There are a handful of teams who are obviously championship contenders. And, there are a handful of teams who are obviously much worse than everyone else. Can we untangle the mess in the middle?
Probably not! But we can give it a try...
I started thinking about this today after noting how well the Philadelphia 76ers were being rated in a few different methodologies. You can click here to see John Hollinger's latest Power Ratings at ESPN. Philadelphia ranked 8th at the time I wrote today's piece, but may rank differently by the time you read it.
I think there's a sense among most basketball fans that Philadelphia really isn't one of the best 10 teams in the league right now. Yet, it's surprisingly hard to show that in the numbers. They grade out impressively, particularly if you emphasize recent form.
*Philadelphia ranked 11th in full season efficiency differential heading into Monday action. (You can see the entire league here if you sort on "Diff" in the third category after the team names.)
*That full season ranking includes a horrible 3-13 start. Philadelphia is 23-16 since then...which would be good enough to lift an 11th place rating into the top 10 in analytical approaches that emphasize recent form.
*So many previously respected teams have fallen on hard times lately (like Utah, Denver, or New York), that a team's spot on the ladder can get better just by watching other people fall off it.
It doesn't sound right. And, if you watch a lot of basketball, it doesn't feel right either. Yet, there it is in the numbers.
Let's group the NBA into three hunks:
1) Clear chamionship contenders like Miami, San Antonio, Boston, the Lakers, Chicago, Orlando, and Dallas (the top seven teams as sorted by efficiency differential...all of those guys were at +3.0 or better entering Monday in the link mentioned above)
2) Teams who are variations of awful like Cleveland, Washington, Toronto, Minnesota, New Jersey, Sacramento, Detroit, and the shorthanded LA Clippers (the bottom eight teams who were all at -4.0 or worse)
3) Everyone else..the tangled middle (teams from +3.0 down to -3.1 heading into Monday...the bulk of which were actually between +1.4 and -0.6)
Here are the won-lost records over the last 20 games for mess in the middle, which includes all Monday action but the very latest start.
New Orleans 12-7 (pending Golden State)
Oklahoma City 12-8
Golden State 11-8 (pending New Orleans)
New York 8-12
These 14 teams are basically fighting for spots 8-21 on the ladder. A 12-8 mark for Philly is nice. But, that's not enough by this approach to get them to the top 10.
We're probably dealing with a hunk here where the margin of error is great enough to prevent much confidence about any conclusions. Denver's been exhausted but may be about to freshen up. Indiana may lose its high energy buzz soon under Frank Vogel. Maybe a break is exactly what New York needs. Isn't Utah due to get things rolling again? Efforts to untangle may only create the illusion of untangling. Heaven forbid there are any big trades over the next week and a half!
What will the next 20 games look like for that group? Would you want to bet Philadelphia is one of the best three over the next 20 games? Would you expect them to win a best of seven series right now over the likes of New Orleans, Oklahoma City, Portland, or Atlanta? Or even Memphis, who they lost to tonight? We'd be impressed by their competitive fire no doubt. Are they BETTER than those teams?
That will be something to watch and discuss after the All-Star Break, as the stretch run for the playoffs may do some untangling for us. I'm generally not a fan of totem pole rankings because reality tends to cluster rather than space out neatly. We may be dealing with a ladder that actually has a few empty rungs after the seventh...with several teams then grasping at the same spots in the mid-teens...followed by more empty rungs before you get to the place-takers down low.
*Speaking of the high energy Pacers, it was great to see the "StatCube" on the NBA Network's pregame show tonight showcase the new tempo and offensive rebounding rates for Indiana under Vogel. Ernie Johnson, Kevin McHale, and Chris Webber in the flesh were talking about Pace Factor and Offensive Rebounding Rates (see the stats in both categories here, you can sort by clicking on "Pace" or "ORR" in dark blue). Hope we helped get those memes on the radar with our recent coverage.
*Indiana actually struggled on the offensive boards tonight. Miami knew what was coming, and boxed out well, holding the Pacers to a 21.6 rate. As expected, the game was played at a very fast tempo, registering at 101 possessions per team.
Hope you got a chance to watch. Very entertaining game. Dwyane Wade scored 20 points in the first six-and-a-half minutes, then threw a breathaking length of the court alleyoop to LeBron James for a layup. One-handed like a down-and-out from Peyton Manning, from one baseline to the other. The crowd was abuzz, but you can't roar when the road team makes a play like that! Miami blew all of a 41-17 lead before rallying to pull away late to a 110-103 decision.
*Talk of Philadelphia's recent surge reminded me of 2008-09. Philadelphia started 9-14 rather than 3-13, but did play very solid basketball after that. They peaked at 40-35 (meaning 31-21 over 52 games, which included a road win at the LA Lakers, series sweeps of playoff bound Portland and Houston, plus splits with San Antonio and Miami). A late slide took them into the playoffs at the .500 mark.
In the postseason, they won a road game at Orlando, and held a 2-1 series lead before ultimately falling to the Magic four games to two. The 2010-11 team looks like a group that can make the playoffs...but it's hard to see them winning a first round series.
*Tuesday's edition of "back-to-back team loses to fresh opponent" was Charlotte falling in Chicago 106-94 the night after beating the Lakers.The normally stingy Hornets' defense let the Bulls hit 50% on two-pointers (and three-pointers). Charlotte's offense was just 2 of 11 from behind the arc. We're seeing that a lot in these days leading up to the All-Star Break. Tired legs equates to softer than normal internal defense, and three-point shots that clang off the rim. Derrick Rose of the Bulls continued his attack on the rim, earning nine free throws on the night.
See you late Wednesday, the final night before the All-Star Break for everyone but San Antonio, Chicago, Dallas, and Phoenix...