NBA Power Poll: Part Three

The conclusion to a way-too-long three part NBA Power Poll.

9: Dallas Mavericks
I saw Dallas in person two and a half weeks ago in Miami. Four Maverick related tidbits stood out over just about everything else:

1:  Shawn Marion’s jump shot is just as screwy looking in person as it looks it television. In fact, three Mavericks fans were sitting behind us, and when Marion launched a jumper that clanged off the rim, one of them said simply, “I hate when he shoots.”

2: Gal Mekel looked like he went from playing intramural games in college to playing in the NBA.

3: Monta Ellis is really, really fast. Like, really fast.

4: Dirk Nowitzki is still very good. He played exceptionally well against the Heat (28 points and 6 boards) and was just as good of a shooter in warm ups as you’d expect. I went to the game with my parents (avid Heat fans) and my girlfriend (becoming a basketball fan whether she likes it or not) and my girlfriend commented during warm ups that “the big white guy doesn’t miss.” That’s Dirk Nowitzki for you.

Anyway, I like the Mavs more than I expected would. Seeing them in person swung me on their season, even in a loss.

Nov 29, 2013; Oklahoma City, OK, USA; Oklahoma City Thunder center Kendrick Perkins (5) blocks a shot attempt by Golden State Warriors point guard Stephen Curry (30) during the first quarter at Chesapeake Energy Arena. Mandatory Credit: Mark D. Smith-USA TODAY Sports

8: Golden State Warriors
Back in late October I offered up both of my ankles to the ankle-sprain-prone Stephen Curry if that would ensure that he could stay healthy throughout his career. Less than one month later I suffered my first ever sprained ankle. For those of you that haven’t experienced it, it’s zero fun, sir. Take my word for it. It’s been about two weeks and even though I’m really itching to get back into some pick-up games, I’m still iffy about playing basketball any time soon. I have it in my head how uncomfortable it is to be laying on the ground, foot pounding, feeling like you’re being electrocuted. If my offering didn’t help and Curry ends up spraining an ankle for the 78th time since his junior season at Davidson, I’ll feel for him more now than ever before, and not just because I went through that pain. Curry has missed a couple of games already this year and the Warriors don’t look remotely similar to how they look with Curry running the show. When healthy, the Golden State offense looks like a juggernaut; great passers, athletic perimeter players, knock down shooters shooting wide open threes. It’s a fun experience to catch them on League Pass when they are rolling. But there lies the problem. That dreaded “when healthy” tag that is all the more dreadful for Golden State given how prone to injury they seem to be. Curry’s back but as we’ve seen, that could be temporary… the story is the same for Andrew Bogut. Now Andre Iguodala, who has fit in seamlessly in Golden State, is sidelined with a hamstring strain. It’s a month into the season. Great teams aren’t supposed to be this banged up so early, are they?

7: Houston Rockets
Forgive me for not allowing myself to be fully immersed in the Rockets hype machine, but despite a 13-5 start, I can’t put them any higher than 7th in my power rankings. With arguably the best center and best shooting guard in the league you would think that would be the case. Unless things go completely awry over the next five months and Kevin McHale becomes the next Dwight Howard casualty, the Rockets will likely enter the playoffs as one of the co-favorites in the Western Conference just because they are trot Dwight and the Beard out there every night. Just remember, Dwight is a mediocre post scorer, a late game offensive liability, a historically poor free throw shooter, and more of an average defender than transcendent one. And speaking of transcendent defenders, James Harden is transcendently bad at defense.

This might sound like I’m picking nits or maybe even allowing a little bit of bias in my ranking considering the Rockets have the highest scoring offense in the league, but think of it this way: If you’re picking a title favorite, one that you are betting your life on, do you really want to put all of your eggs in the Rockets basket, knowing that at the end of any close game you’re getting a useless Dwight Howard and a more than a few James Harden step back jumpers to close things out? I wouldn’t be too comfortable knowing that was my fate.

Worth mentioning: the other day I got a text message from my friend and former roommate Tyler asking me, “Would you agree that the Rockets haven’t been this good since Yao and T-Mac ran shit?” I would agree that they haven’t been as relevant since then, and sure, not as good either. But suggesting that Yao and T-Mac or this current version of the Rockets is running shit would be false advertising. The Yao and T-Mac led Rockets made the playoffs in four out of five years together, advanced past the 1st round only once, and poor McGrady wasn’t even playing during that postseason. The funny thing is, this version of the Rockets might have the same ceiling that the Yao/T-Mac Rockets had. The depth of the conference and the inadequacies of the team might keep the Rockets from being any more than what Yao and McGrady were; a memorable team, but not a great one… and definitely not one that “ran shit.”

6: Los Angeles Clippers
I could spend one thousand words talking about the Clippers, or I could make a long story short and say that Chris Paul is the MVP through one month, and the Clippers will only go as far as he can carry them.

5: Portland Trailblazers
We’ve got to give credit where credit is due. The record states that the Portland Trailblazers are one of the five best teams in the league, even if it seems a little far-fetched that the Blazers could actually contend in the Western Conference this year. They protected home court against San Antonio and Chicago, and went on the road to defeat Golden State and Denver (two teams very much in the playoff picture, and two teams with notable home court advantages). I know you’re probably not sold, but there are three things the Blazers do/have that make me think that this might be a team that plays into May, rather than a team that provides an early footnote to the season because of an eleven game winning streak.

1: They shoot extremely well from distance, knocking down 157 on the season and shooting nearly 42%, third best in the league. If you don’t think that is vital, go back and watch the 2011 Dallas Mavericks. They caught fire in the postseason and brought home Larry.

2: Even though the novice NBA observer might not have heard of him, LaMarcus Aldridge is a legitimate late game scoring option. He’s quietly consistent and someone you can count on to get a late game bucket. If you’re going to play into May and June, you need that guy. A guy who you can rely on to for one game, one quarter, be the best guy on the floor. Aldridge’s ability to score in the paint or step outside makes him a candidate to be that guy. And to be fair, Aldridge isn’t the only late game scoring option. Damian Lillard, Wes Matthews and Nic Batum have only had their moments late in games.

3: Portland couldn’t contend without fixing their non-existent bench from a year ago (to really emphasize how bad their bench was, I would safely say it was one of the worst things about the NBA last year), but it’s the starting five that makes the Blazers a top five team in the league. The Aldridge, Lillard, Matthews, Batum, and Robin Lopez grouping is statistically one of the best five man units in basketball. They play well together, make sense from an X’s and O’s standpoint, and with the exception of Lopez, they took their lumps together last season. Aldridge, Lillard, Matthews and Batum all logged huge minutes and carried huge responsibility last season, and struggled to a 32-50 record. It won’t be another 32-50 season this year.

4: Oklahoma City Thunder
Off to a stronger start than I expected mainly because of Russell Westbrook’s return.  Something still seems a little off with the Oklahoma City Thunder though. Maybe it’s those putrid dark blue uniforms they opt to wear every so often (if they are going to wear alternate jerseys, they should rock some green and yellow uni’s to pay homage to the Sonics, and to piss off the future Seattle fan base), or maybe it’s the residue of the sour taste that was left in my mouth after the James Harden trade. I understand that it’s been over a year and just like after a break up with a girlfriend, I should be over it by now. But damn, can you just imagine Harden on the Thunder, adding a vital third scoring option and injury insurance which might be necessary in the postseason.

For the time being, the Durant/Westbrook combination will rack up a ton of wins, put up a ton of points, and make a lot of highlight reel plays in the regular season even if there are notable weaknesses elsewhere in Oklahoma City. Those two alone are capable of making an otherwise ordinary Thunder team extraordinary at times (seriously, I dare you to look at the rest of the roster and try to tell me they are anything but ordinary outside of Durant and Westbrook). Ibaka is in the ideal situation for a player with his skill set—really all he has to do is block shots and knock down open jumpers which come quite frequently given the attention that Durant and Westbrook attract. The shooting guard position is being held down by Thabo Sefolosha and Jeremy Lamb, a duo that is less inspiring than it looks on paper when you consider the Harden deal still lingering in the air AND Kevin Martin’s redemption in Minnesota. The only silver lining beyond the KD/Westbrook duo and Ibaka’s nice start to the season is rookie center Steven Adams, who is getting a ton of love lately because it’s impossible to be a less useful center than Kendrick Perkins has been for Oklahoma City. It probably sounds like I’m piling up on the Thunder, but they are very much one of the best teams in the league… even if it’s a team that is being held together by two men.

3: San Antonio Spurs
Same old story: the Spurs are quietly kicking ass in the purest fashion, yet not flamboyant enough to attract mainstream attention. We haven’t seen the Kawhi Leonard leap yet. Tony Parker has been good, but nothing better than what we’ve come to expect, and Tim Duncan is off to a slow start. Maybe when the Spurs are atop the Western Conference in late March and Pop starts sitting Duncan and Ginobili because they are “old” everyone will notice the Spurs. Just know that the boring old Spurs are the favorites in the West to reach the Finals, if only because they know how to play together so well and Pop is doing a masterful job managing minutes early on. I’ll credit my cousin Gianni for showing me that Tony Parker is the only Spurs player averaging more than 30 minutes per game, and he’s just a shade over. That’s just incredible. But what else should we expect from Pop and the Spurs at this point? They’re like Michael Myers. They’ll never die.

Nov 19, 2013; Miami, FL, USA; Miami Heat small forward LeBron James (6) reacts during the second half against the Atlanta Hawks at American Airlines Arena. Mandatory Credit: Steve Mitchell-USA TODAY Sports

2: Miami Heat
Forgive me for stating the obvious, but the Miami Heat have won back to back NBA Titles. They ran off twenty-seven wins in a row last year. Any logical and sound human being would agree that they employ the best basketball player on the planet. And it seems as if people are tired of talking about them. The Heat might not even be one of the top five most talked about teams in the league this year when they probably should be. Don’t mistake this for a Heat fan complaining. I don’t really care whether anyone pays attention to the Heat. Love them, hate them, don’t care about them… it’s doesn’t matter to me even a little bit. But you can’t dispute the facts I presented already, and you also can’t really disagree that Miami is the sleeping giant of the NBA. They’re rather quietly playing excellent basketball and currently boast the longest winning streak in the NBA, one in which LeBron James has found his form, kicked all kinds of ass, and made the thought of a 60-50-80 shooting season possible. He’s at 60 percent from the field, 49 percent from downtown and 80% from the free throw line. If he keeps this up for an entire 82 game season and he doesn’t win the MVP unanimously, I will turn my video camera on, spend 20 minutes trying to shove my head up my ass and post the video on YouTube, titling it “I couldn’t shove my head up my ass, but clearly someone voting for the MVP got theirs up there.”

Ultimately, a third straight title comes down to LeBron once again putting on a cape and becoming a superhero every so often, but I would be foolish not to mention a supporting cast that has allowed Miami to retain “offensive juggernaut” status. Bosh and Wade remain efficient offensively, which is really all I’m going to ask for out of each of them this year. The rest of the Heatles fall perfectly in place along with the Big Three. Ray Allen still makes three’s. Shane Battier still takes charges. Birdman is still doing Birdman things. And new edition Michael Beasley might have finally found a perfect fit. Together they’re playing unselfish, efficient, and entertaining basketball. Vegas has the Heat as the title favorites, and rightfully so. But don’t sleep on an Eastern Conference foe that is reloaded and ready to take the East crown.

1: Indiana Pacers
The small market savior that has become the biggest bully on the block just about overnight. No team has looked as dominant this year as the Indiana Pacers have, and no I haven’t forgotten to take into account that they’ve faced one of the easiest schedules thus far. Maybe once a more difficult stretch of the schedule pops up their dominance will subside, but up until now they’ve been takin’ care of business like Bachman-Turner Overdrive. Defensively they’re elite, and their offense has improved enough that it feels like they can comfortably hang with an offensive machine like Miami if their defense happens to fail them. And really, all they needed to do was construct a team that could beat the Heat.

Over the last two postseasons the Pacers have tested Miami in the postseason, jumping to a 2-1 series lead in 2012, and taking the Heat to a seventh game in the Eastern Conference Finals last year. It didn’t feel like Miami was in danger of going down either time though. Now it’s changed. They’ve had a taste of a deep playoff run now. They added depth to the bench to hang with the Heat bench. They’re big enough and physical enough to give the faster Heat problems. They even have a star in Paul George who has achieved superstar status, and he won’t be afraid to go toe to toe with LeBron. Maybe I’m paying too much attention to Miami in this Pacers write up, but the fact remains that if you can beat Miami, you can beat anyone. The Pacers can beat anyone.