The Boston Celtics, Philadelphia 76ers, Denver Nuggets, New York Knicks and Milwaukee Bucks are all fighting for playoff spots, but one thing stands out when looking at their respective records: they really struggle to beat good teams. A point of emphasis for me in analyzing the Bucks' recent trade for Monta Ellis and Ekpe Udoh has been the team's record against teams with +.500 records, so in the 2012 NBA Power Rankings for this week I took a closer look at the entire NBA. Milwaukee is still the ugly duckling when it comes to teams with playoff hopes, but things don't look very good for the other quartet of teams I mentioned above, even though they are in a better position record-wise.
First let's highlight (lowlight?) the Bucks. With a 6-19 record against teams with a +.500 record, the Bucks are among some lowly company when it comes to beating quality opponents. The only NBA teams that have fared worse are the New Jersey Nets, Washington
Generals Wizards and Charlotte Bobcats. The general paradigm I would apply to the +.500 record test is that worse records indicate a talent gap, while better records (with a record that sags against worse teams -- like the Los Angeles Clippers -- speaks more to problems with keeping superior talent focused and executing at a high level.
In other words, I think the Bucks' overall record speaks highly of Scott Skiles. Not only has he altered his style to turn the Bucks into an offensive-minded team this year, he gets his squad to beat the teams they should beat. He's not a miracle worker, and the talent issues highlighted by consistent failure against +.500 teams (and reinforced by the fact that the Bucks' bench routinely out-performs the starters) comes down to a GM problem in my mind. Now on to the other teams.
One team that has been surprising this season is the Sixers. For most of the early portion of the year they held the top rank in efficiency differential, and even after a swoon they are still No. 3 overall and occupy the fourth seed in the Eastern Conference playoff bracket. However, most people seem to acknowledge they have been playing a bit over their head. They employ the romantic "no superstars" model and routinely use Louis Williams to close out games, but the talent gap between them and true contenders manifests in their 10-17 record against premium opponents -- it's the second-worst record of any team in the playoff bracket and ranks No. 21 overall in the NBA.
Who has the worst record against +.500 teams in the current playoff bracket? Surprisingly, it's the Boston Celtics. A 9-16 mark points to diminishing skills among their vast pool of over-the-hill veterans, but it simultaneously reinforces the "savvy veteran" label, as the Cs knock off lesser teams rather consistently. The rest of Boston's schedule breaks down like this: they have 11 games remaining against +.500 teams (7 home - 4 away) and seven games against losings teams (1 home - 6 away). Can Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce, Ray Allen and Rajon Rondo muster up the strength to hold off the Bucks and Knicks down the stretch? It might depend on whether they can pull off a few more victories against winning teams.
Here a complete look at the NBA landscape while the NBA Playoff Race rages on: