If you missed Part One of the Saving the Skyhook Post All-Star Break Power Rankings, you can check out it here. Let’s get to Part Two!
19: New Orleans Pelicans
All Star Weekend was in New Orleans this year… who were the biggest winners of the weekend?
John Wall- The Slam Dunk Contest was as bad as it ever has been up until the last minute, when John Wall salvaged the night with a double-pump reverse slam after jumping over the Wizards mascot. If that weren’t enough, Wall played well in his first All-Star Game appearance, led all Eastern Conference bench players in scoring, and even grabbed some 4th quarter minutes. More on John Wall in a bit.
Tim Hardaway Jr. vs. Dion Waiters- Andre Drummond’s 30 point and 25 rebound stat line was MVP worthy, but the moment that will be remembered in years to come—wait, do people actually remember things from the Rising Stars Challenge—is the Hardaway/Waiters duel in the 2nd half that was good enough to get Kevin Durant and James Harden out of their seats. By the way… does anyone find it a little curious that Russell Westbrook wasn’t with those two? Any chance Durant ends up in Houston? Jalen Rose thinks so.
Taco Bell Skills Challenge- Easily the most entertaining competition from start to finish on All-Star Saturday Night. It helps that the final two teams were separated by one tenth of a second.
Kyrie Irving- There were quite a few stand out performances on Sunday night, but Kyrie’s MVP performance was the best. 14-17 shooting is incredible and so is his 31-5-14 stat line. The most telling thing about the All-Star Game is that ten years down the road I’ll remember a twenty-one year old Kyrie Irving as the best player in the most talent packed game of the year. Maybe ten years from now that will make a whole bunch of sense.
18: New York Knicks
Is there any reason other than Carmelo Anthony why the New York Knicks would make the playoffs?
Well the Eastern Conference sucks, so there’s that. But no, Melo is basically the lone entity keeping the Knicks alive and in the hunt for a spot in the postseason. I’m not the biggest Carmelo Anthony guy, but I’ve been really impressed by the way he’s played this year. Sure, you could make the argument that he still doesn’t make any of his teammates better and that if you replaced him with LeBron or Durant the Knicks would probably be at least ten games better, but they would be ten games worse without him. He plays hard every night, scores a ton of points and makes it look easy, works his ass off on the offensive glass, and is doing all of this while contending with the whispers regarding where he may or may not play next season. Before the season began I thought that there was a good chance that the Knicks season could come crashing down like it was Oceanic Flight 815. I was right, but to my surprise Carmelo has handled the frustrating fifty game start extremely well. He’s kept his mouth shut and kept playing at a high level. I question how long it could last though. Just like there was a chance that the Knicks season would come crashing down like Oceanic Flight 815, there is a chance that the “Where will Carmelo play next season” media circus continues to grow until Melo turns into the Black Smoke Monster and brings down Madison Square Garden with him.
17: Minnesota Timberwolves
Is Minnesota just one of those “fun to watch, but just not good” teams?
It’s sad to say this because for a while there appeared to be some hope that they could develop into something more, but this is their ceiling. There are two major problems if you’re a Timberwolves fan:
I: Back in my November power rankings I had the Minnesota Timberwolves ranked 10th, and I said if they were going to remain a top ten team and eventually become a legitimate playoff team, four things needed to happen. First, Kevin Martin needed to continue playing at the level he was then. Second, Rick Rubio needed to stop shooting 35% from the field. Third, the bench needed to be existent. And fourth, Kevin Love needed to continue to evolve. Well, three months later none of those things have happened. Kevin Martin, granted he’s having a nice season, has come back down to earth in comparison to how he started the season. Rick Rubio has bumped his shooting percentage up from 35 to 36 percent… not exactly the improvement necessary. Bench production is still non-existent, even with the addition of Chase Budinger. And Kevin Love—let it be known I love Kevin Love for a myriad of reasons—just hasn’t evolved yet. As much as I hate to say it, Love, like the Wolves, might be one of those really fun to watch guys who puts up huge stats, but isn’t quite equipped to be the man on a great team. He’s a below average defender and he isn’t able to get himself efficient shots, especially late in games. Speaking of late in games…
II: You’re familiar with the phrase “defense wins championships,” right? Well, Minnesota’s defense certainly won’t win them a championship any time soon as long as it isn’t winning them any close games. The Timberwolves are a league worst 2-13 in games decided by five points or less, and any statistical evaluation would justify that record. Minnesota’s “clutch” offense—“clutch” stats are accumulated in situations where there are five minutes or less left in the game and neither is leading by more than five points—has been no better just about average all year long. Defensively, it’s been like a 39 car pile-up that also led to a devastating train crash. According to NBA.com, Minnesota’s field goal percentage defense is worst in the league in the last five minutes (49%), two minutes (47%), one minute (52%) and thirty seconds (56%) of games where the lead is no larger than five points either way.
16: Brooklyn Nets
Jason Kidd’s drink spilling incident seems like it was ten years ago, doesn’t it?
Yes, but somehow it seems like just yesterday that my television screen was being bombarded by his wife and gigantic headed son sitting in the front row at his games. I’m not totally sure how that works. I’m also not sure how Kidd managed to right the ship in Brooklyn, because it looked like a really murky situation back around Thanksgiving. It looked even murkier when Brook Lopez broke his foot right before Christmas. But since Lopez went down, Kidd has the Nets playing really good basketball. Not to say that there is a direct correlation between Lopez’s injury and the Nets success, but Lopez’s injury has allowed Brooklyn to play an effective small ball style that has them right back in the thick of things in the Eastern Conference playoff picture. And no, that isn’t saying much.
15: Atlanta Hawks
How much differently would we feel about the Atlanta Hawks if Al Horford weren’t out with a torn pectoral muscle?
Simply because of the landscape of the Eastern Conference, we probably wouldn’t feel that much differently. They definitely wouldn’t crack the top two, and I can’t really envision them taking more than one game in a 2nd round series against either the Heat or the Pacers. That’s not meant to be any disrespect towards Horford or the Hawks. Al Horford is a top 30 player in the league and head coach Mike Budenholzer has done a terrific job in his first year at the helm in Atlanta. The issue is Horford is out for the season and Budenholzer is working with a decent team, but definitely not one talented enough to contend with the two big guns in the Eastern Conference. With a healthy Horford in the lineup I would’ve slated Atlanta as the three seed in the Eastern Conference, especially considering we now know how nicely Eastern Conference All-Star Paul Millsap would fit in. But really, what’s the difference between the third best team and the sixth best team in a conference race where the top two horses are eight lengths ahead of the rest of the horses in the field?
14: Washington Wizards
Five years from now, will the Wizards be the best team in the Eastern Conference?
It’s really early to make a statement like this given how quickly things can change and players can move around in this league, but they have to be considered one of the favorites given the backcourt duo they already have in place to build around. John Wall is only 23 years old and Bradley Beal can’t even buy a round of drinks for his teammates yet. Still, they make up one of the best and most exciting backcourts in the Eastern Conference. Five years from now every other Wizards player might be somewhere else—retired, another team, D-League, etc.—but I’ll have confidence in Washington as an Eastern Conference playoff team as long as Wall and Beal are there.
13: Toronto Raptors
Are the Raptors really the third best team in the Eastern Conference?
Their record says so, but I still have my doubts. If you’ve been keeping track, I have the Raptors fourth in the Eastern Conference right behind the Chicago Bulls, only because there is nothing that tells me the Raptors have the extra gear necessary to win crucial playoff games. Last year the shorthanded Bulls gutted out a Game 7 win in the 1st Round at Brooklyn and stole Game 1 of the very next series against the soon to be champions Miami Heat. Is Toronto capable of winning back to back games like that? Right now I would say they aren’t, but what proof is there either way? And besides that, what do I know? I had the Raptors slated for 27 wins before the season began and they’ve already surpassed that, so you can’t take my word for it.
Maybe there is something behind this “Get rid of Rudy Gay and become a better team” trend that seems to be building. Even though Gay has been playing career best basketball in Sacramento, he clearly wasn’t the answer up North. If anything, he was getting in the way of guys like Kyle Lowry, DeMar DeRozan, and Terrence Ross. Just look at the numbers of each of those three guys before and after the Gay trade.
Lowry before: 14.8 points, 3.5 rebounds, 6.7 assists, 1.8 steals, 42% Field Goal
Lowry after: 17.8 points, 5.0 rebounds, 8.1 assists, 1.5 steals, 44% Field Goal
DeRozan before: 21.6 points, 3.8 rebounds, 2.8 assists, 1.2 steals, 43% Field Goal
DeRozan after: 22.9 points, 5.1 rebounds, 4.5 assists, 1.2 steals, 42% Field Goal
Ross before: 6.5 points, 2.5 rebounds, 0.6 assists, 0.5 steals, 41% Field Goal
Ross after: 12.5 points, 3.7 rebounds, 1.0 assists, 0.8 steals, 41% Field Goal
All three are playing better basketball without Gay on the team than with Gay. Maybe all this comes down to is all three are getting more touches without the black hole that is Rudy Gay on the roster. But the individual stats aren’t the only numbers trending upward. On December 9th the Raptors were five games below .500. Just over two months later they’re four games above .500. The Raptors are winning now and the number of wins is what is most important.
12: Chicago Bulls
Should Tom Thibodeau be the favorite for Coach of the Year?
A favorite, yes. The favorite? Right now the distinction of the favorite goes to the coaching demi-god also known as Jeff Hornacek out in Phoenix, but for all we know there might be some wizardry going on in the desert. I had Phoenix pegged to go 16-66 before the season started. There is no way the Suns should be 30-21 right now. In Chicago, there isn’t any wizardry going on. It’s just a steady dose of hard work, elbow grease, throat lozenges and steadfast defiance. After Derrick Rose went down, it appeared that the plan of Chicago Bulls management was to throw away the season, reload in the draft and free agency, and come back stronger next year. After Luol Deng was traded there could no longer be any dispute that this was the direction they were trying to go in. Well, Coach Thibs got that memo, crumbled it up, stuck two middle fingers in the face of Chicago management and has been coaching his ass off since the Deng trade. And why shouldn’t he? He probably won’t be in Chicago next year, so why not go out with no bullets left in the chamber? The Bulls shouldn’t be in the playoff picture, but they are because Thibs has his guys going into every game like they are shorthanded and going into war, not a basketball game. They bust their asses for him and play like they genuinely care and it’s led to a 13-7 record since Luol Deng was shipped to Cleveland. Maybe I’m a sucker for good coaching and teams that play harder than everyone else, but I still feel like the Bulls are the third best team in the Eastern Conference.
11: Memphis Grizzlies
Should we be paying more attention to the Grizzlies right now?
If you don’t mind, let’s wait about a month to tackle this question. If the Grizzlies are still hovering around that eight seed in the West come mid-March, then we’ll talk. They’re so limited offensively that it’s a legitimate cause for concern. But then again, that’s been the case the last four seasons and they’ve been just fine. One more thing: Don’t sleep on the Grizzlies playoff track record. Postseason pedigree absolutely means something. Over the last three postseasons the Grizzlies have defeated the Spurs, Thunder and Clippers. They’ve lost to all three of those teams too, but still.