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Sam Smith’s NBA power rankings

Sam Smith provides one look at how the NBA looks at the quarter pole with emphasis toward projecting where these teams will be when the regular season ends.
Pau Gasol and the Lakers, who visit the Bulls Friday at the United Center, sit atop Sam Smith’s NBA power rankings approximately one-fourth into the 2010-11 season. (Andrew D. Bernstein/NBAE/Getty Images)

The contents of this page have not been reviewed or endorsed by the Chicago Bulls. All opinions expressed by Sam Smith are solely his own and do not reflect the opinions of the Chicago Bulls or its Basketball Operations staff, parent company, partners, or sponsors. His sources are not known to the Bulls and he has no special access to information beyond the access and privileges that go along with being an NBA accredited member of the media.

Sam Smith Mailbag

Let me note first I’m not much for power ratings, the weekly listing of teams under the guise of the strength of the team, especially early in the season. Of course, I am about to do one, so it’s not exactly a moral or religious stand.

The reason I question them is because they usually are little more than posting the NBA standings 1-30 with an emphasis on the latest one. I know you’ve seen power ratings the first and second weeks of the season. How can that differ from the standings? Of course, it can’t, which is why you saw the Hornets ranked No. 1 for several week and so many of us scratching our heads and saying, “They’re not that good.”

So now we know, just like with the Atlanta Hawks, who started 6-0 against a soft schedule and the then streaking 3-1 Sacramento Kings. But the NBA hits the quarter season mark of about 20 games this week, which is when teams begin to get a sense of who they are and what they need.

Overall, there probably are no great surprises, other than those who saw the Miami Heat as some 70-win juggernaut. I’m quite sure that never included Pat Riley, who understands well he has LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh under long term contracts and you don’t create a champion over one summer.

Here’s one look at how the NBA looks at the quarter pole with emphasis toward projecting where these teams will be when the regular season ends.

1. Lakers. They had that massive four-game losing streak, which is sometimes measured as a sign of progress if you were a Clipper. They have had to push Pau Gasol with Andrew Bynum undergoing his usual less-than-rigorous rehab, no backup bigs and management not wanting to spend any more while in the luxury tax. Yes, the Lakers are closing their wallets. Flash! Phil stood up.

2. Celtics. They’ve convinced me, though I had them as an Eastern Conference finalist. They are the class of the East, Garnett is back to a high level, they’ve got inside depth and work together beautifully. It’s back to the 80’s when only occasionally the Celtics and Lakers would let someone else play in the Finals. Though I can’t wait until Kendrick Perkins—self proclaimed captain of the defense—returns and explains to Shaq he has to return to the bench. The Big No.

3. Jazz. I know they lost badly to the Mavs last week, but Dallas has been together, and playing much better defense now than I think their age can accomplish throughout the season. Utah will get Mehmet Okur back and still is working in Al Jefferson. And Deron Williams has finally emerged in everyone’s consciousness. Now Jerry Sloan doesn’t want coach of the year so everyone can continue lamenting why he is not.

4. Spurs. So maybe they’re not done yet. Manu, Parker and Duncan are the best Big Three no one ever has called a Big Three. No star has accepted a declining role like Duncan, though we never expected otherwise, they have Richard Jefferson back up to speed and are bringing Tiago Splitter along slowly and he could be a major weapon later in the season. Next year they really are done, really.

5. Magic. I had them as my preseason finalist with the Lakers. I’m trying to remember why, though it still could occur as they have the most tradeable players and I still expect them to make a big move. I know they deny the Arenas talk, but I can see them dealing for him. They need a true second to Dwight Howard and Vince Carter isn’t it. Neither is Jameer Nelson, but don’t tell the Bulls. Stan Van Gundy just didn’t say something. The guy is a riot, though.

6. Mavericks. The other best player along with Williams—Derrick Rose, predictably, is dropping off somewhat trying to accommodate Carlos Boozer—has been Dirk Nowitzki, who is ageless, in a sense, because he doesn’t need athleticism. He’s much closer to who he was, for example, than Kobe. They’re still lacking a true second guy, which eventually will stymie them, as it always does. Mavs have replaced national anthem with Mark Cuban singing, “I gotta be me.”

7. Heat. Not as good as many thought and not as bad as most hoped. Obviously, it’s big losing Haslem and Mike Miller, though who expected Miller to remain healthy? The key guy in this may be Wade as LeBron will get his and Bosh isn’t that good, anyway. We’ll find out how much all those falls are catching up to Wade. They would love to open up the game, you assume, but don’t rebound. You should be able to push, anyway, but LeBron likes to control the ball. They’ll make the playoffs entertaining. James has now asked people to not refer to Muhammad Ali as “the greatest” any more.

8. Denver. This is a change for me and likely they fall if they move Anthony. But I don’t see Anthony accepting a move to the Nets or the Nuggets accepting what the Bulls or Knicks have in trade. So maybe they roll the dice and hang onto Carmelo and have a good season. They will get Kenyon Martin back, George Karl is signing back on and maybe ‘Melo looks at Miami and decides he doesn’t need the aggravation. I still see him opting for New York after the season, which may mean playing it out in Denver and only then going to have his life ruined.

9. Thunder. It’s tough to be the MVP when someone on your team is playing better. Russell Westbrook can be wild, is no real point guard, but few have an explosive first step like him on a straight line to the rim. It gives Durant another big time threat and they’ve got some good pieces with Green and Serge Ibaka, the latter a real find. I wonder, though, if they’ll look to move Green in a big package as it’s hard to see paying him and Westbrook. Look, someone played defense!

10. Hornets. This still is a lot better than I thought they’d be, when I predicted preseason they’d miss the playoffs. They have played hard and tough for new coach Monty Williams, but who knows what ultimate effect the league takeover combined with vastly declining attendance will have, though they haven’t won since talk came out. No truth they are changing the name to New Orleans Sterns. Or House of David.

11. Bulls. Carlos Boozer is going to help. Carlos Boozer is going to help. You’ve got to keep repeating it. He will, I’m sure, but as most understood he won’t be up to speed for awhile, which sets back the team. But there’s a long streak of games against sub-.500 types ahead. The bigger issue is shooting guard to space the floor. Anyone got a number for John Mengelt?

12. Hawks. I even hesitate on this high. Joe Johnson will be back, though he’s out six weeks now. But it’s a group that looks ready to crack with Jamal Crawford likely leaving as a free agent and Josh Smith said to be available and difficult at times. Can’t the league buy them, too?

13. Knicks. Playoffs! Could it be? I know they’ve been really hot of late, which tends to skew these things, but Stoudemire, so far, has been easily the best of the free agent big men. He’s supposed to break down in two or three seasons, but he’s been a good addition. Also, the petitions finally freed Ray Felton from Larry Brown. Mike D’Antoni is a shooter’s dream in comparison. And wait until they get Eddy Curry back. Right, Mike?

14. Phoenix. The incomparable Steve Nash. That’s all anyone can say given the mess of a roster they’ve assembled. Given, Jason Richardson has come on big time, but the Salvation Army is collecting rebounds for them at Christmas.

15. Memphis. They’ve been a bit of a disappointment as they now have a roster that should be better than they’ve been with some depth as O.J. Mayo is sixth man. Marc Gasol isn’t having as much impact and Zach Randolph has been a bit distracted without his extension. Everyone will be watching to see if they trade. How’s that Thabeet pick working out? They’re now hoping he becomes half as good as Darko.

16. Bucks. I’m still a believer. That Andrew Bogut will recover. Sometime. That, too. It was a risk taking on guys who’ve had injury pasts like Maggette and Gooden, so they’ve been out. But Scott Skiles has a habit of getting guys to finish seasons strong and I am a Skilesophile. I love it when he bites the head off a live chicken later in the season in a film session.

17. Pacers. One of the minor early season surprises, a surprise being that they aren’t 5-15. They’ve actually played some decent defense and Roy Hibbert has to be Most Improved since there appeared to be no way he’d ever be even another Wallace Bryant. Give T.J. Ford credit for holding it together and helping as they openly sought replacements, including a comeback for Lenny Wilkens.

18. Rockets. They’re the toughest to figure with this Yao conundrum for the season on whether and how much he’ll play. Aaron Brooks will change their game when he finally returns soon, and they’ve got enough potential scoring to make a move. It’s just impossible to blend that with Yao. Brad Miller continues to believe he’s gone to heaven with open gun laws.

19. 76ers. No one has blown more close, tough games. Teams usually break with that, and Doug Collins usually beats them to it. But if Collins can keep them together and perhaps make a move with Andre Iguodala they could be tough enough to recover and get going with Elton Brand having a comeback season. Hey, Doug came as a player after they were 9-73. He’s seen worse.

20. Bobcats. This has figured to be the breaking point year for Larry Brown with a depleted roster. Stephen Jackson already has written a letter of apology to the fans, but where’s Tyrus Thomas’? He’ll certainly have to at some point.

21. Trail Blazers. This is a team’s death spiral. With Greg Oden gone and Brandon Roy dragging his leg and badly slowed, they could be close to blowing it up and making major changes. They took their shot. It didn’t work. When that occurs, you can’t get caught up in hope and wishes. The city council in this liberal area has this now as a no nukes and no center zone.

22. Clippers. I just think that somehow, some way, when you have someone like Blake Griffin things are going to turn. I said preseason by the end of the season he could be the best power forward in the West and I see no reason to change (Pau is a center). If he ever developed a shot like Karl Malone did after Malone couldn’t make a free throw as a rookie, oooh, oooh. Now only if someone tells Baron Davis it’s not a 28-game college schedule and he allows Vinny to speak to him.

23. Warriors. Monta Ellis is the Pud Galvin of the NBA, nothing but complete games. I’ve been waiting years to make a Pud Galvin reference. Monta led the league in playing 48 minute games last season and is there again. They’ve got a lot of offense, if little bench, and no real point guard. But, heck, that’s just details when you live where they debate banning toys from fast food meals. No one can take anyone there too seriously.

24. Timberwolves. The league’s leading rebounding team? Who knew? Kevin Love can’t jump and Darko is, well, Darko, but not horrible. They’re getting Jonny Flynn back and might actually stop blowing so many fourth quarter leads. Michael Beasley can score, but he purchased a GPS to find his man on defense.

25. Raptors. Losing Reggie Evans was tough, though how much does it matter if a good rebounder falls and a team that can’t make the playoffs anyway can’t hear? Huh? That will give some time to rookie Ed Davis and they still kid me every time I go there about my stories years ago that basketball cannot make it in Canada. Has it?

26. Wizards. I still believe someone will come for Gilbert Arenas as he’s played well, and he actually works better with Kirk Hinrich as John Wall is their future, but not a basketball player yet. Considering that, if Blatche and McGee were they’d have something going. They still are running up big deficits on defense, so John Boehner said he’s going to make sure they lose.

27. Pistons. Tracy McGrady says the offense needs to go through him. Uh oh. Could anyone actually be listening? I think their starting five was outrebounded last week by Earl Boykins. They need to make a move with their guards. Free Ben Gordon! Free Ben Gordon!

28. Nets. In the interest of full disclosure, I criticized the Thunder for picking Brook Lopez over Westbrook. I said if Oklahoma City only had a center. I could say the same about the Nets. Lopez has been a disappointing rebounder and eventually Favors will be there, but not yet. Though this is the best NBA team the city ever has called its own.

29. Cavs. I think they have more talent, but I don’t know how you recover from that complete surrender to LeBron last week and then the revisionist history they were really mad at James and the laughing and hugging and smiling was in anger. If only you’d have been close enough to hear. Now the city hates the team more than it does LeBron. OK, almost. Dan Gilbert is now composing a letter on what a disappointment Booby Gibson is. And asking himself how he can pay someone who is willing to call himself “Booby.”

30. Kings. DeMarcus Cousins. Hey, they picked him. It did seem like the right idea on paper. They also unleashed Tyreke Evans as a scorer last season and now can’t rein him in as he thinks he’s Durant. No one wants to build them a new arena, and they don’t understand why.

Does the Second City need a second team?

-- The Orlando Sentinel said the Magic when they were unsure of getting a new arena were contemplating asking the NBA to allow them to move and become a second team in Chicago. Similarly, media reports last week regarding the Hornets being taken over by the league speculated if the team is moved it could try to become the second city’s second team. The Grizzlies talked about this when they were moving from Vancouver, but the same issues exist today as then: There is no second arena suitable for an NBA team. NBA commissioner David Stern said he would not support a return to Seattle or a team in Las Vegas because neither city has a suitable NBA arena. And in this economy, good luck finding someone to build a privately financed NBA arena to compete with the Bulls and the long term deals of the United Center. … As for Orlando, doesn’t it make sense for both teams, though there have been the usual denials, to move Gilbert Arenas and his heinous contract for Rashard Lewis and his and the Magic get a scorer and get a real power forward playing in Brandon Bass?. … You can’t say bust, but No. 2 overall pick Evan Turner doesn’t appear to have an NBA shooting guard’s game. Coach Doug Collins moved him to the second unit for shooter Jodie Meeks, and the 76ers have responded better. Turner has struggled to play with a point guard the way Turner likes to handle the ball and given just OK athleticism, Turner might truly be more a point forward type player as more facilitator than scorer. Turner is shooting 42 percent and nine percent on threes. … Avery Johnson finally got on a growing softer Brook Lopez, who in the last seven games has grabbed more than six rebounds once despite averaging almost 37 minutes. He is averaging 6.2 on the season while his scoring is well up. … I was no big fan of Boston’s Shaq pickup, but I have to admit he’s been good, averaging about 12 and 6.6 in 23 minutes as the Celtics have given up more than 100 just twice in the last 10 and have won seven straight and seem the class of the East. … The rumors were strong again last week during the latest Heat-fest that Doc Rivers is Pat Riley’s fantasy pick to coach the Heat next season. The thinking has been given the salary restrictions of this season, Riley knows he doesn’t have a championship team yet. But he has them all under long term deals, so this is a season to get in position and then move in the big time coach and motivator as Riley really, really doesn’t want to coach again. And what better choice than Rivers, who lives in Orlando and seemingly a few months from losing a second job has emerged among the elite coaches in the NBA. He was named East coach of the month for November, and Kevin Garnett suggested if Doc goes he’s not sure he wants to stay. Said Garnett to Boston media: I told Danny (Ainge, general manager), ‘The day you get rid of Doc is the day I tip my hat to the Boston area and the Boston fans’. I love Doc. He’s a credit to our success. He’s always motivating you, pushing you. I love him for that.” Rivers said he intends to stay in Boston, but it makes too much sense toward the end of the Boston run not to take the Miami opportunity as that group should win some championships.

Is it time to take the Knicks seriously?

-- That’s seven straight on the road with the Knicks’ win in Toronto Sunday, and that’s tough in the NBA no matter the opposition. The Knicks suddenly seem to have a team to be taken seriously with Ray Felton and Amar’e Stoudemire running a pretty mean pick and roll. Stoudemire is averaging 24.6 and 8.7 rebounds while Felton is surprising at 18.2 points and 8.4 assists, and now you begin to wonder if LeBron James might, indeed, not been better off in New York given his outsized demands for attention. James finally would have had a coach who got him into the open floor, but it seems James never was interested as one Knicks insider said during their meeting with James the star free agent basically never spoke while when James met with other teams he was engaged in the presentations and the give and take. … One big surprise in New York of late has been reprobate Shawne Williams in the Donnie Walsh former Pacers halfway house. Walsh last season gave a shot to Jonathan Bender, but Williams has come on with double digit scoring games the last two and has shot himself into the team’s rotation. … The Bucks Saturday survived Orlando’s hack-a-Bogut, who missed seven straight before converting three in a row to end the tactic and save the Bucks. On making those three, said Bogut: “I just closed my eyes and threw the ball up and it went in.”

NBA news and notes

-- Free throw shooting has been no joke to the Bulls, who are 27th in the league at just under 71 percent. Perhaps they could take some hints from the traditionally poor Spurs, who are third in the league at better than 80 percent. Five Spurs—Manu Ginobili (90.7 percent), George Hill (84.8), Tony Parker (81.2), Antonio McDyess (84.2) and DeJuan Blair (84.2)—are shooting a career high with Blair last season 54.7 percent. Even Tim Duncan is over 70 percent. The Spurs use shooting coach Chip Engelland, who worked with Steve Kerr, and are fourth in the league in scoring at more than 106 per game, a high since Gregg Popovich has coached. It does make a difference. … Free throwing is something to consider when the Bulls host the Thunder Monday. Kevin Durant shot 23 for 26 from the line to beat the Bulls in the Bulls’ opener and Sunday the due combined for 22 of 25 free throwing as the Thunder shot 92.5 percent on free throws for the game to beat Golden State. The Thunder leads the NBA in free throwing with an astounding 85 percent. Kyle Korver is the only Bull shooting better than the Thunder team average. Might want to play zone to keep those guys from penetrating. … The Suns have won three straight with Earl Barron their starting center. … The Pistons bounced Will Bynum from the rotation to thin out its guard excess and he might be a good pickup for someone as an adept pick-and-roll player. … Classic Tracy McGrady, who had 13 points against the Knicks and declared the Pistons’ offense should run through him. In the last three games, he’s been scoreless twice and is shooting 11 percent on threes. … If a game is going to define a season, it may be the Cavs’ joking surrender to LeBron and the Heat last week. Saturday, the Cavs have up 18 threes and 129 points in losing to Minnesota without Michael Beasley and then Sunday lost to the Pistons in giving up more than 100 points after Detroit had averaged 80 the previous three. … Too often these days there’s way too much media and way too much player commentary, and though they garble out some inarticulate stuff most of the time, you do have to give the Heat guys credit for facing up to their public and fan responsibilities, especially given the attacks they’ve endured. Though I had to laugh at Wade, another Mr. Malaprop along with LeBron, when there was an obviously LeBron-posse planted story last week questioning coach Erik Spoelstra that a few wins last week seemed to bury for awhile. So Wade was asked about his guy, as he’s called him in the past, and told Miami reporters, "In this league, and in sports in general, you really don't look at it and say a coach is your guy. A coach is a coach and he has to take hard stances at times, more times than not. Players and coaches, it's always that kind of weird type of relationship. You don't look at him and say, 'That's my guy right there.' He's a different person and I'm a different player than when we came in. So I'm not going to say he's my guy, but he's our coach, you know." That’s Mr. Loyalty for you, as he’s suggested about himself.

-- He’s not That Tim Duncan anymore, but last week to go then 15-2 in beating the Warriors, Duncan had his first triple-double in eight years with 15 points, 18 rebounds and 11 assists. Said Duncan: “I’ve been asking (to play point guard) for 14 years.”… This should be interesting. Mark Cuban has been a bane of sorts to owners with his at times reckless contracts, like the $52 million for Brendan Haywood, who barely plays now behind a rejuvenated Tyson Chandler in a contract season. So is Caron Butler. And now Cuban has been appointed to the ownership labor committee committed to having a hard line with players about cutting salaries and league costs. … The Hornets basically have gone in the tank since word began to spill out the league is having to buy and run the team, unprecedented in this NBA era. They’ve lost four of five and six of eight with the effort and interest a mess. Home attendance has crashed, and now you can imagine the other 29 owners not exactly wanting to support a team competing against them. David West can opt out after this season and Chris Paul after next. Are we talking a mid season house cleaning to slash the payroll, which is a bit below the luxury tax threshold but still in the league’s top half. So the struggling Pacers or Kings are supposed to help subsidize the Hornets? If New Orleans is close to making the playoffs do they get to add payroll to potentially knock out another team, a team now helping subsidize them? All indications are commissioner David Stern wants the Hornets to remain, though you have to ask why if with this kind of start and an exciting team they still cannot draw.

-- We’ve seen this one before, and the Bulls could tell the Grizzlies only bad stuff lies ahead. The disappointing Grizzlies are 8-13 as coach Lionel Hollins blew up at them, telling the Memphis Commercial Appeal, “We have a lot of different agendas for whatever reasons there are. We have nobody stepping up and calling anybody out for lackluster effort or for not doing the job they’re supposed to be doing. That is leadership.” The Grizzlies paid Rudy Gay and Mike Conley long term deals and now have moved the offense more through them. Zach Randolph, Marc Gasol and O.J. Mayo are looking for extensions. The Bulls had this with Ben Gordon, Kirk Hinrich and Luol Deng when players are seeking extensions and you pay some and not the others, and those issues led that team to collapse. And so it seems with the Grizzlies, who as they fall out of things could get in the trade market with Randolph and Mayo, the latter now coming off the bench and actually last man off the bench in Sunday’s loss to Denver. He is two of nine shooting the last two games and a shadow of what he was. The Grizzlies have shown no inclination as yet to trade him, though given he was a No. 3 overall pick and career 18 point scorer, for the Bulls it would cost at least Taj Gibson and a No. 1. And could you afford that with Gibson playing a vital defensive platoon with Carlos Boozer, even if Mayo were available? … Said one opposing coach about Brandon Roy: “Can’t move anymore. Makes me sad to watch.” … The guy to watch being moved given the shaky state of the Trail Blazers is point guard Andre Miller. With just one more season left at a reasonable salary, he’ll draw a lot of interest and it’s difficult to see Portland going anywhere at this point. Actually, the Blazers may have found one of the rarest species in the NBA, the undrafted go to guy. Marquette’s Wesley Matthews is starting and has now scored at least 20 points in six of their last nine games with four of those 25 or more. … It’s always an event later this week as Phil Jackson and the Lakers come to the United Center. It’s been a bit of a stumble of late for the Lakers with Pau Gasol saying he is tiring playing so much with Andrew Bynum out, Kobe trying to shoot them out of it and Phil lobbying management for more players with management saying they already have the highest payroll in the league. Little noticed in the daily dramas is Ron Artest with basically career lows across the board and averaging about 8.2, almost half his career average. But Artest doesn’t seem like he’s ever been happier, last week reveling in a punked interview he did with a Houston radio station pretending to be Luis Scola, even trying his version of a “foreign” accent which Artest said was “Arabian” mixed with Jamaican and Hebrew. After having thanked his psychiatrist when the Lakers won the title last June, I’m guessing Artest is heavily medicated and finally at peace. … Tweeting has become fashionable among athletes and if you see what they have to say you often wish they didn’t. But you have to get a kick out of Steve Nash’s (@the_real_Nash), who with the 2022 World Cup going to Qatar wrote: "No beer in Qatar? No Canadians going! The bribe must have been large to outbid Budweiser's sponsorship."

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