Sometimes talent can stand in the way of a greater good.
The Pistons proved that theory earlier this year when they released Josh Smith and immediately rattled off seven straight wins. Although Detroit has since cooled down and struggled mightily as of late, it still boasts a respectable 0.8 net rating post-Smith compared to the the -7.5 mark it owned before.
A more recent example of this trend can be found in Utah, where the Jazz have won five straight and 10 of 12 since trading Enes Kanter to Oklahoma City. While the No. 3 overall pick in the 2011 draft is now thriving (15.7 points and 10.2 rebounds) with the Thunder, he may have been stunting the Jazz’s growth, particularly on the defensive end. Since dealing Kanter at the trade deadline, the Jazz lead the NBA in defensive efficiency (90.8) and trail only Cleveland and Indiana in net rating (10.5). In comparison, Utah's net rating with Kanter was -2.7.
Kanter’s departure has also cleared up Utah's frontcourt logjam and triggered the meteoric ascension of Rudy Gobert. The Stifle Tower (or French Rejection, depending on your preference) is averaging 10.5 points, 14.5 rebounds and 3.0 blocks since the trade and is flourishing alongside Derrick Favors.
While Utah, which has won 12 of its last 15, climbs again in this week’s rankings, the playoffs are still out of grasp. Instead, the Jazz are setup to play the role of spoiler the rest of the season. Utah is quickly becoming a dreaded opponent, allowing just one of its last 15 matchups to top the century mark. The Jazz are far from an easy out and anything but smooth and pleasant. The departure of Kanter has led to a defensive renaissance in Utah and proven that sometimes addition really can come by subtraction.
Here’s where all 30 teams stand in this week’s NBA Power Rankings:
(All stats and records through March 15)
1. Golden State Warriors
RECORD: 52-13 (3-1)
Expect Steve Kerr to continue to steal rest for his starters when he can down the stretch of the season. Golden State has a big enough lead (6 1/2 games) to afford a few sporadic losses like last week’s at Denver.
2. Cleveland Cavaliers
RECORD: 43-25 (3-0)
Kyrie Irving made 11 straight threes over the course of his 57-point masterpiece against the Spurs and Sunday’s win over the Magic. LeBron James’ decision to ditch the headband has clearly liberated more than one Cavalier.
3. Atlanta Hawks
RECORD: 52-14 (3-1)
Atlanta might have the best frontcourt duo in the East, but it has little depth to speak of behind it. With Mike Scott expected to miss 4 to 6 weeks, it’s up to Pero Antic and Elton Brand to hold down the fort.
4. San Antonio Spurs
RECORD: 41-24 (2-1)
There’s something beautiful about scoring 123 points without any individual topping 15. The Spurs were briefly at full strength Sunday until Manu Ginobili suffered a sprained ankle. The defending champions are something to watch when they have their full arsenal at their disposal.
5. Oklahoma City Thunder
RECORD: 37-29 (2-1)
It was 11 years ago that Rip Hamilton first wore his trademark face mask during a game. With Russell Westbrook collecting more triple doubles than defeats with his headwear, the NBA might have its next permanently masked man.
6. Portland Trail Blazers
RECORD: 44-20 (3-0)
The Blazers are refusing to go down easy without Wes Matthews, going 3-1 since losing their starting shooting guard for the season. Finding offense off the bench won’t be easy for Terry Stotts, but he doesn’t need to find much. Portland’s starters average the second-most points in the league.
7. Memphis Grizzlies
RECORD: 46-20 (2-2)
Jeff Green hasn’t been a perfect fit in Memphis, but he can still be highly effective for the Grizz when utilized properly. The team is 14-2 when Green scores at least 12 points, but there is a point of diminishing returns. Memphis is just 3-6 when Green has at least 13 field-goal attempts.
8. Houston Rockets
RECORD: 44-22 (1-2)
Don’t let your eyes fool you: The Rockets are not better off without Dwight Howard, who missed his 22nd straight game Sunday. Houston is 18-16 without its All-Star center and still a dangerous threat when it goes small, but the Rockets are at their best when their defense is leading the way. The team is 30-3 when holding opponents under 100 points.
9. Dallas Mavericks
RECORD: 42-25 (1-1)
The 33-point shellacking handed down by the Cavaliers made Rick Carlisle “sick to his stomach.” Hopefully the Mavs’ 30-point victory the next time out made the head coach feel a bit better. As displayed in those two games, Dallas might have the greatest distance between its ceiling and floor among West contenders.
10. Los Angeles Clippers
RECORD: 42-25 (2-2)
It’s tough to imagine the Clippers’ bench not becoming its undoing this postseason. There are simply too many weak links and not enough spark plugs. Glen Davis and Nate Robinson aren’t who they were in 2010, Hedo Turkoglu is long past his prime and Austin Rivers is miscast as a third guard on a contender.
11. New Orleans Pelicans
RECORD: 36-30 (2-1)
Norris Cole barely registered a blip on the trade deadline radar, but he’s been a steal for the Pelicans. New Orleans is 9-3 since dealing for Cole, who is averaging 10.1 points and 3.7 assists in 27.3 minutes per game.
12. Chicago Bulls
RECORD: 40-28 (1-3)
The banged-up Bulls are emptying the tank with Derrick Rose, Jimmy Butler and Taj Gibson sidelined, but it’s still not enough. Tom Thibodeau’s previously deep-dish bench has been stretched impossibly thin, with Nikola Mirotic moonlighting as a No. 1 option, Aaron Brooks starting at point guard and E’Twaun Moore toeing 30 minutes Sunday.
13. Indiana Pacers
RECORD: 30-35 (2-1)
Indiana’s outlook this season is entirely dependent on whether Paul George comes back and what he looks like. With the recovering star “on the fence” about playing this season, the Pacers will remain between solid and sleeper as well.
14. Washington Wizards
RECORD: 38-28 (3-0)
Ripping off three straight wins by an average of 20.6 points is a good sign for a team that hasn’t had much to smile about in months. Washington was at its best last week, playing like the capable two-way squad it looked like when it began the season 19-6.
15. Utah Jazz
RECORD: 29-36 (3-0)
In addition to leading the NBA in defensive efficiency since the trade deadline, the Jazz are also holding opponents to just 18.1% shooting from three-point range over that span.
16. Toronto Raptors
RECORD: 39-27 (1-2)
Toronto held Miami to just 92 points after allowing opponents to top 100 points in its previous eight games. It probably isn’t a great sign that the Raptors’ best defensive effort in weeks came with Jonas Valanciunas in street clothes and Tyler Hansbrough starting at center.
17. Boston Celtics
RECORD: 29-36 (4-0)
Brad Stevens continues to save his best work for March. The Celtics have won four straight and six of their last seven, taking down some of the hottest teams in the league in Indiana, Utah and New Orleans. Three months after dealing Rajon Rondo, the Celtics now find themselves on the cusp of an unlikely playoff berth (1/2 game back leading into Monday).
18. Phoenix Suns
RECORD: 35-33 (1-2)
Phoenix was 29-22 in games this season that Eric Bledsoe and Goran Dragic started in together. The Suns are just 5-11 in all other games. Despite the Kentucky connection, it’ll take time for Bledsoe and Brandon Knight to develop the same chemistry and familiarity with each other’s games.
19. Milwaukee Bucks
RECORD: 34-32 (1-3)
Despite going just 4-9 since the trade deadline, Milwaukee’s defense remains one of the stingiest in the league, ranking No. 5 in defensive efficiency. It’s the team’s offense, which ranks dead last, that’s keeping it from playing .500 basketball.
20. Charlotte Hornets
RECORD: 29-35 (1-2)
Kemba Walker came off the bench in his first two games back from a knee injury and shot just 6-of-23 from the field. With Mo Williams still on fire and Charlotte winning seven of its last 10, the Hornets can be patient with Walker as he rounds back into shape.
21. Miami Heat
RECORD: 29-36 (1-2)
Hassan Whiteside’s ejection last week was an ugly reminder why the talented center has always been shrouded in red flags. Whiteside is a rare talent, but those types of flare-ups won’t be tolerated in Miami—just ask Dwyane Wade—or anywhere else.
22. Denver Nuggets
RECORD: 26-41 (4-0)
Maybe any new voice would have reignited Denver’s dead locker room, but Melvin Hunt has been the perfect one so far. While Brian Shaw failed to connect with his players, Hunt has struck a strong chord with the underachieving bunch, leading to as many wins (six) in two weeks than Denver had in the previous two months. Hunt is succeeding by pushing the tempo and keeping things light while getting his players to go all out.
23. Brooklyn Nets
RECORD: 26-38 (1-2)
A matchup with the 76ers put a merciful end to the Nets’ five-game losing streak. Brooklyn, which started the season 16-16 but has gone 10-22 since, is dangerously close of falling out of the East playoff race due to a miserable start to the month.
24. Sacramento Kings
RECORD: 22-43 (1-3)
DeMarcus Cousins has only been ejected from one game this season, but he leads the league with 4.1 fouls per game and fouled out of his 10th game of the season Saturday. The Kings’ star gets plenty of flack for picking up technicals (10 already this season after vowing to only collect five), but the personal fouls have been just as costly.
25. Orlando Magic
RECORD: 21-47 (0-4)
Elfrid Payton’s rookie year started off hairy, but the 20-year-old is finding his footing with the Magic. Payton has averaged 12.4 points, 7.5 assists and 4.8 rebounds in eight games this month and has looked much more controlled on the offensive end.
26. Detroit Pistons
RECORD: 23-43 (0-4)
Detroit is a dreadful 1-11 since trading for Reggie Jackson. The Pistons were playoff dark horses after winning seven straight on the heels of Josh Smith’s release, but their current 10-game skid has put an end to that storyline.
27. Los Angeles Lakers
RECORD: 17-48 (1-3)
Byron Scott is losing his patience with the Lakers’ struggles, but the front office has to be quietly pleased. With one month remaining in the regular season, L.A. has the fourth-worst record in the league and a good chance of keeping its top-5 protected pick owed to Philadelphia.
28. New York Knicks
RECORD: 13-53 (1-4)
It’s not a good sign that Tim Hardaway Jr. and Cleanthony Early are struggling to hold down starting jobs on the void-of-talent Knicks. Neither has given Derek Fisher much reason to keep them there, leading to Lance Thomas and Alexey Shved starting the last five games.
29. Minnesota Timberwolves
RECORD: 14-51 (0-4)
With Ricky Rubio, Nikola Pekovic and Kevin Garnett all banged up, the Wolves are in an all-too-familiar position of playing shorthanded.
30. Philadelphia 76ers
RECORD: 15-51 (1-2)
Thomas Robinson has pulled down double-digit rebounds in three straight games (an average of 12.6 per) despite averaging just 18.3 minutes. It’s time for the 76ers to give the 2012 lottery pick an extended look. Philly has already started 18 players this season, what’s 19?