much rust he will have), but this is already a solid team.
- Miami (previously: 11th)
I called them “feisty” last time. This team is better than feisty. I don’t know what word that is, but it’s a level up from feisty. Jimmy Butler and Bam Adebayo are playing very well — Miami is +11 with Butler on the court right now, which is one of the better marks among top players in the league. I have some concerns about the 11th-ranked offense come playoff time, but the defense is going to be solid all season.
- Utah (previously: 5th)
The Jazz (+1 SRS) have the 24th-ranked offense in the league right now. While I doubt Mike Conley is this washed, it’s pretty clear he’s not going to touch an All-Star level of play this season. Donovan Mitchell has continued to improve, but his offense isn’t great still (he’s 2.2 percent below league average on true shooting right now). Bogdanovich has been great, but then what is going on with Joe Ingles? He’s been around 40 percent from downtown for years, and is at just 31 percent right now. There’s enough here for optimism, but I was worried about Utah’s offense in the playoffs…and its become a problem in the regular season.
- Dallas (previously: 12th)
[jumped a tier] Since the last installment of this series, Luka Doncic hit another gear. I’ve published a bunch of content on Dallas (7.8 SRS) lately, so I’ll keep this brief: Dallas is +6.5 with Luka on the court, but only +2.5 with Porzingis on. I love their bench, but that only takes them so far in the playoffs, and without a strong defense to bank on, they need to be exceptionally good on offense to knock off the teams ahead of them on this list.
8. Denver (previously: 7th)
The Denver (5.1 SRS) defense has been great, but the offense is lacking potency and feels monotonous right now. I do think Jokic will be better in the spring, and that will give them a slightly higher offensive ceiling than what they’ve flashed so far. But the more important Nugget is probably Jamal Murray, who still remains inconsistent on offense. Murray is the fifth-best Nugget in my model right now — he needs to better — and a lot of this has to do with his negative scoring efficiency (3 percent below league average) caused by just 33 percent 3-point shooting.
- Houston (previously: 6th)
Houston’s defense (109 defensive rating, 13th) has been way better in the last month, and I think that’s created the appearance that this is the same team we’ve seen in the last two years. But I don’t think they quite have that ceiling anymore. To me, this is looking like a slightly better version of the pre-Paul teams, and they haven’t really figured out how to optimize Russell Westbrook. More importantly, will Russell Westbrook figure out that he shouldn’t be taking 30 shots a game on offense anymore? I have little faith, and so I expect the Rockets (6.2 SRS) to crank out wins during the year but flame out in the playoffs.
- Boston (previously: 9th)
Toronto (previously: 8th)
I’m moving up both of the Eastern teams here. They have nearly identical statistical profiles after 21 games:
- Boston: 16-5, 6.4 SRS, 110.8 ORTG 103.6 DRTG
- Toronto: 15-6, 8.0 SRS, 110.7 ORTG 103.6 DRTG
I could flip a coin on these teams right now. The case for the Celtics being higher (and even fringe contenders) is Gordon Hayward. Hayward was playing incredibly well before his fluke hand injury, and if the Celtics add another playmaker and scoring weapon — particularly one who passes, hits open shots and attacks closeouts — it gives their offense another dimension against high-level teams. I think the Smart-Tatum-Brown-Hayward-Kemba Coma Lineup (trademarked) is in play…with Smart guarding centers. I’m irrationally excited about this. What’s been underrated about Boston’s surprising defense isn’t Daniel Theis or Rob Williams giving them good minutes at center, it’s the combination of Tatum, Brown and Smart mucking up the entire game from 10 to 30 feet out.
As for the Raptors, they’re somewhere between the DeRozan teams of yesteryear (FWIW, they were really Lowry teams, but I’m making a point here) and the Kawhi team a year ago. The two big question-marks for them to contend: Can the defense play at an elite level with Siakam exerting so much offensive energy, and can the offense score enough around players like Lowry, Gasol and Ibaka? The first one is a bigger question to me, because I think Siakam’s improvement as a scorer, along with VanVleet’s improvement and Powell’s specialization as a scorer should prevent the offense from the playoff droughts of years past. (Also, this team has gone full ’94 Bulls, so I expect some awesome playoff battles.)
- Philadelphia (previously: 3rd)
You might be wondering how the heck a struggling 76ers team (2.9 SRS) is still this high. Remember the criteria. Philly is still a contender to me, and as I discussed in previewing the season with Dave DuFour on the Thinking Basketball podcast, I expected a very bumpy road for their offense in the regular year. Historically good defenses rarely clamp down for all 82 games per night, but still, the Philly high-end defensive units have been suffocating — more on this coming soon. I also don’t think we’ve seen a fully engaged Joel Embiid yet.
- Milwaukee (previously: 4th)
I don’t know what to do with the Bucks at this point. A long film study is coming. They were worthy of winning the title last year, but obviously have flaws for a high-level team. (What overachieving team built around one central force isn’t vulnerable?) But they are just killing people right now. Giannis is better than he was last year. He’s averaging 33.5 points per 75 on +6 percent true shooting relative to the league. For perspective, Harden is 35.3 and +7 percent. With that said, Milwaukee’s easiest path to a title is to have Middleton play like a strong All-Star and to round out the shooting lineups with Giannis at center. This is still a TBD.
- Clippers (previously: 2nd)
Lakers (previously: 1st)
Here’s where I was at the start on the Lakers (8.7 SRS):
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.
The defense (102 DRTG, 2nd in league) has held. I’m not sure how much the Lakers need another ball-handler though. LeBron is reminding me of Magic Johnson with his point guard style right now. The Lakers offensive efficiency with James on the court is approaching 117. His passer rating is the highest for any major player since Magic. The entire team synergy is startling, particularly the buy-in on defense.
The Clippers (7.0 SRS) still look like a frightening playoff matchup, but in addition to their lack of interior defense, another concern has cropped up: Kawhi Leonard’s leg. The day after Kawhi was acquired, I recorded a podcast in Las Vegas and discussed the possibility of both Kawhi and Paul George having injury issues, and this is emerging as a thing right now. Kawhi’s way below league average scoring efficiency (-3 percent), night-and-day from his all-time level scoring in the last few postseasons. I’m obviously not discounting the Clipper offense (112 ORTG with Kawhi on), but Kawhi’s movement patterns should be followed closely for the next few months. Again, fingers crossed.