NBA Power Rankings: Real vs. Reality?
I’m a little too obsessed with Power Rankings.
I compile mental Power Rankings for meals, co-workers, films starring Patrick Swayze, and a lot of other stuff. Pretty much anything I come into contact with gets assimilated into a benign list at some point.
When it comes to sports, Power Rankings are a ubiquitous presence, especially on the web (it is after all, the Information Super Highway). Power Rankings are for the most part devoted to data. Wins and losses, shooting percentages, differences between home and away records…cold hard numbers. There’s a place for that, but I thought we’d mix things up ever so slightly with a special Thanksgiving Weekend Power Rankings, where impressions from a dilettante rule and advanced stats drool. Good teams can rank high on the list or low. The same goes for bad teams. It is an emotional dish of hopes and dreams and a smidge (a smidge means almost none, right?) of Lacanian reality vs. the Real.
1. Portland Trailblazers
The Trailblazers are the team everyone forgot this summer. They’ve used the opening stanzas of the season to seize the initiative. They had a good starting five and a terrible bench last season and stayed competitive until the waning days. So this offseason the wits in the front office identified that glaring weakness and they upgraded an under performing bench and yet the loudest prognosticators still had them outside the playoffs. Portland has an offense that isn’t scared of anything and they are playing with love in their hearts. Who the hell knows or cares what will happen this spring, but right now, the Portland Trailblazers are kicking ass and taking names like Ashurbanipal. Test your knowledge! Is the following quote referring to the last great Assyrian king or to the Trailblazers after an away game at Elam?
“Susa, the great holy city, abode of their gods, seat of their mysteries, I conquered. I entered its palaces, I opened their treasuries where silver and gold, goods and wealth were amassed… I destroyed the ziggurat of Susa. I smashed its shining copper horns. I reduced the temples of Elam to naught; their gods and goddesses I scattered to the winds. The tombs of their ancient and recent kings I devastated, I exposed to the sun, and I carried away their bones toward the land of Ashur. I devastated the provinces of Elam and on their lands I sowed salt.”
It is obviously referring to the Portland Trailblazers.
2. Utah Jazz
The Utah Jazz are losing a lot and that’s a good thing. Unlike some of the other teams written off as terrible that for some reason decided to try and win bundles of games, the Jazz are safely running away with the Riggin’ For Wiggins Sweepstakes. Leaving aside the terrible toll all this losing must have on the essence and souls of young players like Gordon Hayward, Enes Kanter, and Derrick Favors, the strategy set forth by the Utah braintrust is sound if not quite honorable. We all have lost years. Let’s have no illusions. The Jazz only “win” this season if they lose pretty much every time they step onto the court. They’ve been doing a damn good job. Keep it up, lads.
3. Oklahoma City Thunder
Nothing to see here! The Thunder may have lost their spot as America’s Sweethearts, but who cares? Okay, so they traded James Harden and oops, it turns out he’s really good at basketball. And yes, their starting center is a scowling corpse that gets paid a ton of money. Their owner might just be a scumbag (spoiler alert: most owners are scumbags). There is worry their frenzied fanbase wouldn’t be able to tolerate a losing franchise…Much ado about nothing, my friends. Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook will keep the Thunder in contention until I have children and the somewhat criticized bench of untested youngsters may actually prove to be a new cadre of overachieving killers. Circle of Life.
4. New Orleans Pelicans
The Pelicans are almost a finished product. Their “finishing five” as their boosters have dubbed them, are a experiment steeped in risk, the danger of tremendous potential and the hazard of ultimate failure. This team looks like the next “it” team, anchored by the sinewy wingspan of the young and terrifying Anthony Davis. This kid is going to change the league. When his offense catches up with his defense (the gap is rapidly closing) the Pelicans are going to be a legitimate menace. Davis, Ryan Anderson, Tyreke Evans, and Jrue Holiday haven’t quite Voltron’d just yet, but if and when they do then good night and good luck.
5. Charlotte Bobcats
The reality is that the Charlotte Bobcats are a much improved but hardly amazing team. What is “Real” however is that recent Bobcats history is so hideously depressing that their solid play and good (for the Eastern Conference) record seems to have momentarily cleansed them from the continuous night terror that is their existence. Keep on rocking in the free world.
6. Phoenix Suns
OK Phoenix, did you hear the media and fans proclaim crazy things all summer about how terrible you were? How people would probably watch Batman and Robin instead of a Suns game? Revenge is a dish best served with surprising competence and élan! The Suns play hard and they seem to enjoy each other as human beings.
7. Miami Heat
The Heat will not have to worry about a damn thing until LeBron James goes down with a season ending injury. He’s shooting 60% from the field and most people don’t even care to mention this. The prevailing mood in Miami is that there is nothing to worry about. That mood is correct. If the Heat were to go on a ten game losing streak I would only be mildly worried. They are one of those aggravating teams that can just decide to be amazing when they are cornered. It’s annoying, but impressive.
8. Los Angeles Lakers
Here is the Lakers psyche: We are the Lakers and everything is going to be okay. Sadly, that’s not delusional thinking. Kobe Bryant will come back and the idea of disappointing him will get the Lakers back in the playoff hunt or he’ll be terrible and they’ll lose a bunch of games or he won’t come back and they’ll just kind of limp along on the good side of mediocre. It doesn’t matter! They can write this season off completely and still come out winners. The Lakers are the 1 percenters. Their gilded parachutes will lovingly break any and all falls. When they lose, they win. When they win, they demolish. The Lakers brand is so strong that there’s really no point in resisting. Currently they seem to be at a low point, but their mythology and location is always going to trump the buffets in Milwaukee. Look for their future team of Stephen Curry, Andrew Wiggins, LeBron James, Anthony Davis, and Unnamed Future Best Center of All Time to win ten championships or so. Oh, and Kevin Love off the bench.
9. Indiana Pacers
The Pacers are killing teams (not literally) and have a case for being the league’s best team in the early going. Despite having one of the most boring names in professional sports, Paul George will soon be on McDonald’s billboards and turning water into Dr. Diet Pepper or perhaps running for local office. He’s going to be a superstar, is what I am saying. But don’t let the emergence of George distract you from the single-minded way these dudes compete. This Pacers team has an edge to them. They’re still angry because of that Game 7 loss to the Heat in the Eastern Conference Finals. This season is just an extension of that game. They want to dethrone the King. Everything else is just 48 minutes of fine print.
10. Minnesota Timberwolves
This year has an air of desperation to it already, but the Wolves aren’t panicking. In fact, they seem to be relishing their status as future spoiler. Their starting five is playing fantastic ball and they are generally winning the games they should and losing in less than humiliating fashion to superior teams. And they finally beat Kevin Garnett! Kind of like Ahab’s kids tracking down a super old Moby Dick with bad knees and finishing the job before they have to sail back home and actually do something important. Kevin Martin and Kevin Love are combining to form a deadly 1-2 punch (the Timberwolves love the name Kevin!) and Rick Adelman is a crafty and underrated coach. If the Wolves make it to the playoffs, expect them to play the part of a friendly insurgency.
11. Dallas Mavericks
The Mavericks have followed the Trailblazer blueprint of collecting castoff but reliable talent and putting faith in coach and core players. And it has worked. So far. Kind of. More or less. The Mavericks deserve to be proud of their accomplishments this season, the most notable of which is the rehabilitation of the reputation of Monta Ellis. The Mavs are almost always a good team. It’s just hard for them to be bad with Dirk Nowitzki. The Mavericks should be proud of what they’ve done thus far. No shame in being decent. No ecstasy, either.
12. Houston Rockets
When the Rockets convinced Dwight Howard to saddle up with them he instantly earned the hatred of several million people. The Rockets bring out the worst in a neutral public. We want the worst for them. Their stumbles are celebrated. When a fringe playoff team becomes a contender overnight they are deemed the “hunted” before ever becoming hunters. They are confused but talented, hungry, lonely, and ready to lash out.
13. Denver Nuggets
They might be good after all. Though how about this for a thought exercise: perhaps they aren’t? The Denver Nuggets are that drunk guy who sings “Closing Time” at the karaoke bar way before last call. If you think about that for several hours I am sure you will agree with me completely.
14. Orlando Magic
The Magic went into this season with reasonably low expectations and they are right on track! Their record won’t show it, but they’ve suddenly got young talent at every position and probably nabbed the best player of the draft in Victor Oladipo. If the front office is halfway shrewd, the Magic should be back on their feet soon. Oh, and that Dwight Howard guy? You don’t need him. You are better than him, Orlando! Long live Nik Vucevic! The dizzying freedom of addition by subtraction!
15. Washington Wizards
Washington is saddled with an insecure coach who fears life itself. The Wizards started slowly but I still maintain that there’s nothing really to fear in the Eastern Conference if your mandate is incremental progress. The Wizards can still make the playoffs and they should. All time not spent directly in service of that goal should be spent making Bradley Beal super happy about living in the District of Columbia because that dude should retire a Wizard due to his sweet shooting stroke and also his sweet demeanor and lovable smile.
16. San Antonio Spurs
The Spurs are on pace to win like seventy games, but it is all ho-hum. They are robots in service to an unknown Prime Directive. They will pulverize pretty much everyone but their confidence is rattled. Tim Duncan is playing poorly. Manu Ginobli’s bald spot grows ever larger. Tony Parker is the last of the Big Three in his prime. The Spurs are one of the teams that can win it all and that is its own burden. Some day the ghost warriors will have to get tired. They play basketball like data entry clerks. They have to find their banal poetry once again. Losing a few games might do the trick.
17. Los Angeles Clippers
The Clippers are a team comprised of Knights of Infinite Resignation. They aren’t winning a championship. They are also in the service of a racist slumlord. But hey, pencil them in for 52 wins and a hollow feeling in their chests.
18. Detroit Pistons
Detroit tweaked its roster this offseason with the acquisition of the unpredictable Josh Smith, the creepy Brandon Jennings, and former hero Chauncey Billups. Detroit has a massive front line with Smith and Greg Monroe and Andre Drummond, but the defense has been porous, no, worse than porous, silly. So yes, they’ve been underwhelming, as befits a team that is a weird mismatch of duplicate weaknesses and redundant parts, but Detroit will rise again.
19. Atlanta Hawks
Different coach, some new faces on the roster…but you can’t shake the feeling that the Hawks are doomed. No jokes. I actually think they are doomed.
20. Golden State Warriors
The Warriors could be a really good team. They should be better than last year and last year they were pretty good. If they had a more dependable bench and you could promise me that their Top 6 players could remain healthy for the season then I would double down on my prediction of the Golden State Warriors challenging for a title. As it is, the Warriors seem a fragile bunch and afraid of what awaits them. Is not the sound of the whip as effective as the whip itself to a broken man? The Warriors need to find their courage and soon.
21. Sacramento Kings
I truly believe the Kings have the talent to play with anyone in this league. I am “on the record” as viewing them as a kind of Bizzaro World Oklahoma City Thunder. But aside from their troubles actually winning games, the mood in Sacramento is one of reprieve. They somehow fended off an aggressive campaign from rich Seattle dudes who were trying to steal their team. It looked like a given Seattle would win that tilt. That they didn’t and in the process gained an owner who doesn’t seem like an idiot is something that will keep spirits relatively high. Enjoy this honeymoon from the daily anguish of uncertainty.
22. Boston Celtics
The thing we’re hearing most about the Celtics is how much they love their new coach, the youthful looking Brad Stevens. There’s your season. I guess there is still some talk about what to do with that goblin Rajon Rondo but I mean…you gotta trade him for Jeremy Lin right? For reasons.
23. Toronto Raptors
Rudy Gay and DeMar DeRozan shoot too much. It is uncouth behavior for such inefficient dudes. Toronto is getting cold this time of year. I wonder if it will negatively impact the team’s self esteem. They are outcasts in their own league. Their beat writers spell defense with a “c”. Toronto where you are sent to do your basketball penance and await mercy or damnation. On the other hand, Jonas Valančiūnas has a difficult name to spell and is looking like he has a really solid future in the league.
24. Memphis Grizzlies
If Marc Gasol is out for longer than expected then the party is officially over. Zach Randolph can rage in the paint and make some slick shots, but Marc is the huge Spanish engine that pushed this train uphill towards an actual destination. The train is off the rails now! The Grizzlies tried to run early in the season and their record suffered for it. This is a make it or break it legacy moment for Z-Bo. He’s an offensive powerhouse when he is on but is he a leader of men? I don’t know! A follow-up question: is he supposed to be a leader of men? Isn’t he supposed to just be a basketball player?
25. Philadelphia 76ers
The truth hurts. Hey Philly, it felt good to win those games early in the season, didn’t it? Enjoy the memories. Be thankful for the gangly grace of Michael Cater-Williams.
26. New York Knicks
I’m not a fan of Carmelo’s style of play. I’ve always hated J.R. Smith and Kenyon Martin. Andrea Bargnani bothers me. Mike Woodson is one of the least creative coaches in the league. If it weren’t for the ruin in progress happening one borough over in Brooklyn, the Knicks would be the biggest disappointment of the year. As it is, they are basically unwatchable and they all know it. There’s no trust and love in that locker room. Just Old Spice and resentment.
27. Cleveland Cavaliers
What a suddenly volatile situation! Offseason expectations had the Cavaliers as a team worthy of your admiration and respect! Welcome to reality, bud! Things are going wrong, but that’s to be expected. What is really going wrong is that this season was a “season” in name only. What this season truly is for the Cavaliers is a cynical pitch for their former Chosen One, LeBron. Here was the thinking: Let’s assemble a good team around young stud Kyrie Irving and let them be competitive and let them win a lot of games and then let’s cross our fingers and pray LeBron James will decide to leave the Heat next season for his former kingdom. The plan was transparent and has fallen flat on its bad faith face. The Cavaliers are bad, Dion Waiters might have punched Kyrie Irving, and Andrew Bynum only looks marginally better than he did in Philadelphia. LeBron ain’t coming back.
28. Milwaukee Bucks
The Bucks had exactly one good thing going for them this year: their exciting high flying big man Larry Sanders. Well, Larry got in a bar fight, messed up his thumb and now he’s out for six weeks. Turns out he also keeps his dogs out in the cold without food and was cited for it twice by Milwaukee police. I’m not much of a fan of humans, but you can’t be cruel to animals. You just can’t. I’m done with you, Larry.
29. Brooklyn Nets
Lesson learned. A dashing Russian billionaire can’t buy an NBA championship. The Brooklyn Nets: A Film by Lars Von Trier.
30. Chicago Bulls
Derrick Rose is out for the season. He was out all last season. Yet another season of treading water and punching the sharks in the nose only to drown in the second round. It sounds exhausting and cruel. As Sarah “Sadie” Williams muses:
“Is it true, O Christ in heaven, that the highest suffer the most?
That the strongest wander furthest and most hopelessly are lost?
That the mark of rank in nature is capacity for pain?
That the anguish of the singer makes the sweetness of the strain?”
Alex Siquig is a writer who recently left the San Francisco Bay Area for the lovely streets of Baltimore. His work has been published in Thought Catalog, Lubricated, Urban Image Magazine, and he is the co-creator of the web-comic Black Snow: Two Drink Minimum, which finished second place in the Washington Post’s Best Web-Comic of 2011. He lives with two fine cats and a fine woman.