Thursday, December 12, 2013

NBA Quarter Pole Power Poll (Part I)

With Derrick Rose out for the season, where do the Bulls stack up?
By Jeremy Conlin (@jeremy_conlin)

(Un)officially, we have reached the one-quarter mark of the NBA season. With New Orleans and Sacramento playing Wednesday night, every team has played at least twenty games (Boston leads the way with 24 games under their belt). So, for the first time this season, we (and by "we," I mean "I") write way too many words about each and every NBA team. Today's half will run teams ranked No. 30 through No. 17. Tomorrow's will have the top 16 teams.

The Isiah Thomas Division

30. Utah Jazz 

It's rather mind-blowing how much better they look with Trey Burke on the floor. After starting the season 1-13, they've actually resembled a pro basketball team over the last few weeks - they're 4-6 with Burke in the starting lineup. And Burke hasn't even been that spectacular - even including a shockingly low turnover rate, he's been barely a league-average point guard. But considering John Lucas and Jamaal Tinsley had previously been seeing the lion's share of minutes at point guard prior to Burke's return to the lineup, league-average play is a gargantuan upgrade.

Even still, the fact that Richard Jefferson has started all 24 games (as opposed to, you know, been framed for a crime to get him off the roster) compared to three starts from Alec Burks is nothing more than management malpractice. I understand that the team isn't (per se) trying to be competitive this year, but Ty Corbin has been an unmitigated disaster coaching the team over the last four years.

29. Milwaukee Bucks

Even when Larry Sanders was playing at the start of the season, they were a team that you'd watch and think "wait a minute, who is injured?" until you realize that what you were watching was actually they're entire team. Now that Sanders is, in fact, injured, they're the worst team in a historically bad Eastern Conference. Only John Henson and the Greek Freak (Giannis Antetokounmpo) can save them.

28. Philadelphia 76ers

The Start of Good Feelings is just about over. After starting 3-0 with wins over Miami and Chicago, they've gone 4-16 over their last 20 games. Three of those four wins have been in overtime. Their losing has dropped their average scoring margin all the way down to -7.5 (only Utah and Milwaukee are worse), and it's only a matter of time before they start their fire-sale of all expendable assets (Spencer Hawes and Evan Turner might as well start packing now). Everyone who thought their "Sixers Under 17.5 Wins" bet was dead might think again about ripping up their tickets.

27. Orlando Magic 

Another team preparing for a fire sale - Arron Afflalo (inexplicably having a career year for his third team at age 28) and Jameer Nelson (still vaguely resembling an NBA player) will likely be moved sooner rather than later. Tobias Harris has been shelved all season with a high ankle sprain, and it's likely that they're waiting to make a few trades to clear minutes for him before they bring him back. Probably a good idea, considering he's a good enough player that he might actually make them competitive.

26. Sacramento Kings 

Rudy Gay. Boogie Cousins. Same team.

It's what we've been waiting for.

I'm one of the five people on the planet that thinks Rudy Gay is still salvageable, but Sacramento isn't the team to do it. I understand that they're trying to promote a forward-thinking culture (GM Pete D'Alessandro was the understudy for GM/Sage Wizard Masai Ujiri in Denver), but Rudy Gay is just going from one situation where he has cart blanche to shoot as much as he wants to another situation where he has cart blanche to shoot as much as he wants. His success (if it ever comes) will be found in a place where a coaching staff and surrounding players will force him to fit the mold that suits him (small-ball power forward with size to protect him and a point guard to set him up). This Kings team isn't it.

Wait A Minute, This Wasn't Supposed To Happen

25. Brooklyn Nets

The ongoing Brooklyn circus has been spectacular. The funniest part? I'm not sure that any of their problems are actually fixable. They're just too old and slow. It sounds reductive and stupid but it actually might be that simple. It's an incredibly intelligent team - it'd be impossible not to be considering their roster. But knowing where to be at all times doesn't actually matter if you can't actually, you know, get there in time. Knowing what set the opponent is running is great, but if you can't beat them to the point of attack, it's all for naught and you're already a step behind. That's what's been going on with the Nets, and a prime reason why they were dead last in defensive efficiency entering Wednesday's games.

24. New York Knicks

Another masterpiece of terrible coaching - Mike Woodson has wantonly ignored everything that made last season's Knicks team successful, namely playing small, playing multiple point guards at the same time, and launching enough threes to make Antoine Walker look conservative. Tyson Chandler has certainly shown a spotlight on all of their defensive issues (they're a huge fan of the "switch-everything-and-foul-if-it-goes-wrong" defensive scheme, which, shockingly, has never been shown to work), but the offense has failed them as well. Until Carmelo Anthony goes back to playing power forward, surrounded by three shooters and/or ball-handlers, and a lone big man, they're going to be a crappy team.

23. Cleveland Cavaliers

In retrospect, it shouldn't be much of a shock that Mike Brown took a team couldn't score despite a respectable amount of offensive talent and couldn't find a way to turn them around.

They've certainly improved defensively (27th in Defensive Rating last year, 15th this year), but they've taken a nose-dive offensively (from 19th in Offensive Rating to 28th). The only offensive "plays" they seem to run are a straight-on high screen for Kyrie Irving (with absolutely no dummy action or mis-direction to confuse the defense), or something tentatively called "throw up a brick and hope we can crash the offensive glass."

In related news, Brown hasn't been able to find a way to use Anthony Bennett, which wouldn't be much of a worry if he wasn't the No. 1 overall pick in the draft. And this is the same coach who plays Earl Clark a decent chunk of minutes.

Competitive By Default

22. Charlotte Bobcats

The Bobcats ranking third in defensive rating makes zero sense. The Bobcats ranking third in defensive rating with Al Jefferson playing a substantial amount of time at center makes even less than zero sense. It honestly frightens me.

The offense is unacceptably bad. They absolutely cannot space the floor (29.5% shooting from three - Anthony Tolliver and Josh McRoberts are their long-range "specialists") and everything grinds to a halt, but Steve Clifford has them playing elite defense, thanks in large part to the best defensive rebounding mark in the league - grabbing 77.5% of available defensive boards.

21. Detroit Pistons

Prior to this season, Josh Smith's career high in threes attempted per-minute was 2.7 attempts per 36. This year it has spiked 70% to 4.6 attempts per 36. Interestingly, however, that's not the cause of his career-low True Shooting %. In previous seasons, Smith would have actually been better served to shoot MORE threes, only provided that the shots he gave up were the long twos that he consistently made a dreadfully low percentage of (shooting 31% on threes is better than shooting 34% on long twos). In 2011, 35% of his field goal attempts were those outside-the-paint-inside-the-arc shots, and almost 41% of his shots in 2012 were. This year, that number is just 22%, the lowest of his entire career. The problem is, just 29% of his attempts come around the basket, also the lowest number of his career (it was as high as 57% of his attempts in 2010). If Smith maintains his three-point rate, but starts funneling more of his two-point attempts towards the basket, he should see a turnaround in scoring efficiency.

20. Toronto Raptors

Regardless of what else happens this season, salary-dumping Rudy Gay and Andrea Bargnani, picking up a first-round pick (for Bargs) and cheap assets like Patrick Patterson and Greivis Vasquez (for Gay) is the coup de grace of Masai Ujiri's run as the best GM in the league.

19. Washington Wizards

John Wall is a one-man #LeaguePassAlert. After a slow start, he's turned on turbo-boosters over his last dozen or so games, averaging a 22/9 on 45% shooting from the floor and defending as well as any point guard in the league (save for George Hill who has been near super-human on that end this season).

Washington has been bitten by the injury bug, with a number of key players, especially every relevant perimeter shooter having missed time with injuries. But they're still in the mix in the East (thanks to a historically bad conference - have you noticed that 10 of the first 12 teams listed here are in the East?), and when healthy they might have the highest ceiling of any team in the conference north of Florida and East of Indiana.

18. Boston Celtics

This season has been indescribably bizarre all around, but Jordan Crawford turning into a legitimately efficient playmaker is without a doubt the most ridiculous thing of all. He's averaging six and a half assists per 36 minutes, sports a turnover rate of just 13.9%, and is shooting over 40% from three and (gulp) 49% on two-point shots (a very respectable number for a guard). Nothing he has shown in his entire career indicates anything remotely close to this level of play was possible.

The Celtics surprising success really comes down to Brad Stevens - it's a young team that would sprint through a brick wall for their new coach. They compete on defense despite not really having much defensive talent (especially along the back line) and have a semi-respectable offense despite, again, lacking any real talent. They've played a remarkably easy schedule (4th-worst), which will turn as they start to play the Western Conference more, but somehow the Celtics are currently the fourth seed in the East.

Eastern Enigma

17. Chicago Bulls

The Bulls mark the 12th team from the East in the bottom 14, which means just three are left in the top 16. It's worth mentioning that 16 teams make the playoffs every year. As far as I'm concerned, the 13th-best team in the West is roughly as good as the 4th-best team in the East.

The Bulls are just a train wreck. Without Rose, they have no offensive hope. They just can't score, and being held under 80 points in back-to-back games against Milwaukee (20th in Defensive Efficiency) and New York (28th in Defensive Efficiency) shows as much. But when on top of that, injuries to Luol Deng and Jimmy Butler completely deplete their depth on the wing, even their usually stellar defense will take a step back. A few big moves could be on the horizon for Chicago, like trading Deng (to hopefully get a first-round pick in return) and/or Boozer (to clear money) and treating the season as a sunk cost after Rose's injury.

The core of the team appears to be Rose (fingers crossed), Butler, Gibson, and Noah. Jettisoning superfluous parts and trying to re-build from the ground up around those four guys might be for the best. They made the Eastern Finals in 2011, but since then they've lost Omer Asik (defensive super-sub) and Kyle Korver (only the best shooter in the league), Carlos Boozer has crossed over the wrong side of 30, and Luol Deng has played an obscene amount of minutes and now seems to break down just by walking out his front door. If they aren't going to compete for a title this year (and it doesn't appear likely), it would make sense to tear it down.

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