Power rankings as the NBA hits the first quarter pole

Sam Smith at Bulls.com

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Pau, Kobe, Phil and Ron have claimed the top spot in Sam Smith's power rankings.

(Jesse D. Garrabrant/NBAE/Getty Images)

I’m not sure when this all began. But one of the staples of NBA writing has become the so-called power ratings, the one through 30 ranking of the teams.

It’s a nice occasional overview of the league, though it’s become laughable as you see it in many outlets every week of the season. So how after three games can you rate teams? The proper way to do this, of course, is my way. Who could disagree? Which is why I’m offering my quarterly rankings as most teams hit the 20-game mark this week.

The NBA is best divided into quarters of about 20 games each. After 20 games, teams generally get the sense of who they are given they’ve generally had one significant road trip, though the Lakers have lucked out this far and probably aren’t quite as good as they seem. Teams, like the Bulls, do deal with injuries, so the analysis isn’t quite accurate, though you start to understand how good you are. Which is also why it’s good timing that the free agent signed players can first be traded in mid-December, when teams have gotten their first full look at their season. So here’s an overview as the NBA hits the first quarter pole in this 82-game horse race.

1. Lakers: Not by that much given their easy schedule thus far. But their impressive size up front and the addition of the toughness from Ron Artest makes them more formidable. The bench isn’t much, though, and they’re less a certainty than coming into the season.

2. Celtics: Kevin Garnett looks almost all the way back and Rajon Rondo seems to have overcome his lethargy from getting his contract. If they weren’t such a poor rebounding team they’d be my No. 1. They’re the league’s best in disrupting offenses and lead in margin of victory, usually the best indicator of the eventual best record.

3. Magic: Perhaps the most indefensible team when they have it going inside/outside with Dwight Howard. But he still can’t be counted on to make a free throw. They don’t miss Jameer Nelson and could make a move to bolster the team with a pair of valuable reserves who don’t play much, Marcin Gortat and Brandon Bass. Jason Williams has been a pleasant surprise.

4. Nuggets: Before the season the consensus was five teams, the three above plus the Cavs and Spurs, were the only ones who could win the championship. Now, I’d say it’s just the three above. Carmelo Anthony is nearing the Kobe-Wade-LeBron axis and could take this team far again. They have a huge home court edge playing fast as they do, but the front line seems too small and erratic to finish the deal.

5. Hawks: Lots of good players; no real great ones. A huge decision will come in February given they don’t draw well, have historic ownership problems and likely are unable to pay free agent to be Joe Johnson. Will they deal him or try to make a run?

6. Cavaliers: The Shaq experiment seems a failure already as they play him sporadically and Zydrunas Ilgauskas still seems a better fit with LeBron James. Shaq and Z didn’t work and Shaq doesn’t with V (Anderson Varejao), who plays close to the basket because he can’t shoot. Their guards are tiny and LeBron seems headed to another pouting ending. Will it lead out of town? My guess would be no.

7. Mavericks: You wonder what they’d be with Josh Howard, or whether they’re better off without him. He’d seem to be a heck of a trading chip if he were healthy. They’ve combined older veterans with quick kids remarkably well and gotten a lot out of a makeshift center spot where they’d hoped to have had Gortat until the Magic matched their offer. Dallas’ Howard for Gortat and some extra stuff as Gortat expressed some dismay about his bench situation.

8. Suns: One of the biggest early surprises with a blastoff start in a return to their quicker game with stunning performances from Steve Nash and Grant Hill. They remain woefully small up front, so can it last? Likely not. They’ve befuddled some good teams, though we’ll see second time around.

9. Jazz: They were supposed to trade Carlos Boozer, but don’t seem interested despite being some $12 million over the luxury tax. Free agent Boozer’s come on impressively and with some terrific play from kids like Marquette’s undrafted Wesley Matthews they’re recovering from a poor finish to last season.

10.Rockets: They’re a terrific story with Yao out and Tracy McGrady around, though they’re keeping him from returning to upset their chemistry, apparently. They run and compete and without much height, depth or great talent, they show what you can do if you don’t give up and attack every game with passion.

11. Trail Blazers: We’ll see the effect of losing Greg Oden again for the season, if not his career, with another serious knee injury. I’d guess his time as an impact player is over for sure now. What a cursed franchise and kid. Too bad. Actually, they often do better with LaMarcus Aldridge at center, though he doesn’t like the pounding. It was disappointing from a team standpoint to hear Brandon Roy’s whining about how Andre Miller disturbs his game and Oden crowds him out. They’re a bit of an oversensitive group that probably leads the league in soul cleansing sessions.

12. Spurs: They looked like a top contender coming in with the additions of Richard Jefferson and Antonio McDyess, and perhaps it still will happen. But they look older and slower too often, as coach Gregg Popovich tinkers with combinations constantly. They’re one of the teams you hear most in the market to make a deal.

13. Heat: Dwyane Wade is terrific, but it seems mostly to go to waste as he has to carry an amazing load game after game with sporadic help. This season has to be taking two years off his career, which is what many said of Patrick Ewing playing in a Pat Riley system. The general consensus seems to be that’s where Chris Bosh will land as a free agent. And then Wade can start thinking about playing with the big kids.

14. Hornets: They actually hung in well and sustained without Chris Paul and should get a boost now. David West has shown some life of late and they finally seem to have a bit of a bench with the kids who competed while Paul was out.

15. Thunder: Kevin Durant could lead the league in scoring. That gives them a great talent, but they still struggle with someone to run the team as Russell Westbrook really is a shooting guard along with Thabo Sefolosha and James Harden. They’re just short of competing with the top teams.

16.Raptors: Again, will they try to trade Bosh before they perhaps lose him? The notion is they’ll do better in the summer in a sign and trade, but that’s flawed logic as then you have to take players from the team the player chooses. They’ve played a bit harder of late, but if they return to their defensively pathetic ways, they could be the story of the trading deadline in February.

17. Pistons: Another team with major injuries and perhaps major trade possibilities once Richard Hamilton and Tayshaun Prince return. Their bench should be awfully good, at least, and they’ve gotten a career revival from Ben Wallace. Figured.

18. Bulls: They’re not looking like a playoff team anymore with a worrisome series of blowout losses, though having Tyrus Thomas and Kirk Hinrich out has caught up with them. None of the bottom East contenders are playing well, either, so it should be a battle into April for eight teams, including the Bulls, with a legitimate shot at just the last three playoff spots in the East. Boston. Orlando, Cleveland, Atlanta and Miami seem locked into the top five.

19. Wizards: We keep thinking they are better than they are with all that talent. Just way, way too many guards and they have to make a deal. I’d move Gilbert Arenas if I could, though I doubt they have the nerve. But it doesn’t seem he and Caron Butler can coexist anymore. It’s a team looking for counseling.

20. Bucks: A tough team to play. If they can keep Andrew Bogut interested and healthy, they’ve got a chance to be in that playoff hunt with prize rookie Brandon Jennings, who is going to have a tough time making it through that rookie wall the way defenses are attacking him.

21. Kings: What a nice job they’ve done in the draft and maybe with the top rookie in Tyreke Evans, who quietly has been more productive of late than Jennings. They’ve been one of the big surprises and making Paul Westphal a legitimate coach of the year candidate. If you told me before the season someone would open with 18 losses, I’d have said the Kings.

22. Clippers: I still think there’s something there, but that’s assuming Blake Griffin comes back strong from his injury. I had him as my sure rookie of the year, and that seems doubtful now with the play of the great guard class. But they’ve got impressive size once he returns and Baron Davis has been at least interested.

23. Grizzlies: Really not a bad team that could move up as the season goes on. They’ve got legitimate performers at every position, and Marc Gasol is a pleasant surprise at center. If they buy in with Lionel Hollins they could move up as moving out Allen Iverson was a break.

24. Bobcats: Another team that will get better, or could, as the season goes on. Larry Brown teams generally do, as the Bobcats did last season. Which means I’d expect another trade after the Stephen Jackson deal, as Brown now seems down on D.J. Augustin and Boris Diaw.

25. Knicks: It looks like Mike D’Antoni is just sick of the losing and decided he’d play all the guys who will be gone after the season to steal some wins and save his coaching reputation. Their so-called young core won’t attract any big free agents, though money will bring in someone. Their great free agent experiment was worth a try, but the rules changed with the lower cap. The same happened to the Bulls when the labor agreement of 1999 created a salary ceiling. The Bulls would have gotten a major free agent in 2000 if not for that.

26. Warriors: How long can Nellie stay away? They play so much freer without Nelson, who’s been ill and creates the scenario for him not to return. He insists he’ll be back. We’ll see. What they do with emerging star Monta Ellis is the key to the season, as forgotten center Andris Biedrins is close to a return.

27. Pacers: Even though he was an All-Star last season, I’ve always had my doubts about Danny Granger given him jacking so many bad jumpers when he can get to the basket so easily. They seem to be collapsing and it would seem that coach Jim O’Brien may have run his course and change is coming.

28. 76ers: Yes, Allen Iverson is back. It actually should produce some short term economic gain, some extra wins and more enjoyment for those who do attend. So what’s wrong with that? But Iverson isn’t about to change who he is, or can. Lou Williams will be back. Eddie Jordan can’t want any part of this. This act was fun to watch, but 10 years ago.

29. Timberwolves: They’ve recovered some with Kevin Love returning. Al Jefferson still is rounding into form from his knee surgery, so they’ll get better. It’s not until the next few seasons we’ll see if all the moves made sense, as they contemplate deals and not drafting from overseas again. But those are long seasons to get through.

30. Nets: How could they not be? They’re not as bad as that 0-18 start, though no one before ever was. Devin Harris and Courtney Lee are back and Brook Lopez is going to be a top scoring center. But talk about your holes to dig out of. And the reward is going to Brooklyn? Wonder if they know the Dodgers left?

Thomas for Harrington talk dies down

-- Well, that was a fun week with the Tyrus Thomas/Al Harrington rumor. Just about everyone on both sides seems to have thrown cold water on it as more speculation than reality. It does make some theoretical sense as the Bulls need scoring badly as they rank just barely ahead of the Nets at the bottom of the league. Are we talking shootout at the UC Tuesday? And the Knicks, well, who knows what they need. Harrington pretty much has gone off on a scoring spree since the rumored appeared, averaging 26.5 points and 9.5 rebounds and telling Knicks reporters that being mentioned in trade with a guy with a broken arm is like being offered for “a bag of balls.” C’mon now. Actually, I prefer Thomas. I see Harrington as a big scorer on a bad team type of player, a guy who tends to hold the ball (the Bulls have been trying to break John Salmons of that habit), stops the offense and doesn’t defend much. Imagine how many bad habits you pick up playing in Golden State and then New York? I thought it was interesting after the Bulls’ brutal loss to Toronto Saturday that Luol Deng quickly said offense wasn’t the team’s problem, but defense. I think for what the Bulls want to do Thomas is a better fit for now, as a player who can defend the rim, block shots and rebound. Taj Gibson has been great, but needs to go against second line players. Plus, Kirk Hinrich has probably been the team’s best defender this season, along with Joakim Noah. The Bulls and Knicks both insist there have been no such discussions close to any serious level about those players, but I wouldn’t make that deal if I could. Now if you could put together something for Chris Bosh or Joe Johnson…

Iverson’s return to Philly

-- Getting lost in the Allen Iverson furor was the return of Elton Brand from a hamstring strain and still coming off the bench. If many believe the Iverson signing will be a problem, the contract is not guaranteed and just a bit messy to cut him twice. The Brand signing is turning out to be the albatross for general manager Ed Stefanski as coach Eddie Jordan obviously seems no fan of Brand’s and Brand seems like he’s had enough. It was some eye opening comments from the usually politic Brand to the Philadelphia Inquirer about playing. Told Jordan said he wants to play Brand more, Brand shot back: "Of course he wants me to play 20 minutes. That’s what I’m playing: 25 minutes. That’s what he wants… I know Iverson can help us and do what he does and be that scorer, but I’m sure he wants to start, too. So, we’ve got two guys that want to start… I don’t think I have done anything to merit a bench spot.” Brand has three more seasons left after this season. He’s certainly available, it would seem, as Stefanski has been silent. You probably could get him just for expiring contracts. Pretty amazing given where he was two years ago. … The big story in Philadelphia, the NBA, really, is Iverson’s return Monday. You had to love the scene already, Iverson crying in his introductory press conference in expressing gratitude for being back home. "I've done a lot of things to bring it on myself, mistakes and decisions I've made throughout my career. That bad rap followed me and ended up hurting me," Iverson said. "I'm human. During my time here, I'm going to make mistakes again. It's going to happen." When Stefanski met with Iverson, he brought a pad that listed all Iverson’s past indiscretions. "That's the biggest notebook you have for all the issues with me?" Iverson cracked. "You need something the size of a phone book for all the issues people have with me." Coach Eddie Jordan called Iverson charming. He is. He’s a delight to be around. He was always the highlight of the media interviews at the All-Star game when the other players rolled their eyes at having to attend. Iverson always was there after games for reporters with stories and in depth examples and heartfelt explanations. He’s been a reporters’ delight. I’m surprised he wasn’t selling derivatives and mortgages. Iverson is a delightful con man, one of the best I’ve ever seen in sports. He’s a tough kid who came up in difficult circumstances and learned to survive early on his wits. He’s been a brilliant basketball player and certain Hall of Famer. He was a joy to watch. And he told the 76ers everything they wanted to hear and did it more convincingly than you can imagine. Nobody there now was there before. They don’t really know. The organization is irrelevant and needs attention. So does Iverson. So maybe it’s not a bad match. But Iverson will be the guy whom they couldn’t wait to move in Denver, Detroit and Memphis. And once he gets in the door, how do you get him out? He’s the cousin who came to dinner and won't leave. As usual with Iverson, it should be great theater.

Racking up the Ts in Boston

-- Rasheed Wallace is on pace to almost match his career high 41 technicals. Sixteen gets you suspended, and Kendrick Perkins is on pace for about 25. The Celtics are annoying with all the trash talking they do and then complain about everything that goes against them when they are perhaps the league’s most physical team. Rajon Rondo holds on so long you’d think he’s going steady with some of the guys he defends. ... Does being a professional coach even matter anymore? It’s quietly becoming a worrisome trend among many of the game’s coaching lifers who’ve worked decades and now see Kiki Vandeweghe, who ran some practices in Dallas, and Jeff Bower, who sat next to Tim Floyd for one season, running teams because they already were in the organization and were cheaper to use. “It seems anyone can coach now,” said one veteran. Said former Raptors coach Sam Mitchell when Toronto reporters caught up with him in Atlanta: “At some point you hope the owners start realizing that you just can't coach in this league without having coached. People sit there and think they can do it. ... If you could just do the Xs and Os, yeah, you might figure that out. But it's: ‘How do you deal with people? How do you deal with your team when you're down 20 at halftime?’ You have to know when to kick 'em in the [butt], and you have to know when to go in there and put your arms around 'em and love 'em? ... I had to learn that."… I really don’t know how he does it, but the Wizards signed 5-5 Earl Boykins when no one wanted him for the last two years and he’s now one of the top five fourth quarter scorers in the league and taking last shots for the Wizards. He is an amazing guy. … The speculation in New Jersey, though, is new assistant Del Harris eventually will replace Vandeweghe. I liked Orlando’s Stan Van Gundy on Lawrence Frank’s firing: “I guess it's Lawrence's fault that they wanted to go young and (make) cap space, and that everybody got hurt.”

The beat goes on in NYC

-- The goofy antics of the Knicks’ Nate Robinson finally got him dropped from the rotation (this was the guy they actually were selling as the face of the franchise last summer). It included shooting at the wrong basket purposely in a game when he heard the whistle blow and generally taking jumpers with his opposite hand or behind the bench like Chris Morris used to do during halftime warmups. Actually, I thought the Knicks would sign Iverson given they are pretty much playing out the season and have taken to benching most of their young players for veterans like Harrington, Larry Hughes and Chris Duhon, all not expected to be retained. Oh, and Eddy Curry is due back from injury again later this week. … It was interesting to hear LeBron James condemn coach Mike Brown for sitting Zydrunas Ilgauskas when his family was there to see him break the team’s game played record. It’s also intriguing during games to watch James often in animated conversations with Brown when plays are being called (wonder if LeBron is congratulating him for the good ideas?). … It’s difficult to see the Raptors with problems after the way they hammered the Bulls Saturday, but there was a team meeting to discuss the poor defense after Antoine Wright and Jarrett Jack questioned coach Jay Triano’s ability to be firm with the players and have a consistent game plan. There also has been talk of the team schism with so many European players, who tend to separate themselves from the Americans, a rare situation because no other team has so many international players “Every time something happens it's always, `It's okay, it's all right.' It's not all right," Jack told Toronto reporters. "Problems go by without attacking them or challenging them. We can't keep putting them to the back of the bus and just saying, `That's okay.'” And Wright said Triano has failed to "call out" under-performing Raptors because unnamed teammates are "too sensitive" to criticism. It may not please management, but it is leadership, and the Bulls could use a bit more of that based on what we saw from the Raptors Saturday night. Former coach Mitchell, living in Atlanta, attended the Raptors’ game there last week when they gave up 146 points. It was the one year anniversary of his firing after it was felt he was too demanding at times. The classic moment from that game was one Canadian reporter writing during that game the Hawks dance team had just gone on a 10-0 run on the Raptors.

Oden suffers another setback

-- It’s been a shocking season for the Trail Blazers now with the loss of Greg Oden, who is cursed more and more like Sam Bowie. Coach Nate McMillan ruptured his right Achilles tendon Friday morning while participating in a team practice, owner Paul Allen revealed this fall that he has cancer, and assistant coach Maurice Lucas has been hospitalized because his bladder cancer returned. Former starters Nicolas Batum and Travis Outlaw also are out most of the season after surgeries. Now Rudy Fernandez is out with back pain. Oden had been in his best stretch as a pro, though the team had been stumbling, as they’d gone from playing pick and roll and drive and kick with Brandon Roy and LaMarcus Aldridge to post passing to Oden first. Roy has struggled and while he didn’t seem to harbor any ill will toward Oden, it was remarkable to hear his seemingly selfish comments to the Oregonian: “How do I sacrifice and still be me? I'm trying to sacrifice... it just doesn't seem right." That’s right. It’s a team game except when you are not getting yours. You begin to wonder about Roy, who first said he wasn’t comfortable playing with Andre Miller, he wasn’t comfortable playing small forward to accommodate a small backcourt and then said he wasn’t comfortable deferring to Oden. Before Oden went out, Roy said, "I think teams are happy with how we are playing right now. They are like, 'We aren't getting your best shot.' I mean, they are thinking Greg is good, L.A. is good, but I can tell my man is there going, 'Whew! Off the hook again.'” Wow! Like the rest of the league says about Roy, “Yeah, the guy is good. But a maximum contract. C’mon, you must be kidding.”

NBA news and notes

-- It’s a nice story for Maywood’s Shannon Brown, who had a dozen points Sunday in the Lakers’ blowout of the Suns. He is averaging 6.1 per game as the dynamic bench player for the Lakers and the Lakers now have a web site promoting Brown for the All Star dunk contest. It’s a happy rebirth for the former No. 1 draft pick of the Cavs from Michigan State who came to the Bulls in the Ben Wallace deal but rarely played. Likewise with Charlotte before he went to the Lakers in the Adam Morrison/Vladimir Radmanovic deal and was the surprise. He shot 48 percent on threes for the Lakers in the playoffs on the way to the 2009 title and now holds the distinction of having played (rarely) with LeBron James and Kobe Bryant and having been in the Finals with the Lakers and Cavs, though watching with Cleveland. "I'm getting an opportunity to show I can do more than dunk," Brown told L.A. reporters. "I didn't get here because I had all dunks. I got here because of my hard work and my defense and things of that nature. But it's good for people to notice you for something positive." … So can Joakim Noah’s shot be fixed as well. Noah explained the shot we call “the tornado” came about when he was a kid and couldn’t reach the basket so had to twirl the ball up there. Similarly for Kings rookie Tyreke Evans, who shot the ball something like a soccer player throwing a ball in. "As a kid I could never reach the basket, so I would just put it up as high as I could and use all my strength," Evans told the Sacramento Bee. Evans, whom many feel has passed Brandon Jennings for top rookie consideration, has changed his motion and improved his shot thanks to 1,000 shots a day with Kings staff.

-- One of the big surprises for Miami this season has been DePaul’s own Quentin Richardson, who has been a top defender with the team 9-5 when he plays, though he continues to be in and out with back issues. The Heat has gotten a lot from veterans many doubted like Richardson and Jermaine O’Neal. Dwyane Wade watched somewhat admiringly not as Kobe Bryant hit that ridiculous going away three-point banker to beat the Heat Friday, but with Bryant’s impressive so called supporting cast. “He got the team he wanted,” Wade said. Which tells the Heat Wade wants that as well. And quickly. … It’s not a great reputation to have, but it’s why most always doubt Denver, and it was even the lowly Timberwolves bringing it up after winning in Denver. "They're known as a team that will relax,'' said Damien Wilkins. "They did just that. They relaxed just enough and we played hard enough.” … I know it’s tough for Derrick Rose, who’s terminally shy, but you had to love what happened before Aaron Brooks hit a jumper to beat the Warriors last week. Coach Rick Adelman had called a pick and roll to free Brooks, but Brooks in the huddle talked Adelman out of it. "He said, ‘I can get around this guy. If they play pick-and-roll, they could double me.’ He was right,” Adelman told the Houston Chronicle. Related Brooks: "I was like, ‘We might, please, please, maybe please do a isolation? Please, coach, please.’ Luckily, he said, ‘Yeah, OK.’"….With loads of injuries again, the Rockets changed their game and went from 30th in the league last season in fast break points to fifth. I also liked what Adelman did in putting little Brooks on the Clippers Rasual Butler. Seeing the mismatch, the Clippers fell for it and went to Butler and away from their inside game and lost. "We told Aaron to just make him keep making jump shots," Adelman said. "It left our bigs on the boards. We just felt it was worth a try." It’s that kind of stuff that gets overlooked but why Adelman is always one of the best, if most underrated, of coaches.

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