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Sunday, December 26, 2010

First Trimester NBA Power Rankings (Part 2)

Happy Kwanzaa!

Let's continue the first trimester NBA report card, this time looking at the upper crust of the league using Barkley-isms. Teams 30-17 can be found here.

"He [Kenny] said Yao Ming's gonna get 19 points. If he gets 19 points in a game, I'll kiss [Kenny's] ass."

16. Houston Rockets (14-15)

The Rockets have lost the services of Yao for this season, and in all likelihood, his career. Even if he manages to return from his latest ankle injury, it won't be with the Rockets. So Houston has been trotting out a starting lineup of Kyle Lowry, Kevin Martin, Shane Battier, Luis Scola, and Chuck Hayes, with Brad Miller, Jordan Hill, and Courtney Lee providing bench depth (Aaron Brooks has missed most of this season with an injury). Absolutely no star power can be found on this roster, yet they are competitive night in and night out. After starting out 3-10, the Rockets are 11-5 since Nov. 24.

(Conspiracy Theorist in me thinks that Yao's people, aka the Chinese government, would like him to play out his career in either NY, LA, or Miami. They have ordered him to sit down this year while the foot and ankle injuries recover, since it is the last year of his contract. You read it hear first.)

"You've got to believe in yourself. Hell, I believe I'm the best looking guy in the world, and I might be right."

15. Indiana Pacers (13-15)

14. Denver Nuggets (16-13)

13. Portland Trailblazers (15-15)

These three teams are as good, or bad, as they want to be, depending on the night. The Pacers score exactly as many points per game as they give up (97.8). Within reason, the Pacers are a playoff team in the Eastern Conference led by a reliable scorer (Danny Granger, 21 ppg), a solid big man (Roy Hibbert, 14 ppg, 8 rpg, and 2 bpg), and solid defense. They've struggled recently, losing six of their last ten games, and similar to the Rockets, they are a team built without a superstar at any position.

The Nuggets are mired in the Carmelo Anthony will-he-or-won't-he rumors, and that has had a direct correlation to their mediocre play. But when they want to, they can play like one of the NBA's top eight teams. Still, from all reports, Anthony is going to take his 24 ppg out of town, and as soon as that happens, look for the Nuggets to bottom out.

The Blazers can't score, rebound, or stay healthy. That last part is probably the biggest reason for their struggles. Former number one overall pick Greg Oden will miss the majority of a season for the third time of his career. Franchise player Brandon Roy all but needs to sit out this season. But they still win games. LaMarcus Aldridge has come one strong in December (20 ppg, 9 rpg for the month), and Wesley Matthews (19 ppg 48 percent shooting in December) is the best of the second tier NBA offseason acquisitions. Seriously.

"Poor white people and poor black people just don't know how much they have in common. Rich people don't give a damn about either group."

12. Atlanta Hawks (19-13)

11. New Orleans (18-12)

Be honest, you do not believe in either of these two teams. The Hawks paid Joe Johnson $119 million to keep him as the leader of a team going nowhere. I don't blame him for signing, but I doubt his 17 ppg and barely 40 percent shooting is ideal for a player making $16 million this year. They are relying on the formula of Johnson scoring, Josh Smith and Al Horford rebounding and defending (32 ppg, 18 rpg, 3 bpg combined), and Jamal Crawford as sixth man (14 ppg, 35 percent from three). But the formula includes letting Marvin Williams (11 ppg, 5 rpg) be completely average, and letting Jason Collins start at center.

The Hornets started the season 12-3, Chris Paul looked rejuvenated (16 ppg, 10 apg), and first year coach Monty Williams looked like Coach of the Year material. Since then the NBA has taken ownership of the team away from George Shinn, the team has gone 4-9, and there is declining optimism that Paul will not be forcing a trade to greener pastures.

"The only difference between a good shot and a bad shot is if it goes in or not."

10. Orlando Magic (18-12)

9. New York Knicks (18-12)

Two teams that as presently constructed (key word) will have no problem finding shots they like. The Magic are presently 19th in the NBA in scoring, but that will likely improve with the additions of Gilbert Arenas, Hedo Turkoglu, and Jason Richardson. Adding them to Dwight Howard in the middle of a career high scoring season (21 ppg), and points should come in bunches. After taking two post-trade losses, the Magic knocked off the two hottest teams in the NBA (Spurs and the Celtics), back-to-back.

The Knicks are the league's most lovable bandwagon team. Face it, if you're an NBA fan who doesn't like a high-scoring, winning team with a premier player (Amare Stoudemire 26 ppg, 9 rpg, 2 bpg) playing in New York, then you must hate life. They still aren't a viable title contender, but they can definitely play spoiler in the Eastern Conference playoffs. I asked via Twitter before the Knicks-Celtics game a couple weeks ago, "What if Amare had already changed the culture of NY basketball, and we just didn't realize it yet? What if he wins a title before Lebron?"

Not that it's bound to happen, but it's fascinating to think about.

"The main thing to do is relax and let your talent do the work."

8. Los Angeles Lakers (21-9)

This is a power ranking, not an end of the season ranking. The Lakers are still defending champs, but they are not playing well at all. Kobe Bryant looks a step slower. Pau Gasol looks overworked (39 mpg, only 17 ppg in December). Andrew Bynum looks overweight. Of course, there is little need to panic, because at the end of the day, they have the most talented roster in the Western Conference, and all their struggles can be attributed more to their interest in winning games, than the teams they're losing to being better.

Sometime between now and April, they'll decide to rev things up, and they'll "switch it on" like so many analyst are complaining about them doing. But as poorly as they've played, they are still number one in the Pacific, and if the playoffs started today, they'd be the third seed. Not exactly time to panic.

"Kids are great. That's one of the best things about our business, all the kids you get to meet."

7. Chicago Bulls (19-10)

6. Oklahoma City Thunder (21-10)

Two of the youngest teams in the league are performing among the most elite. The Bulls have battled injuries to Carlos Boozer and Joakim Noah, but Derrick Rose (24 ppg, 8 apg, 1 spg) has played MVP-caliber ball. First-year head coach Tom Thibideau has successfully brought his hard-nosed defensive philosophy from his days as a Celtics assistant over to the young Bulls, who are currently 9th in defense and 2nd in rebounding. The only thing keeping them from being a legit title contender is an elite two-guard teaming with Rose.

The Thunder in many ways are still riding the high from the first round Game 6 loss to the Lakers, but that's what happens when youth meets success early. They have the best under-25 roster in the NBA. Their two best players, Kevin Durant (28 ppg, 6 rpg) and Russell Westbrook (22 ppg, 8 apg) are arguably the best players at their positions in the division. They are coming on strong (10-3 in December), and will cause problems with their speed and length in the playoffs.

"Sometimes the light at the end of the tunnel is a train."

5. Utah Jazz (21-9)

4. Dallas Mavericks (23-5)

Both teams are great right now, and worthless come April. But this is right now, and that's how they'll be judged.

The Jazz are playing in the familiar roles of a Jerry Sloan basketball team. Deron Williams (22 ppg, 9.6 apg) plays the role of a beefed up John Stockton, while Al Jefferson and Paul Millsap combine to impersonate Karl Malone (32 ppg, 17 rpg combined). They've done a great job of coming from behind to win games against the Heat, Lakers, and Magic, and they've lost only two games to teams currently below .500.

Dallas is playing with the fire and intensity Laker fans were expecting to see in their team. But even that doesn't mean the Mavs early-season success will last. Dirk Nowitzki has played at an MVP level (24.5 ppg, 7.6 rpg, 39 percent from three), and Tyson Chandler's acquisition has been great for the team's defense and overall speed. Still, age (average starter: 31 years old) and injury are a big factor for this team, and moving forward it's hard to see how they won't be affected by both.

"I don't care what people think, people are stupid"

3. San Antonio Spurs (26-4)

2. Miami Heat (23-9)

1. Boston Celtics (23-5)

The Spurs are the 4th best scoring team in the NBA even though Tim Duncan is no longer an elite scorer. Aside from losing to the Clippers on the second night of a back-to-back, they haven't had a bad game this season.

After a rough start (10-8 at the end of November), the Heat have rallied to win 14 of their last 15 games, and boast the best defense in the NBA. Lebron James (25 ppg, 7 rpg, 7 apg), Dwyane Wade (23 ppg, 6 rpg, 4 apg), and Chris Bosh (18 ppg, 8 rpg) have been highly effective in their first year together, after about one month of learning to play off each other.

The Celtics are off to their typical fast start in the Kevin Garnett era. Each of the last four seasons, they were the best team in the NBA from October to January. They're playing the same stout defense (91 ppg allowed, 2nd in the NBA). But they also have age issues, and the injury bug has struck their most effective young player (Rajon Rondo, 13.8 apg, 2.4 spg). They are a lot deeper this year than they have been in the past with the additions of Shaquille O'Neal, Delonte West, and Jermaine O'Neal, so we'll see just how long they will be able to sustain this high level of play.

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