Friday, December 13, 2013

NBA Quarter Pole Power Poll (Part II)

Damian Lillard has the Portland Trail Blazers playing like title contenders.
By Jeremy Conlin (@jeremy_conlin)

In case you missed Part I yesterday, you can find it here. In it, we covered teams ranked No. 30 through No. 17. In Part II, we hit the best 16 teams in the league right now.

Western Wanderers

16. Los Angeles Lakers

The Lakers are 10-11 despite seeing just 135 completely ineffectual minutes from Steve Nash and largely substandard play from Pau Gasol. That's a [expletive deleted] miracle.

They have five players shooting 39% or better from three, and they're launching them like it's going out of style. Their entire offense is predicated around whipping the ball around the perimeter until someone is open for three. If that doesn't work, Nick Young careens into the lane and misses a 360 reverse layup. There's absolutely no reason this offense should work, and yet they win games. Now that Kobe's back, this might be a playoff team.

15. Memphis Grizzlies

The offense is still not very good, which is to be expected. It's just too hard to manufacture space when you don't have reliable shooters. That spacing will become even more strained with Quincy Pondexter possibly out for the season with a stress fracture in his foot.

The concern going forward, however, is how bad the defense has been. They rank just 22nd in defensive efficiency, and it's not like it's because Marc Gasol is out with injury - in the 447 minutes he's played, Memphis has a Defensive Rating of 103.8. Without him (571 minutes), it's 104.2. One major problem has been their three-point defense - after finishing 2nd in Opponents 3-PT% last season, that ranking has plummeted to 23rd this year.

14. Phoenix Suns

Like the Celtics, I find I just have no intelligent opinions about this team. I don't get it. I have no idea how they're successful.

Even weirder? Their "best player," Eric Bledsoe, is leading the team in PER and is 2nd in Win Shares, but the team is better when he's on the bench. The Suns are -2.7 per 100 possessions with him on the floor, +7.5 with him out of the game. The Goran Dragic-Channing Frye-P.J. Tucker triumvirate has been what has carried them. I don't think that success is sustainable, however, so expect them to fall back down to Earth before very long.

13. New Orleans Pelicans

The Ryan Anderson/Anthony Davis/Tyreke Evans/Eric Gordon/Jrue Holiday lineup that was destined to happen? They played 53 minutes together before Anthony Davis got hurt. In those 53 minutes, they scored 146 points. That's RIDICULOUS. That's 10 points per 48 minutes better than any other lineup in the league with at least 50 minutes played. When Davis comes back and that lineup starts running again, the Pelicans are going to blitz the league. They're a sure-fire playoff team unless that lineup suffers another injury.

The Relative Juggernaut

12. Atlanta Hawks

By default, they're the third-best team in the Eastern Conference. By default, they'll be in the 2nd round of the playoffs. They deserve neither distinction, but it will happen because of how bad the East is. I stuck them here because I have no idea how to accurately rank them. They're the best of a huge group of supremely flawed teams.

I Have No Idea

11. Denver Nuggets

When your big man rotation is J.J. Hickson, Kenneth Faried, Darrell Arthur, and Timofey Mozgoverkill, you should not be 13-8 in a very competitive conference, and you definitely shouldn't have a top-15 defense. But here we are. Somehow, a lineup with Nate Robinson, Andre Miller, and Mozgov is one of the best lineups in the entire league on both ends of the floor. Some things just aren't meant to be understood.

10. Minnesota Timberwolves

By all rights, this team should be better. They're 11-11 but have the scoring margin of a 14-8 team. They have a handful of ugly losses, but they've been to good teams - they lost by 21 to Miami, 10 to Oklahoma City, 14 to Indiana, 11 to Houston, and 13 to Golden State. All things considered, they've been winning the games they should be winning (an early season loss to Cleveland notwithstanding, but even that was the second night of a back-to-back).

The Wolves rank 11th in Offensive Rating and 8th in Defensive Rating, but remain at .500 for reasons unclear. They've played a tough schedule, but not outrageously so - basketball-reference estimates them at the 8th-most difficult schedule, just 0.54 points per game harder than average (Utah has played the most difficult schedule, 2.51 points per game harder than average; Miami has played the cushiest schedule, 1.76 points easier than average). Perhaps once their schedule normalizes they'll separate from the current quagmire of teams between No. 7 and No. 12 spot in the West.


9. Dallas Mavericks

It's so nice to have Dirk back in our lives. After battling injuries all of last season, he's been true to form so far this season, posting his highest PER since 2008 and his highest WS/48 since his title season in 2011. He's shooting more threes than he has since 2003, and he's making them at a career-best clip. That's what happens when you spend a lot of time on the floor with two very capable pick-and-roll partners in Jose Calderon and Monta Ellis.

The problem for Dallas is that it's near-impossible to hide both Calderon and Ellis defensively when they're on the floor together. Exacerbating the situation is that Dallas' bigs consist of DeJaun Blair, Samuel Dalembert, and Jae Crowder - not exactly known for swooping in from the weakside to cover up mistakes. They don't rebound very well (25th in Defensive Rebound Rate) and they foul too often (28th in Opponent's Foul Rate), and it's a problem without a solution - they just don't have the defensive talent to overcome their breakdowns.

8. Golden State Warriors

Come playoff time, the Warriors are going to be a really tough out because they'll be able to cut out all the riff-raff at the bottom of their rotation and only play seven or eight guys. And it will work, because Andre Iguodala, Harrison Barnes, and Draymond Green are so flexible on defense that it won't matter what "position" anyone is lined up at. So long as they have Curry on the floor and one big man (either Lee or Bogut), it doesn't really matter who the other three players are.

Draymond Green is the X-Factor for them - he was a great defensive player last year but nearly unplayable because he couldn't score - just 7.7 points per 36 minutes, a god-awful .404 True Shooting Percentage. But this year he's shooting 36% from three and making the occasional play off the dribble. If he turns into a valuable 20-minute player, that greatly reduces their reliance on Marreese Speights (who has been a train wreck).

7. Los Angeles Clippers

As Jared Dubin wrote over the summer for Grantland, this Clippers' team is an interesting test case for the value of scheme versus talent on defense. Other than Chris Paul, they don't have any truly elite defensive players, and point guard is widely considered to be the least important position defensively (or, at least, the position where a poor defender is the least damaging). With largely sub-par defensive talent, the Clippers have pieced together the 10th-ranked defense in the league, presumably because of Doc Rivers' system.

The offense is going to be there. They're currently ranked 8th in Offensive Rating, but that should climb once J.J. Redick returns from wrist injury (he'll be healthy by the All-Star break for sure). Even before then, Chris Paul, Blake Griffin, and Jamal Crawford combine to create an offense that's very difficult to guard during crunch time. The question for this team is always going to be defensively, though, and as long as DeAndre Jordan is as playing as well as he is, they'll have a defense capable of making a deep run in the playoffs.

6. Houston Rockets

This might be the highest ceiling-ed team in the entire Western Conference, but there is uncertainty abound as to the likelihood of them reaching that ceiling.

Offensively, we've already seen what type of juggernaut they can be. They're ranked 2nd in Offensive Rating on the strength of their absurd foul rate - they shoot .416 free throws for every attempt from the floor, so much higher than the rest of the league that the 7th-ranked team (Toronto; .305) is actually closer to last than to first.

Defensively, they go as far as Dwight Howard can take them. He's shown flashes already, and is clearly much healthier than he's been at any point since the 2011 season. They're a top-10 defensive team despite Howard being their only above-average defender among their top nine players (other than perhaps Patrick Beverley). If Howard can play defense like he did in 2011 (or the 2009 and 2010 playoffs), Houston can (and probably will) make the Finals. Anything less and they can't (and won't).

We All Saw This Coming, Right?

5. Portland Trail Blazers

NBA defenses have one major goal these days - funnel shot attempts to the wings, inside the three point line. The five zones directly inside the three-point line - that's where defenses want shots to be coming from.

This has led to an interesting trend, however. There are now a few offenses that are built on punishing defenses for surrendering those shots. Portland is one of them. Look at LaMarcus Aldridge's shot chart (via

That's a lot of green in those five zones, particularly on the left wing and at the top of the key. Aldridge shooting over 50% from those areas creates real problems for defenses, because all of a sudden the shot that they were previously trying to encourage becomes a shot that they're trying to take away. And when that happens, areas that were previously more highly-contested real estate (like above-the-break threes) become easier to get off easy looks from.

That's exactly what Portland is doing. Aldridge's shooting from 18 feet and out is forcing opposing defenses to contort in ways they just aren't used to, and it's opening up the rest of the floor for Wes Matthews, Nic Batum, and Damian Lillard. That's how they have the No. 1 ranked offense in the league and are 19-4 with wins over San Antonio, Indiana, Oklahoma City, and Houston.

Their defense isn't quite up to snuff, and if they stumble in the playoffs, that will likely be why. But for now, there isn't a single offense in the league clicking better than Portland's.

The Contenders

4. Miami Heat

Not much to say about Miami that hasn't already been said a dozen times over the last two years.

They aren't going anywhere. They're going to just hang around, biding their time, probably not even caring about locking up the No. 1 seed in the East. But eventually, they'll make their move, and the rest of the league better be ready. It seems that every year, Erik Spoelstra is sitting on a trump card in his back pocket that he doesn't pull out until he absolutely needs it. In 2011, it was a LeBron-Wade pick-and-roll that killed the Bulls. In 2012, it was starting Bosh at center and LeBron at power forward in the Finals. Last year, it was eschewing all positional distinctions and just playing his five best guys at once. What it will be this year remains to be seen.

3. Oklahoma City Thunder

If LeBron James weren't in the league, Kevin Durant would already have the MVP Award locked up. He's always been a borderline-inhuman scoring machine, but this year he's averaging a career high in rebounds and assists and he's developing into a legitimately good defensive player, as opposed to in previous years, where he was just a guy with long arms who would occasionally luck into steals, blocked shots, and deflections.

I do wonder about the team's ceiling, however, considering the amount of minutes occupied by Kendrick Perkins. It just doesn't seem defensible to give even 18 minutes per game to a center who doesn't move well on defense and commits a turnover on nearly 30% of his offensive possessions. And with youngsters Steven Adams and Perry Jones looking more and more like long-term NBA players, every minute Kendrick Perkins plays seems like a waste.

The fate of the team lies in the hands of Reggie Jackson and Jeremy Lamb. Durant, Westbrook and Ibaka will be star-caliber players in any situation. But Jackson and Lamb need to combine to form a reasonable facsimile of James Harden and/or Kevin Martin off the bench. Coincidentally, Reggie Jackson's season so far bears a strong resemblance to James Harden's 2012 season, and Lamb's season is almost identical to Martin's season, when all are adjusted for minutes. The only discernible differences are in free throw rate:

Harden Per36: 19.3 points, 4.7 rebounds, 4.2 assists, .491 FG%/.390 3PT%, .587 FT Rate
Jackson Per36: 17.3 points, 5.5 rebounds. 5.0 assists, .490 FG%/.313 3PT%, .186 FT Rate

Martin Per36: 18.2 points, 3.0 rebounds, 1.8 assists, .450 FG%/.426 3PT%, .316 FT Rate
Lamb Per36: 16.7 points, 3.9 rebounds, 1.8 assists, .473 FG%/.403 3PT%, .078 FT Rate

This isn't to say that Jackson and Lamb are as good as Harden and Martin, but the fact that they have both together is arguably better than having just Harden or just Martin. Come playoff time when they need a push off the bench, these two guys will be the ones to provide it.

2. Indiana Pacers

Their recent loss to Oklahoma City exposed a potential problem for the Pacers going forward.

When opponents go small and start running pick-and-rolls between a guard and their small-ball power forward, for whatever reason, Indiana doesn't switch on the screen. Oklahoma City, over and over again, ran pick-and-rolls with Westbrook and Durant or Reggie Jackson and Durant, and Durant would turn, and isolate against George Hill in the high post. Hill has been an absolute attack dog on defense this year, probably the best defensive guard in the league, but he has no hope of guarding Durant in this situation. Indiana got burned.

There aren't many teams that will be able to take advantage of this stubbornness on Indiana's part, but the ones that are will cause fits, and they're the teams that Indiana might expect to see late in the playoffs. Oklahoma City did it with Durant. Miami can do it with LeBron and Wade or LeBron and Chalmers. San Antonio can do it with Parker and Leonard.

Of course, I'm nit-picking. The team is 19-3, has the league's best defense, and is about to get a potentially key player back in Danny Granger. There's no defensible argument that says they're anything but one of the five best teams in the league right now. But forecasting into the future, this specific action is something to keep an eye on.

The Favorite

1. San Antonio Spurs 

Yes, it seems old.

Yes, it seems boring.

But the Spurs are 17-4 and the only team ranked in the top five of both Offensive Efficiency (4th) and Defensive Efficiency (2nd). And they're doing it with Tony Parker LEADING the team in minutes with 30.2 per game.

Everything they do is effortless. Their system is so ingrained that what for most players would be agonizing decisions are simple passes that lead to open shots. Marco Belinelli showed up in the offseason and now he's shooting 55% from three. These are the types of things the Spurs do.

In 2012 when they lost to the Thunder, there were doubts about how well they could raise their level of play in the postseason, because so much of their success is based on simply executing the system (and how exactly does a team "execute more"?). Those doubts went out the window last year when they came as close to winning the title without winning it as any team ever. This year they have their eyes set on fixing that.

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