SB Nation recently unveiled their NBA Power Rankings for next season, constructed from the input of 22 bloggers from around the SB Nation network. I represented Mavs Moneyball, and was very interested to see the results:
|Teams||Final Ranking||Average Ranking||Best Ranking||Worst Ranking|
Nearly everyone seemed to agree that the Heat should be #1 and the Sixers #30, and in both cases, I see no reason for argument. However, it was certainly curious to see just how far down the rung the Mavericks ranked. The "13" in the best column ranking, it may not surprise you, came from me (although I was not alone in giving that placement).
For anyone curious, this was the full ranking I submitted:
1 - Miami Heat
2 - OKC Thunder
3 - San Antonio Spurs
4 - Houston Rockets
5 - Los Angeles Clippers
6 - Chicago Bulls
7 - Indiana Pacers
8 - Golden State Warriors
9 - Memphis Grizzlies
10 - Brooklyn Nets
11 - New York Knicks
12 - Minnesota Timberwolves
13 - Dallas Mavericks
14 - Denver Nuggets
15 - Portland Trailblazers
16 - Washington Wizards
17 - Atlanta Hawks
18 - Los Angeles Lakers
19 - Cleveland Cavaliers
20 - Toronto Raptors
21 - Detroit Pistons*
22 - New Orleans Pelicans
23 - Milwaukee Bucks
24 - Utah Jazz
25 - Boston Celtics
26 - Charlotte Bobcats
27 - Sacremento Kings
28 - Phoenix Suns
29 - Orlando Magic
30 - Philadelphia 76ers
* Just a note: this ranking was done prior to the Brandon Jennings trade, and had it been compiled after, I would likely have moved Detroit a spot or two higher, and Milwaukee a spot or two lower.
In my view, the top 11 teams are fairly solid. Realistically, these are the teams I could see winning at least one playoff series, maybe more. One can debate the precise order of those teams, but for the most part, I see that being the top 11. Starting with #12, there is a considerable drop-off, and this explains the extreme variance in rankings for a lot of the 12-20 teams.
That all being said, I'm still a little surprised Dallas checked in all the way down at 19 in average rank. Certainly, it has been a disappointing offseason for Mark Cuban and company. Dallas failed to land Dwight Howard, or Andrew Bynum, and narrowly missed landing Andre Iguodala, as well. However, Dallas did add several quality veteran pieces, and their roster appears about as deep as any in the league. On the whole, looking simply at the team Dallas puts on the court next season, they did a pretty fine job of salvaging things after the catastrophic start to the summer.
I think you'd be hard-pressed to find many who would call me a shameless homer when it comes to evaluating the Mavericks' chances. Typically, I'm on the more cynical (realistic) side of the fence. Yet, I find myself in the unusual position of trying to figure out just why I'm so much more optimistic about Dallas than my peers. The best I can come up with is that the media, twitter, and all that lay in between have spent so much time focusing on what the 2013-14 Mavericks aren't, that they've essentially glossed over what they are: a collection of productive, established veterans. Starting with #13, let's take a look at the teams ranked ahead of Dallas, and I will try to give my own perspective on why I differ from my fellow bloggers.
Denver checks in at #13, having 57 games last year, good for 3rd best in the Western Conference. However, the Nuggets lost arguably their best player in swingman Andre Iguodala, and their starting center, the underrated Kosta Koufos. They also may be without Danilo Gallinari for some time, after the forward tore his ACL near the end of last season. Early reports suggested Gallinari could be back by February, but even if he beats that timetable, it's a big blow to the star-less Nuggets who relied heavily on outstanding depth rather than a go-to scorer. Denver also lost George Karl, who despite his postseason record, has a track record of regular season success Brian Shaw can't match. I still think Denver will be in the mix for the playoffs, which is why I put them just behind Dallas at #14, but there are undoubtedly question marks.
I'm not sure what I'm missing with the Hawks. GM Danny Ferry has done a very nice job, first in reducing their salary obligations, and then in brokering one of the best value deals of the offseason, with Paul Millsap. Still, on paper, I don't get why almost nobody picked Atlanta to finish worse than Dallas. The Hawks might have the advantage in terms of their best three or four players, but to me they remain top-heavy. From a production standpoint, I think they made a lateral move, while nearly every team immediately in front or behind them improved, some significantly. With a fully healthy season from Dirk Nowitzki, Dallas should be one of those teams. I still expect Atlanta to make the playoffs, given that it is the Eastern Conference, but there is at least one upstart I think has a chance to pass the Hawks by.
Portland has lots of exciting young pieces and it is entirely possible that, in time, the Blazers could be knocking on the door of Western Conference relevance again. I would caution, though, against applying the anointing oil too soon. A lot of their talent is still young, and Aldridge is pretty much the only guy on the roster who has ever played serious minutes on a playoff squad. Maybe the big reason I'm less bullish on Portland than most is(forgive me for my blasphemy) that I wonder how much Damian Lillard really improves going forward. Even being from a small school, he's polished, shoots well and made few mistakes. Rookies with that profile don't typically improve by leaps and bounds, which might mean Lillard just ends up being very good, instead of a superstar like some are predicting after he won Rookie of the Year over an unimpressive field.
New Orleans Pelicans
Funny what one offseason can do. Of course, I'm not sure the Pelicans offseason made any sense, whatsoever, but they certainly will have an interesting team. Is this a good team, though? Forget for a moment that they have names we know, like Davis, Gordon, Holiday, etc. This, to me, looks like a mess. ESPN Insiders might have seen this article, breaking down the Brandon Jennings trade. What it illustrated was that, in most raw stat categories, as well as comprehensive metrics like WARP, Jennings and Jrue Holiday were almost identical. Yet, while Jennings had to beg for a job this offseason, Holiday was traded for a mega-haul. Does this mean Jennings is undervalued, or Holiday overvalued? Either way, I don't know how exactly Holiday, Gordon and Evans are going to mesh together. Or who's going to play center. There's a lot of unrealized potential on this roster, and a lot of injury concerns, as well. If this was a baseball lineup, where everyone got to take their turn, I'd be a lot more enthused. As it is, I'm going to risk looking foolish in 12 months and say this team will take their lumps in year one, and fall short of the .500 mark the 16th best team in the NBA usually hits.
The Wizards were my sleeper pick, and the team I chose to make the biggest leap. John Wall was dominant in the season's final few months, and I think he's poised to become one of the top 15-20 players in the game. They have balance both in young talent and heady veterans, and while no-one was looking they were one of the best defensive teams in the NBA last year. Still, let's remember that making a big leap is not easy. Only two teams improved by more than 15 games last year: the Nets and Warriors. Another reason to pump the brakes on throwing teams like the Pelicans or this next team into the playoff mix.
If absolutely everything goes right, I do think this can be a playoff team. I know one Cavs blogger who is convinced they'll be one. But, how likely is it things go right? Last year Varejao missed 57 games. Kyrie missed 23. Waiters 21. Bynum missed the whole year, and for all we know, may never play more than a handful of games the rest of his career. I have questions about how former Longhorn Tristan Thompson fits with #1 pick Anthony Bennett. And, as sublimely fun to watch as Kyrie Irving is as a scorer, he's got some work to do as a passer and defender. In three years, this could be one of the best teams in the East. For now, they'll be highly entertaining, but I think a lot of people are going to feel pretty foolish about putting Cleveland ahead of Dallas at the end of this next season.
One interesting trend I noticed in evaluating a lot of these teams is that a lot of them are major projections. We all want to see the next Oklahoma City Thunder: a group of 23-year olds who explode on to the scene and develop quickly and steadily. The fact of the matter is that most young teams are bad. They go through serious ups and downs, experience growing pains, and rarely improve at the same rate and at the same time. One team I didn't talk about was Minnesota, who I had ranked ahead of Dallas, but who could easily fall well short of expectations, as they have for years(they were a trendy playoff sleeper last year, too).
In the end, I have lots of issues with where Dallas is at as a team right now. I think the huge -- HUGE -- issue is that they have almost completely ignored conventional avenues for acquiring young, cheap talent, like the draft, or selling off expiring contracts at the deadline. Their future is very cloudy, and if this had been a "futures" ranking, I could accept their placement. However, in the short term, this is going to be a competitive team. They need to stay healthy, but assuming that, I believe they'll be very much in the mix for one the last two playoff spots, and if I had to make a prediction, I'd say they get in the postseason.
One thing is for sure: they will have a potent offensive attack. Dirk will have the best second option in years, and Monta Ellis will be something other than the first option in years. Jose Calderon will make sure the ball keeps moving, and Rick Carlisle will get the most he can from the aging legs of Shawn Marion, Vince Carter, and Samuel Dalembert. Now that he's been paid and the center rotation has thinned, we may finally see Brandan Wright unleashed, as well.
This may be a far cry from the title team of just 24 months ago, but I think this Maverick team is being overlooked and undervalued. Which is fine, because it will make each victory that much sweeter.