NBA Power Rankings: The Hornets Are Buzzing In The East

Monday December 12th, 2016

The first quarter of the NBA season can be a little awkward sometimes: enough has happened that we have stuff to talk about, but not enough that we have new things to discuss, and the sample sizes are significant, but still heavily influenced by hot streaks. We’ve handed out fake awards and presented the real awards, but it’s still not even Christmas yet.

We’ll get to this week’s Power Rankings in a second, but let’s start with a quick statistical tidbit—one that we can actually assert with certainty. You may have noticed just from watching a game or two, but right now, we’re looking at the most offensive-minded NBA of the modern era. All but six teams are averaging 100 points per game this season, which is on pace to be the highest-scoring campaign since 1992–93. According to the league, we’re watching the fastest average pace of play in at least the last two decades. More three-pointers are going up than ever, and you’ll find that the teams shooting them the best are generally toward the top of these Power Rankings. 

In the spirit of fast basketball, this is a fast intro. And now it’s over.

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David Zalubowski/AP Photo

30. Brooklyn Nets (6–16)

Last Week: 29
Net Rating: -8.6

This is actually the first time this season the Nets have come in last, so that’s kind of a success.

29. Philadelphia 76ers (6–18)

Last Week: 30
Net Rating: -8.1

Philly’s not any good, but they’re starting to play teams a little closer, for whatever that’s worth. Spoiler alert: it’s not worth much.

28. Dallas Mavericks (5–18)

Last Week: 28
Net Rating: -7.9

Mark Cuban says he’ll only trade his first-rounder this year for a top-five player in the entire NBA… good luck with that one, man.

27. Miami Heat (7–17)

Last Week: 25
Net Rating: -3.9

Goran Dragic has really turned it on over his last eight games, and looks healthy, which means we’re probably in for three months of Dragic trade rumors.

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26. Minnesota Timberwolves (6–18)

Last Week: 26
Net Rating: -3.1

Things aren’t going great, but here’s another super-fun Wolves highlight. Anyone checked on Tom Thibodeau?

25. Los Angeles Lakers (10–16)

Last Week: 18
Net Rating: -6.8

Okay, no more benefit of the doubt, but that first month was fun. Lou Williams is going off every night right now, so… it’s still sort of fun.

24. Phoenix Suns (7–17)

Last Week: 27
Net Rating: -5.0

Eric Bledsoe turned 27 this week, which is weird, because I feel like he just left Kentucky, and that’s probably because he’s spent four (!) years toiling away in Phoenix. Point being, of the league’s less successful teams, the Suns roster the strangest potpourri of career phase. The sooner they can sort through the pieces, the better.

23. New Orleans Pelicans (8–17)

Last Week: 21
Net Rating: -3.6

It's fair to think that little four-game win streak was a mirage.

22. Orlando Magic (10–15)

Last Week: 20
Net Rating: -5.6

There were rumors this week that the Magic are looking to add offense via trade. You don’t say…

David Zalubowski/AP Photo

21. Denver Nuggets (9–15)

Last Week: 22
Net Rating: -4.0

The Nuggets are not that good, but this whole bottom tier of teams has been so downright awful lately that this part of the exercise is more a matter of preference. There are a few Nuggets positives: they lead the entire league in rebounds and rebound percentage, nabbing 54.1% of available boards and working both ends of the glass exceptionally well. There are young guys with a chance to be pretty good—Jamal Murray and Emmanuel Mudiay were solid prospects, neither is of legal drinking age. Wilson Chandler has bounced back fully from injury, and Nikola Jokic has looked more like last year’s player (13 points/9.1 boards/3.9 assists in his last seven should assuage some early concerns).

Obviously, little of this has translated into wins. They turn the ball over a lot and don’t force many turnovers themselves, which has a lot to do with the youth of the backcourt, but also speaks to the personnel—there’s not a name on the roster you’d really label as “defensive-minded.” Maybe Gary Harris. They’re also 3–7 at home. Maybe it’s the altitude. Much of the Nuggets commotion (if you can call it that) has stemmed more from an overloaded roster than anything else. Armchair GMs have been trading Danilo Gallinari and Kenneth Faried for two years, and you can add Chandler to that mix. But the presence of the sorts of guys you could conceivably plug into and improve Contender X does not a contender make.

But those sorts of guy can contribute to perception. If they’re sort of on the verge of should-be eight-seed territory, is it okay for Denver to wind back up picking in the (currently good-looking) lottery? The answer is yes: literally every key player will be back on the books next season save for Gallinari, who has a player option. Should the team be playing better? That’s more debatable. But the point is this: with a host of manageable contracts and vets to eventually trade, the Nuggets do have some flexibility to cushion the patience they’ll need to sift through the development of all these first-rounders. The difference between bottoming all the way out and being patient with mediocrity isn’t as rigid as critics think. Did the Sixers going full-tank ruin the way we think about every rebuilding team for the next decade? Really, no two processes are alike.

20. Sacramento Kings (8–15)

Last Week: 23
Net Rating: -3.1

The Kings are 4–6 with a net rating just below zero over their last 10 games. It often comes down to execution with this team, and it hasn’t been happening.

19. Washington Wizards (9–13)

Last Week: 24
Net Rating: -2.0

Washington has turned to Kelly Oubre of late and has found some success committing to smaller lineups. That all underscores how vexing the big contracts for Ian Mahinmi (injured) and Andrew Nicholson (marginalized) look in hindsight.

18. Portland Trailblazers (12–13)

Last Week: 16
Net Rating: -2.3

The defensively-challenged Blazers are at a bit of a crossroads, and pull the Clippers and Thunder back-to-back, then the Warriors later this week. Things might get worse before they get better.

17. Atlanta Hawks (12–12)

Last week: 17
Net Rating: -0.7

Two wins this week is a start, but I wonder at what point it behooves them to shop Paul Millsap, who has another year on his contract and turns 32 in February. I can think of a half-dozen playoff-type teams that would benefit.

16. Indiana Pacers (12–12)

Last Week: 19
Net Rating: -2.7

The happy Pacers storyline amidst a rough start to the season has been the growth of Myles Turner, who Rob Mahoney detailed last week, expertly as usual.

15. Milwaukee Bucks (11–11)

Last Week: 10
Net Rating: +2.0

Apparently Jägermeister—yep—wants to prevent the Bucks from trademarking their very similar logo. Which is whatever, because we can all get drunk off Giannis anyway.

14. Detroit Pistons (13–13)

Last Week: 12
Net Rating: +1.9

Honestly, I was getting ready to write nice stuff about the Pistons until they lost by 18 to the Sixers on Sunday.

13. New York Knicks (14–10)

Last Week: 15
Net Rating: -2.8

I caught the Knicks and Cavs (mostly the Cavs) in Manhattan on Wednesday. I left with some thoughts, and also left in the fourth quarter after Kay Felder checked in for Cleveland, and before this happened.

It feels like this thing is hanging by the thread of clean health at all times, with Rose dinged up and the bench markedly shallow. Nobody entered the season under the illusion the Knicks would be defensive stalwarts, but this is a team that moreover runs thin and lacks lineup versatility even when healthy. There are too many centers, not much size on the perimeter, and Brandon Jennings works okay as a reserve, but not for 30 minutes a night when Rose can’t go.

Kristaps Porzingis has been largely as good as advertised on offense, and without him, the Knicks would most likely be toast, but even he raises a couple questions on the defensive end. New York’s high-profile additions haven’t sapped the touches he needs, but after watching Kevin Love run around and torch him spotting up on what felt like one out of every three plays, I tend to think he needs to play exclusively center, maybe not this year, but long-term. Teams are going smaller as scoring goes up around the league, and the Knicks have looked leaner and more dynamic when they can open the floor up. In many ways, the stretch-five is the new stretch-four in the NBA, and 7’3” Kristaps is that, more than anything.

It’s tough to think about after sinking money long-term into Joakim Noah, but even this season, sliding everyone down a position more often could be beneficial. Then again, the Knicks have won (six of seven) anyway. Objectively, this has gone great!

12. Chicago Bulls (13–10)

Last Week: 8
Net Rating: +2.7

It feels like we know who the Bulls are now, capable of beating way better teams when the effort is there, and prone to giving away winnable games when things aren’t clicking. This is still a way better product than anyone gave them credit for in the off-season.

11. Boston Celtics (13–11)

Last Week: 11

Net Rating: +2.1

The Celtics are plugging along, but what I really needed was an excuse to share this insane Larry Bird 60th birthday mix.

I’d apologize to Celtics fans, but no Celtics fan should ever get mad about Bird, anyway. His career highlights go toe to toe with any player ever. Seriously, watch that whole thing.

10. Oklahoma City Thunder (15–9)

Last Week: 9
Net Rating: +1.4

Russell Westbrook’s triple double streak ended at seven, but seeing guys like Jerian Grant, Joffrey Lauvergne and Semaj Christon have moments this week was encouraging. That sentence says a lot about the nature of this Thunder season.

Chuck Burton/AP Photos

9. Charlotte Hornets (14–10)

Last Week: 13
Net Rating: +3.3

Beyond Cleveland and Toronto, the Eastern Conference has been a mess to sort through so far. Standing to benefit are the Charlotte Hornets, who for the second straight season are hanging their hats on defensive effort and measured offense and appear more on track than most of their peers to slide comfortably toward the post-season. 

The Hornets have the league’s best turnover ratio (11.7 per 100 possessions). This year, they’re playing slightly faster while taking better care of the basketball and clock in eighth in net rating, sixth in defensive rating, fourth in rebounds per game and third in assist percentage (62.7% of made baskets). You wouldn’t guess it, but they also lead the East in free throw attempts per game. It’s a sum-of-its parts job anchored by the excellent Steve Clifford, and it’s a formula that, from a hard statistical standpoint, tends to point to sustainable winning. Charlotte’s won six of nine going into this week’s four-game road swing.

Kemba Walker, who appears to have dodged an injury, is worthy of an All-Star bid, taking huge leaps forward in shooting and scoring in his sixth season. The distinction between Walker and another score-first point like Damian Lillard isn’t quite as wide as you’d think. There’s no C.J. McCollum to guide second units, but Nicolas Batum’s playmaking and a wealth of usable bigs, most of whom can shoot, help mitigate the off-court scoring problems. On/off court data requires context, but the fact in itself that Cody Zeller has had the biggest impact in that area (an +11.9 team net rating with him, -3.7 without him) is also worth noting. The Hornets probably aren’t a top 10 team on raw talent, but with their cohesion and a style of play that fits, they certainly can be. I’m comfy penciling them in third in the conference right now. Smile, M.J.

8. Utah Jazz (15–10)

Last Week: 7
Net Rating: +6.6

If you missed it, check out Andrew Sharp’s Q&A with Rodney Hood, who continues to emerge as a valuable piece on an intriguing team.

7. Memphis Grizzlies (17–8)

Last Week: 14
Net Rating: +0.2

It’s aliiiiiiiiiive. Not even the Grizzlies thought it would be going this well without Mike Conley, but this is six wins in a row, including the Warriors. Also… Memphis is now 12–0 in games that end up within three points or less in the final minute this season. Food for thought.

6. LA Clippers (17–7)

Last week: 3
Net Rating: +9.8

The Clips endure their annual smackdown by the Warriors, then Chris Paul comes back with 20 points, 20 assists and no turnovers the next game. Go figure.

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5. Houston Rockets (17–7)

Last Week: 6
Net Rating: +5.8

Houston is now at six straight wins after that double-OT battle at Golden State, and 11–2 since Patrick Beverley came back. Either this is going a little too well, or Mike D’Antoni will end up in the Coach of the Year conversation.

4. San Antonio Spurs (19–5)

Last week: 4
Net Rating: +6.5

Tim Duncan retirement update: he got a massive back tattoo. Spurs update: Pop is mad about their effort, but they’re mostly fine.

3. Toronto Raptors (16–7)

Last Week: 2
Net Rating: +9.8

They lost to the Cavs by four, but have still won a convincing eight of nine. On a non-basketball note, I kind of wish they’d wear those blue Huskies throwbacks every night.

2. Cleveland Cavaliers (17–5)

Last Week: 5
Net Rating: +7.3

I caught the Cavs at MSG this week, and the guy behind me in the stands could not stop talking about how the “old Kevin Love” is back. It would have been annoying if he wasn’t essentially right.

1. Golden State Warriors (21–4)

Last Week: 1
Net Rating: +11.9

Gonna excuse that weird 21-point rout by the beat-up Grizzlies, and move on.

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