NBA Power Rankings can be a funny thing. There are many ways to approach the exercise, but most subjective rankings converge to reflect consensus opinions and reinforce notions established before the season ever even started. It's no secret that the Chicago Bulls, Miami Heat, Los Angeles Lakers, Oklahoma City Thunder, and San Antonio Spurs are very good teams. By the same token, everyone knows the Washington Wizards, Detroit Pistons, Charlotte Bobcats and New Orleans Hornets are not going to do any damage (at least to other teams) in the 2012 NBA season.
While basketball truisms are reasserted on the margins of power rankings, the middle is often muddled by a lack of clear standards. If Amare Stoudemire, Carmelo Anthony, Tyson Chandler and the New York Knicks drop three games in a week, do they ever really move down according to their recent performance? Is recent performance even the standard that is most commonly used to determine the order? Who knows. Here is something a bit different from the cookie-cutter rankings you might be used to by now.
The Utah Jazz (9-5) are riding high after winning 8 of their last 10 games, while the Boston Celtics (5-9) have lost 6 of their last 7 matchups and are beginning to talk about initiating a rebuild. For last week's rankings click here, but if you want to see how all 30 teams currently grade out all you have to do is read on.
On The Rise
Utah Jazz (+7) - Last week the Jazz held the No. 19 efficiency differential in the league (-1.4), but in just a week's time they have moved all the way up to No. 12 with a positive differential (3). How did they do it? The primary reason for their recent success has been the focus on feeding the ball in the post to Paul Millsap and Al Jefferson. Those two have been lighting up teams in the post in recent games and have helped the Jazz to become a top-5 offense with respect to points in the paint. Head coach Tyrone Corbin has also pushed a lot of the right buttons, like using Earl Watson the spell the struggling Devin Harris, finding minutes for talented rookie slasher Alec Burks and encouraging Gordon Hayward and C.J. Miles to push the ball in transition after misses by opposing teams.
Even so, the strength of the team will continue to be Millsap and Jefferson, so they would be wise to run everything though those two players as the season progresses. Make no mistake, the Jazz are playing great basketball. Consider this: not only have the Jazz won 8 of their last 10 games, their two losses have come by a total of six points.
Houston Rockets (+5) - The Rockets are a very difficult team to read. At 8-7 overall, they have lost to some really good teams (@ Magic, @ Lakers, @ Clippers, @ Thunder, @ Spurs) and have beaten some decidedly awful teams (@ Bobcats, vs Kings, @ Wizards, vs Pistons, vs Hornets). The starting backcourt of Kevin Martin and Kyle Lowry is a source of hope, while the underwhelming backcourt of Samuel Dalembert and an underachieving Louis Scola has made the team hard to trust. They've taken more shots of the rim in recent games and boosted their offensive efficiency along the way, which is the reason for the jump in the standings to No.15 overall. I still don't know what to make of the Rockets, but I do know that Chandler Parsons is a monster on the put-back dunk (click that link for more videos of various like-kind putbacks):
[GIF via @Truth_About_It]
Allow Zach Lowe of SI.com to point out just how disappointing Luis Scola has been to start the season:
Scola is shooting a career-worst 46.7 percent, getting to the line less often than ever before and rebounding more like a small forward. Some of the rebounding decline is due to playing heavy minutes with a rebounding monster (Samuel Dalembert), but the Rockets overall have rebounded much worse with Scola on the court.
One of the league's craftiest post players is struggling badly on the pick-and-roll and pick-and-pop, where he usually feasts on mid-range jumpers. He's shooting just 27 percent on the play, and while some of those looks are open shots that will fall soon, he has been ice cold when defenders can contest his shot. Scola is a below-average defender who struggles to make multiple cuts on the same possession, so if he's not scoring efficiently, the slope becomes slippery.
If the Rockets can't count on Scola to bring his post game and his pick-and-pop skills on a nightly basis, how much higher can they rise than No. 15 overall?
Phoenix Suns (-7) - The Suns have racked up some truly terrible losses this season, but what would you say if I told you that less than a week ago the Suns got blown out by 21 points by the Chicago Bulls...without Derrick Rose. The odd thing is that the Suns are 6-3 when holding opponents under 100 points, and they have been far less effective in fast-paced shootouts that has marked much of the Steve Nash era. In large part, the Suns have been a streak team because they gamble on threes and fail to get to the rim very. They have yet to hit the meat of their schedule, but would do well to make sure they focus on getting players slashing to the rim or something of that ilk if they have hopes of making any noise. Just take a look at the Suns' roster and try to figure out how they are going to make the Western Conference playoffs. Bleh.
Boston Celtics (-5) - Ruh roh. The compressed schedule is compounding decline of the aged roster around Rajon Rondo and now people are within inches of pushing self destruct. Even GM Danny Ainge has expressed a willingness to blow it up and try to rebuild if the team can't get their act together. Some are wondering whether a contender can even be built if Rondo is at the center of the core. Hey, I'm doing something similar with Brandon Jennings and the Milwaukee Bucks, I can't blame inquiring minds for exploring the question.
The Indiana Pacers, Philadelphia 76ers and Cleveland Cavaliers are building their early success while playing bad teams. These three teams have gotten off to surprising starts, but the real tests have yet to come. The Cavs are a certainty to fall off their middling pace soon, while the Pacers and the 76ers have drawn more respect for their surges. If I remember correctly, the Pacers did this same dance last year, starting strong against bums only to fall off later in the season and barely creep into the playoffs. They are a better team this year, but the record will probably creep back towards .500 when the good teams start lining up across from them. As for the 76ers, they haven't just beaten teams with such an easy record, they have crushed them. Double-digit wins have been commonplace. If I had to pick one team to keep up their pace when the schedule gets tougher, it would be Philly.
The Sacramento Kings and Washington Wizards love isolation basketball, but aren't very good at it. Wait, so you're telling me the team that added Jimmer Fredette and Marcus Thornton as top options behind Tyreke Evans and DeMarcus Cousins has a low assist rate? You don't say...The reliance on isos has led to the Kings posting the third-worst offensive efficiency in the NBA, so it's pretty clear the formula is more than a bit off. Something will need to change in the personnel, because I don't think much will change with regards to the personalities and tendencies of the top players.
As for the Wizards, they are just a mess. John Wall can't shoot straight, and perhaps worse he can't take care of the ball. Nobody else on the roster seems like much of a keeper at the moment, and GM Ernie Grunfeld's plan to surround Wall with young players instead of role-playing vets or spot-up shooters has turned into an unmitigated disaster.
Anyways, here's the visual representation of the NBA as we know it: