Sizing up NBA teams after a quarter season

As teams approach 20 games played, Sam Smith of Bulls.com takes a look at who they are and what they have. These aren’t based just on records; these rankings identify the best teams who can finish the highest and win a title.

Most NBA teams hit the first significant marker of the season this weekend with a quarter of the season finished. That’s generally the point where teams see who they are and what they have, though it will take a bit more time in the Western Conference to exactly sort out the standings with so many teams of relatively similar levels bunched throughout the top 10.

Thus it also becomes the time teams begin to seriously both consider trades and not to.

The first 10 games are often for show, to make an impression and get the critics to relax. That’s been the situation with the Philadelphia 76ers, Phoenix Suns and Charlotte Bobcats. All were viewed as bottom dwellers. But each had a good start while the Suns and Bobcats even remain in playoff positions in their conferences. They’re both expected still to miss the playoffs. And truth be known they’d probably prefer to given the talent in the 2014 draft. But they also have sent signals that their building projects are nicely underway.

At the quarter mark of 20 games, teams general face the realities of where their personnel can take them. So some consider moves to perhaps push ahead of someone. Others ignore them to settle for their inevitability. Which is another reason major midseason deals generally are not common.

The Eastern Conference, it seems pretty clear without further injuries, has come down to Indiana and Miami for the top spot with the injury to Derrick Rose and the injuries and poor starts for the Knicks and Nets. The Western Conference remains wide open with perhaps a dozen teams, especially now that Kobe Bryant has returned, believing they can get to the conference finals.

The best team?

At this point it looks like the Indiana Pacers, who have that big early statement game Tuesday hosting the Miami Heat. Yes, they lost badly in Oklahoma City Sunday, but at the end of a trip after blowing out the Spurs Saturday. The Pacers may have the MVP in Paul George—“Why not me?” to paraphrase Rose—and the Defensive Player of the Year in Roy Hibbert. They’ve been the league’s best defensive team by a lot even without exactly the toughest schedule. But it’s difficult to make that schedule too challenging in the Eastern Conference.

I look at these rankings as the best teams who can finish the highest and win a title. If it were based just on records, I’d publish the standings. So here’s a first look at the NBA at the first turn and what it may be:

  1. Pacers: They’re whom the Bulls were, a hard playing defensive and rebounding team with just one star—yes, it can be done—but size and depth. They basically play the Thibodeau formula best in defending the paint and the three-point line.
  2. Thunder: And that’s after losing James Harden and Kevin Martin. Imagine if they had them and not Kendrick Perkins. And they even had Jeff Green before that. Heck of a scouting department. But having Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook is imposing with a good defense, if not great. Their personnel losses level the playing field and open it up to maybe a dozen other teams, which would not otherwise have been the case.
  3. Heat: We’ll see again when they play the Pacers Tuesday. But it didn’t look so good against the Bulls. Dwyane Wade rested again Sunday night, and not a Sabbath thing. He banged his knee again Saturday. His knee issues, which the Heat is managing, will tell their playoff story. LeBron James is at an MVP level again, but they won’t win enough games this time without Wade to get him the award. It’s all about the playoffs for them.
  4. Rockets: They’re in perhaps the best position among these perhaps half dozen top contenders to upgrade with the pending Omer Asik trade. There’s been talk of No. 1 picks, which aren’t likely. But they may enhance their bench quite a bit and they are starting to play better defense.
  5. Trail Blazers: I haven’t completely bought in as they don’t defend that well. And I still have my doubts about Robin Lopez, who has been a surprise. But I am coming around as I wasn’t even sure they’d make the playoffs with LaMarcus Aldridge talking about wanting a trade. No more. Aldridge has been a revelation, the best he’s ever been, tougher and stronger and with the game’s best post up jump shot. They’ve got enough pieces and finally the right attitude now to truly compete with anyone.
  6. Spurs: Not because they are old because they are not that old. But they have lost to the four best teams they’ve faced — Indiana, Portland, Oklahoma City, Houston — and are 5-4 against teams with winning records. If Westbrook hadn’t gotten hurt would they have been in the Finals? They are better as well with Marco Belinelli having a strong season and never to be counted out. Never, ever again.
  7. Warriors: They’ve faded some of late with Andre Iguodala out and, yes, they live and die a bit too much on those jump shots. But they really can get you like no one else with those jump shots. They defend a lot better than under anyone named Nelson and those big shot makers in playoff games often turn them at the end.
  8. Clippers: They’ve been a bit of a disappointment, and much of that falls on Chris Paul. Players of his level are supposed to carry teams through tough road games and trips and inconsistent periods, and he just can’t seem to. Though pesky, he’s not a good enough defender and doesn’t seem inspiring enough. If they don’t watch out the Lakers with Bryant’s return will pass them. Well, maybe after free agency.
  9. Pelicans: They’ll need Anthony Davis back. But the way Ryan Anderson has come back and with those scoring guards they can be an unusual threat once they are healthy. Their defense is poor for a defensive minded coach, which likely will catch up to them in the end.
  10. Nuggets. Any Eastern teams yet? Nah. Perhaps they get Gallinari back, which would be huge. Though missing so much time it’s not likely he’ll have much impact. But again they have an aggressive, fast paced group with plenty of shooting. You wonder if they’ll do something with Andre Miller, which could enhance their size. But they will get JaVale McGee back and in his place they could, as coach Brian Shaw says, be better in the playoffs than before compared with all those good regular seasons.
  11. Mavericks: I don’t expect them to hang in there with virtually no bench and finally finding out why Sam Dalembert gets traded every year. But Monta Ellis is free again back in the West and Dirk Nowitzki continues to amaze with that shooting. Rick Carlisle does amazingly consistent work without much recognition.
  12. Timberwolves: They’ve been a disappointment thus far and Ricky Rubio hasn’t been as good since his ACL surgery. That has offset a strong rejuvenation from Kevin Martin. But with Kevin Love and some depth and defense there are possibilities.
  13. Lakers: They’ve been a big surprise hanging in there around .500 until Bryant’s return Sunday night. They also have the chance, albeit slight, to make a deal with two centers and one not playing. Bryant is saying the right things about not doing too much and playing a role. But Michael Jordan did as well when he went to Washington. It’s tough for the truly great ones to watch that much and not try to do something about it. Bryant’s start was tough Sunday with him clearly nowhere near ready to contribute at a high level.
  14. Wizards: Hey, it’s an Eastern team. But that one? John Wall has begun to play not exactly like he knows basketball, but still tough to stop. They’ll get Bradley Beal back and with their size inside they can be a difficult team to play. Though only at times.
  15. Bulls: More a question mark here. There’s basically no team here that is guaranteed to be in the playoffs either the way they’ve played or given the personnel they have remaining. But the league makes 16 teams play in the playoffs, and they’ll say it starts over, yada, yadda, yadda. So the Bulls are as good a pick as any given their coach and that they’ll get Jimmy Butler back and the way Luol Deng and Taj Gibson are playing.
  16. Hawks: They always seem to play a bit better than the personnel. So maybe we underestimate someone. They’re small with Paul Millsap and Al Horford up front. But both are great competitors, which makes up for a lot. And good guy Kyle Korver has become an elite shooting weapon in an era when everyone searches out the three.
  17. Grizzlies: Perhaps they get a lot better when Marc Gasol returns from injury. But they’ve changed their style with the change in coaches and going away from and then back to Zach Randolph amidst talk they should trade him. It’s a transition, which they never did much of and now seem unsure whether they should or should not.
  18. Suns: They might be the only team ever to fire their coach for doing too well. Nah, but they’ve been a big surprise. Rookie coach Jeff Hornacek has been encouraging and demanding and getting results. They have youth, depth and draft picks, and once again potentially makes Phoenix a destination of choice.
  19. Knicks: Another question mark here. Can Tyson Chandler be that good? And am I kidding? They were down 45 at home Sunday in losing to Boston. Tough to get happy after that one. They’re not trading ‘Melo, who isn’t very mellow these days. And there’s no better NBA soap opera this season.
  20. Bobcats: That might get the Bulls the draft pick. They had a good start least season as well. But this seems like it will stick better with a Thibodeau-esque coach on defensive techniques and actual post play for the first time ever. And no Tyrus Thomas. Ben Gordon even is helping of late.
  21. Pistons: They have the talent to place higher, but a tough mix of head strong players led by Josh Smith and Brandon Jennings. When they’re hitting those wild jumpers with the size inside they are very good. But it’s not something to be relied upon.
  22. Nets: They’ll get better? They have had a lot of guys out and Deron Williams is to return soon, though who knows if it will be a cameo. Jason Kidd, who’s been blamed for all of this, is now probably going to slow it down and pound inside to his one reliable player, Brook Lopez. That should be exciting basketball.
  23. Kings: It’s tough to be better than your talent with DeMarcus Cousins. It’s also tough to go anywhere in the West now, so not much bother. But they have some intriguing players. The biggest intrigue, though, for all of them is just who Cousins is going to be mad at next. I’m guessing it’s Rudy Gay and his shot selection after the Sunday trade.
  24. Cavaliers: There’s some sort of disconnect there, and you assume it has something to do with Dion Waiters as Kyrie Irving has been a mess this season. So perhaps they make a deal. Though the way Andrew Bynum has been coming on and if Mike Brown’s defensive demands hold they could move up in the East as they were supposed to be doing by now.
  25. Celtics: A true surprise team with a roster not only broken down but seemingly filled with players not in their future. So maybe Rajon Rondo does decide to come back soon as the playoffs in the East could be for everyone, including them. If Rondo does they could move up in the standings and they really will be talking about the East then.
  26. Raptors: They’ve been regarded as the league’s most selfish team, and not only because they are last in assists. It’s been the Rudy and DeMar show, which isn’t quite like Bernie and Ernie. The Raptors gave new meaning to the concept of the chukker. So they traded Gay Sunday. Will they be worse? More lottery chances? Perhaps, but by getting an actual point guard in Greivis Vasquez and a few extras might actually move them up a bit without Gay fighting off DeRozan for shots. Though all eyes still are on the lottery.
  27. Magic: They seem right on the verge of being a lot better and just can’t seem to get there yet. You wonder if they’ll cash in Arron Afflalo, who has emerged as a high scoring shooting guard a contending team may go for.
  28. Bucks. Could also move up if Larry Sanders returns and stays out of bar fights. Perhaps not the best thinking after the team gave you a huge extension. Nice crowd. In any case, they have the players to be better. Of course, at this point they are probably like a lot of teams in the East who are eying that draft board.
  29. 76ers: Their strong start took a lot of pressure off along with the play of Michael Carter-Williams. There’s a good chance they move Evan Turner and continue on their rebuilding road with draft picks. But now there seems some hope.
  30. Jazz: Still no dancing in the streets in Salt Lake City. They’re young, which is something. It’s tough when you play so many young guys, who’ll get discouraged at some point and it’s difficult to reel them back. They’re closing in on that time.

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