The 2014-15 NBA season is actually already far past its midway point. As of this past Monday, 723 of the season’s 1230 games (59%) are already behind us. By now, the season is more in the past than the present, and in mathematical terms, we are in the highly significant portion of the regular season sample.
Of course, much of the remaining regular season schedule is mostly academic at this point (barring game changing trades or injuries of course). We pretty much know which teams will be in the postseason, and the remaining drama is in the battle for seeds and in any attrition teams might suffer in the interim.
It is therefore a perfect time to look back, evaluate the teams, and make some judgments and recommendations in my NBA Mid-Season Team Rankings and Player Report Cards.
Some background information explaining the methodology follows for those of you seeing this style of ranking for the first time. A full explanation of the methods behind it is here. In brief, here are explanations of metrics used to calculate team rankings:
- The game data is courtesy of Basketball Reference.
- I take the results of all the games and use a rather nifty variation of a Kalman Filter to come up with a running estimation of every team’s strength (Editors note: a much more in-depth look at a similar method can be seen here courtesy of Jirka Poropudas). Done right, this method does a very good job of measuring the state of the NBA in real time and we can use it for forecasting the relative ranking of all teams. It lets me quantify some general expectations for matchups and build a simulation and playoff odds report.
- Some of the important numbers I calculate:
- Point Margin per Game: (Pts scored by team) – (Pts scored by opponent) / games played
- Home court Point Margin per Game: Point Margin per game due to the schedule and homecourt advantage.
- Adjusted Point Margin per Game: (Point Margin per Game) – (Home court Point Margin per Game). Schedule independent point margin (neutral site at sea level)
- Adjusted Opponent Point Margin: The average Point Margin per Game of a team’s opponents.
- Point Margin Now: This is RPM estimated using the modified Kalman Filter. This is the number I use to rank.
- Neutral Site Win %: A win projection using the Point Margin Now and the relationship between point margin and win% (RPM/31 + .500 is a quick shorthand for this formula but not entirely accurate; after all, we gotta have some secrets)
- Offensive Possessions: I’m a bit non-classical here. I define an offensive possession as any play after which the shot clock is reset. I approximate this number as
- Offensive Possessions= Field Goal Attempts + Turnovers + 44% of Free Throw Attempts
- For Total Offensive Possessions in a game I just add up Team and Opponent Offensive Possessions
- Offensive Rank: I calculate this based on Team points scored per Offensive Possessions.
- Defensive Rank: I calculate this based on Opponent points allowed per Opponent Offensive Possessions.
To explain the metrics used in the player report cards, here are some flash cards:
Let’s get then to the latest power rankings. (All team numbers are as of 02/02/15, and player numbers are as of 02/01/15. The previous rankings can be found here.)
First, the team rankings (remember, this is a reflection of how teams are playing now):
And now the simulation for the remaining season (please note that the simulation now includes division winner odds):
Let’s now get to the detailed Rankings featuring some really nifty charts. It’s about to get visual (click all images to enlarge).
#1: Atlanta Hawks
Neutral Site Win %: 71.3% (up 1 place; #4 in offense, #8 in defense)
The Hawks have been a wrecking ball this season. There’s this, which I made when their win streak reached 18…..
…and also this:
The streak may have ended in New Orleans, but the Hawks are still #1. Kyle Korver has been amazing, as has Al Horford. But more than that, their top six overall has killed.
Normally, I’d be the first calling for caution with the Hawks. But given the history of teams on runs like this (they win the title more often than not) and the fact that the Hawks are pulling the San Antonio Spurs’ “win while not playing players any heavy minutes tricks” (the high man is Paul Millsap at 33.4 minutes per game), I have to be bullish on this team.
They’re going to miss Thabo Sefolosha (out for approximately six weeks with a calf injury) but their depth and their lead is big enough that it won’t matter. What will be really interesting for this team is how they’ll fare come playoff time, particularly against veteran teams. History tells us that it’s very hard for a team of mostly playoff newcomers (as the Hawks in relative terms are) to get any calls in the playoffs. That, and that fellow in Cleveland with the MVP awards, is what keeps me from calling them prohibitive title favorites.
#2: Golden State Warriors
Neutral Site Win %: 70% (down 1 place; #5 in offense, #1 in defense)
The crazy part about the Warriors’ dominant first half is that they’ve only had their all-world defensive center Andrew Bogut available for about half that time. It’s kind of stunning that they’re also doing all this with Andre Iguodala having, for him, a terrible year. Nonetheless, Steph Curry is your MVP by any mathematical measure of production, and head coach Steve Kerr has also done a tremendous job of playing the right guys.
Our #2 team may have hit a rough patch recently but, if healthy, this team is the class of the West and perhaps the entire NBA. My only concern with them remains the lack of any real playoff experience. This is a roster with zero minutes played in the conference finals and the NBA finals. I love this team, but I feel their fate remains a heartbreaking loss in the Conference Finals unless they make a trade (KG for David Lee works), or they run into a rejuvenated Spurs team in round 1.
#3: Dallas Mavericks
Neutral Site Win %: 68% (no change; #2 in offense, #16 in defense)
Why exactly are the Mavericks here at number three, you might ask, despite being only the #6 seed in their conference? Partly because Tyson Chandler is a franchise, championship-winning center, and is playing like it. Fuelled by his play, the Mavericks have been playing better recently
However, this is a team built more for the postseason than the regular season. The real challenge for them is actually this:
The above chart is the same information as the first one, but only from games played since January 24th. As can be seen, Al-Farouq Aminu and Rajon Rondo have been their two best players recently, but, given their offensive limitations, it’s hard to play them both together against an elite defensive team. This wouldn’t be a problem if Chandler Parsons and Devin Harris weren’t currently Dallas’s worst players per minute. The Mavericks need Parsons not to be a complete atrocity on the defensive end to actually have a shot. Either that or Rondo being passable on offense would help.
Regardless, I’m going to call Dallas contender #3, and the first with the historical pedigree in their roster (Tyson, Dirk, Rondo, Carlisle) to actually win it all.
#4: Los Angeles Clippers
Neutral Site Win %: 67.1% (up 1; #1 in offense, #24 in defense)
What to make of the Clippers at number 4? Much like the Mavs, this is a team with both some great pieces and deep flaws. Chris Paul has been amazing as he always is, pretty much at everything. DeAndre Jordan is a top five center once again. And Blake Griffin has been good (+1.2 per 48). But as you can observe from the chart up top, everyone else has been just mediocre.
If you have two top ten players (CP3 and DeAndre) at the point and the five, and you throw in an All-Star at the four (Blake) you can mostly get away with a bad rest of the roster. But no team should be too top-heavy. Their most recent data (since January 9th) show no improvement in this top-heaviness:
Adding the coach’s son (Austin Rivers and his -1.7 per 48) has only made the bad rest-of-the-roster worse. This is a good team with the talent to win the title, but one that is too dependent on their top three players. And every year, one (or two) of their big three get hurt or banged up come playoff time.
I don’t see this year as being any different.
#5: Memphis Grizzlies
Neutral Site Win %: 66.9% (up 3; #9 in offense, #6 in defense)
This Grizzlies roster is kind of the opposite of that of the Clippers. This is a deep crew, albeit with lots of redundancy built in. Memphis brings the grit and grind with their big men leading the way, Z-Bo Zach Randolph and Marc Gasol recording Point Margin Per 48 marks of +3.5 and +2.3 respectively.
Let’s see the Grizzlies’ numbers since the Jeff Green trade.
Although they’re made better by virtue of his replacing Tayshaun Prince’s ineffectiveness (-1.3 per 48), Jeff Green’s numbers are good (+1.5 per 48). That +2.8 point margin per 48 improvement has been Robin to Z-Bo’s Batman. It looks like the only question mark for this team right now is at the point guard position, where Mike Conley has recently been in a funk (although backup Nick Calathes has been cooking.
Right now, Memphis is my favorite to come out of the West.
#6: Cleveland Cavaliers
Neutral Site Win %: 64.8% (up 21; #6 in offense, #20 in defense)
The full season chart for the Cavaliers is interesting, but it doesn’t really tell the right story. Or at least, it hides it. Let’s do some clarification by isolating data from different phases of their season thus far, starting with prior to their recent trades.
Before the Dion Waiters trade, this team was a mess. Thompson, LeBron, Love, Varejao and Marion were all net positive players (+2.6, +1.2, +.9, +1.5 and +.5 respectively) but it was all being offset by the rest of the team’s massively negative performance. The backcourt was a disaster with Waiters (-2.6 per 48, which if you think about is really hard to do when no one is actually guarding you) dragging the talented Kyrie down to being just an average player (+0 per 48 is the definition of average).
After the trade, though? A new team.
Without Waiters, Kyrie looks like an out-and-out superstar. Having competent backcourt mates has completely turned him around. Timofey Mozgov has been a decent addition as well, giving the Cavs slightly above average center play (+0.2). Throw in the fact that LeBron and Love still don’t look to be 100% (thereby giving more reason for optimism when they get healthy) and this is now starting to look like what we expected before the season.
#7: Milwaukee Bucks
Neutral Site Win %: 60.4% (up 2; #21 in offense, #2 in defense)
That’s not a typo; it’s the Deer at number 7. With their killer defense (#1 in the NBA since the start of the 2015 calendar year), the Bucks just keep beating good teams. This is a young solid team with three budding stars (Knight, +3; Giannis, +1.2; Middleton, +1.5), and I love the addition of Jared Dudley to this young core that keeps improving.
The model has them at 30% odds to get a top four seed and 15% odds to win the Central. Head coach Jason Kidd must be a miracle worker. Milwaukee are not winning the title or even making the Finals barring multiple catastrophic injuries for teams in front of them, but at this point winning a first round series seems like a distinct possibility.
#8: Portland Trail Blazers
Neutral Site Win %: 59.6% (down 2; #11 in offense, #5 in defense)
Did you know that the #8 Blazers have been missing a really good defensive center in Robin Lopez (+2.3) since December 17th? Damian Lillard (+2.3) has been putting together numbers that’ll likely draw some MVP votes, despite somehow being an All-Star snub. And LaMarcus Aldridge, by my numbers (+2.1), is having his best season ever.
It’s the overcoming of the Lopez injury that’s impressed me the most, though. Here are the numbers since his injury.
Thomas Robinson has been a very able replacement (+1.3), and honestly he’s been fantastic defensively. If Nic Batum (-0.2 for the year) can figure out his game and get back to form, and Lopez gets back healthy, this team should make some postseason noise again.
Lopez is key here, as he’s the only starter on this team that’s actually played in a Conference Finals. If I were running this team, I’d be looking to add a veteran big and shooting for a Conference Finals as my goal for this young squad. They are capable.
#9: Houston Rockets
Neutral Site Win %: 59.5% (down 2; #15 in offense, #3 in defense)
Given the injuries (including Dwight Howard, a disappointing +0.1), the lackluster additions (Trevor Ariza, +0.2) and the ridiculous pickups (Josh Smith with a laughable -2 pm per 48), nobody has done more with less than the MVP in the clubhouse, James Harden (+4.1 pm per 48). Here are the Rockets’ numbers since the Smith addition.
The Rockets are in a weird spot. With Harden, they might have the best player on the floor on any given night. With Smith, they also likely have the worst. This does not bode well for their title odds. However, if they can control Josh Smith from taking bad shots, if they can get Ariza back to his Wizards-era form, if they can get Dwight healthy and if they can keep Harden healthy, they have a shot.
#10: New Orleans Pelicans
Neutral Site Win %: 56.5% (up 5; #8 in offense, #17 in defense)
Anthony Davis (+5.8 pm per 48) is the best pure big man to play in the NBA since prime Tim Duncan and Kevin Garnett. Omer Asik (+1.4) is a shut-it-down defensive center who’s only a slight negative on offense. In the East, this team is a top four seed and a frightening prospect for the Hawks and Cavs (seriously, who covers Davis?). In the west, though, the fact that they’re a two and a half men team (with Jrue Holiday as the smart alecky kid) is keeping them just on the edge of a playoff spot.
#11: Phoenix Suns
Neutral Site Win %: 56% (no change; #7 in offense, #18 in defense)
Are the Suns doomed to another season on the outside looking in in the West? The numbers right now say no; a seven seed and, perhaps, a first round war with Grizzlies seem on the cards. Their margin for error is non-existent, though.
The kicker is that this is a really nice roster. The three guard lineup of Bledsoe (+2.1), Dragic (+1.4) and Thomas (+1.4) have all been good. If there was a weakness in this roster it was the big men spot, and even that’s coming along nicely, as seen below.
Between the Brandan Wright trade (+2 per 48 for Phoenix so far) and the on-going development of Alex Len (-.5 per 48 for the year but +1.7 since January 11th), the future in Phoenix is quite sunny. Is it enough to make the playoffs? It looks like the answer is yes right now. And if not, the Lakers lottery pick might be a nice consolation.
#12: Chicago Bulls
Neutral Site Win %: 55.4% (up 8; #12 in offense, #9 in defense)
Jimmy Butler (+3.4 pm per 48) and Pau Gasol (+2.5 pm per 48) have been carrying the Bulls this year on their backs. The Bulls, however, have two main problems.
The first is the health of the player who has been at the heart of their success in the Thibs era in Chicago. Joakim Noah has been the pillar on which this Bulls team has built their success. When he’s close to 100%, the defense is a force of nature. Without him, they’ve faltered. They need Noah healthy if they want to be a contender.
The other is their lack of productive guard play outside of Butler. I’m looking at you, Derrick Rose (-2.2 pm per 48).
Rose has shown flashes this year, but has been unable to sustain them. History tells us this is to be expected. Not shoring up the backcourt was a huge mistake.
Given the emergence of Mirotic and the pieces at hand, it makes real sense to try to move Taj Gibson for some backcourt insurance, and the rumor mill suggests he is on the block. (Here’s an idea: Taj Gibson and Kirk Hinrich for Reggie Jackson and Kendrick Perkins, Who says no?)
Given their health and the way this roster is built, I don’t believe in the Bulls as a contender right now.
#13: Oklahoma City Thunder
Neutral Site Win %: 54.8% (no change; #19 in offense, #4 in defense)
The Thunder, last year’s conference finalists, are 13th in the rankings and likely out of the playoffs. Even with KD in superstar mode (+3.7 pm per 48). What’s going on with them?
Let me offer a simple explanation.
Post Waiters trade, Westbrook is at +0 per 48 (eerily the same as Kyrie with Waiters), and KD is at +3.1 per 48. Waiters himself is at -2.6 per 48 and apparently the NBA’s version of Typhoid Mary. I think this might very well be the end of the Thunder’s run.
Prepare for the Kevin Durant free agent saga. It’s going to be simply enchanting.
#14: Toronto Raptors
Neutral Site Win %: 54.4% (down 2; #3 in offense, #19 in defense)
By default, the Raptors currently hold the easiest ticket in the NBA to a first round home playoff series in the Atlantic division title. But after a hot start, they’ve cooled off massively, as seen in these numbers from January 1st onwards:
Valanciunas and Patterson have been the only net positive performers in the new year, and Patterson is the only net plus defender. The collapse of Lowry has been the biggest factor to their regression. As of right now, given the rising state of the East, I don’t trust this team to get out of Round 1.
#15: Detroit Pistons
Neutral Site Win %: 53.8% (down 11; #25 in offense, #14 in defense)
The Pistons really had something after cutting Josh Smith, who posted an atrocious, almost unbelievable -4.4 pm per 48 for them. Here’s the Pistons before waiving Smith:
In the immediate aftermath, Monroe (+4.0 per 48), Drummond (+3.2) and Jennings (+3.6) were all playing like top 10 players, and this was very much starting to look like Stan Van Gundy’s Orlando teams. The Brandon Jennings injury took some of the air out of that balloon, but on the plus side, D.J. Augustin, not unexpectedly, has been an able backup. I still like this team to claw their way in and give us a fun series against the Hawks or Cavs.
#16: Miami Heat
Neutral Site Win %: 53.7% (up 10; #17 in offense, #23 in defense)
It’s all about Hassan Whiteside for this team (a ridiculous +7.1 pm per 48 ). Whiteside is currently putting up the best defensive numbers per-48 in the NBA, and the second best overall per-48 numbers (just behind Curry). However, for some inexplicable reason, the Heat aren’t playing him as many minutes as possible. If a player this good has a high per-48 foul rate, they must leave him out there so he can get the reps to figure out how to lower it, forcing the refs to take him out and not inflicting the wound on yourself.
Nevertheless, as it stands, Miami somehow seems to have lucked in to a max-level superstar center at the minimum for the next two years. All of a sudden, Chris Bosh (+0 pm per 48 or exactly average) having his worst year as a pro on a max deal is a redundant asset.
#17: Washington Wizards
Neutral Site Win %: 52.1% (down 1; #13 in offense, #13 in defense)
In the grand scheme of things, the Wizards are humming along quietly. Wall (+2.4) and Gortat (+1.9) are having good years, and Otto Porter (+1.2) is emerging. Their entire top five is plus players. So why are they so low in these rankings right now?
As seen here, their wing play has been very sub-par in 2015. They do seem to be playing Butler and Webster too much right now, and Porter perhaps really should be getting the reps.
This Wizards team is a very blue collar team, solid if not remarkable. Almost as if they’re built in expectation of a superstar homecoming….
#18: Utah Jazz
Neutral Site Win %: 51.5% (down 4; #16 in offense, #26 in defense):
As with Miami, the real story with Utah is down to their young center. Rudy Gobert (+4.8 per 48) is good, really good. And recently he’s been even better.
If you want to know why the Jazz are winning all of a sudden, look no further than Gobert rising steadily up the depth chart. If one of their backcourt lottery balls hit, this team will be good going forward.
#19: Charlotte Hornets
Neutral Site Win %: 49.4% (no change; #27 in offense, #12 in defense)
The Hornets best player per minute is Bismack Biyombo (+2.8 per 48), a bright light in an otherwise negative season. And for both of those reasons, they really need to play him more.
#20: San Antonio Spurs
Neutral Site Win %: 46.6% (down 10; #10 in offense, #7 in defense)
Getting to three straight Finals is a hard goal. But this has been a hard season for the defending champs. Starting with the injury to their best player, Kawhi Leonard (+4.3 Pm per 48), as well as having Tiago Splitter (+2.6) and Patty Mills (+.6) missing significant time, capped off with Tony Parker (-1.0 Pm per 48) and Boris Diaw (-.7 pm per 48) having less than stellar seasons. Throw in all the crazy overtime losses in the early season, and we have the reason why the Spurs’ playoff odds sit at what is for them an anaemic 60%.
As they’ve gotten healthier, the Spurs have started to look more like themselves. Here they are since January 1st:
It’s telling that the starting five Gregg Popovich likely wants (Patty, Danny, Kawhi, Tim, Tiago) is still not what he’s really putting out there. However, you can see that even if Tim Duncan looked gassed recently (-.9 per 48 in 2015), Danny, Kawhi, Patty and Tiago all do look like themselves. You can see that a Spurs run is coming. But they need to continued to adjust to this new hierarchy.
#21: Boston Celtics
Neutral Site Win %: 46.4% (no change; #20 in offense, #15 in defense)
#22: Sacramento Kings
Neutral Site Win %: 44.1% (no change; #14 in offense, #25 in defense)
#23: Indiana Pacers
Neutral Site Win %: 42.3% (down 5; #28 in offense, #11 in defense)
The Pacers’ playoff odds sit at 5.6% right now. Larry Bird is still holding on to the possibility of a Paul George return, yet even with one, it is an uphill battle. With a depleted East, I thought this might be a good idea. But with the surging Hawks and resurgent Cavaliers? Not so much. Even if they did make a low playoff seed, they wouldn’t last long. Let George rest and get a better pick, Larry.
#24: Brooklyn Nets
Neutral Site Win %: 40% (down 1; #24 in offense, #22 in defense)
The Nets have one productive young player in Mason Plumlee (+2.6 pm per 48), but little else. I know Billy King is trying to drive up the price of Brook Lopez but, responsibly, he needs to make a move that starts filling the coffers back up. The key is trying to get young players and picks while offloading the veteran pieces, and, given the exploding cap situation, I suspect that Joe Johnson and Deron Williams are tradeable than they have been in a while. But they are still going to be hard to trade, and the Nets still need to liquidate this roster ASAP.
#25: Philadelphia 76ers
Neutral Site Win %: 37.8% (up 5; #30 in offense, #10 in defense)
The Sixers have been scrappy lately. I’m keeping the stub for my over bet on them handy.
#26: New York Knicks
Neutral Site Win %: 37.1% (up 2; #26 in offense, #27 in defense)
Jose Calderon is back to his historical form, it seems, and that is getting Melo playing well. At this point, a lottery pick is pretty much a sure thing so playing well is not an issue. The Knicks have lost so well they can now afford to win.
#27: Los Angeles Lakers
Neutral Site Win %: 36.5% (down 3; #18 in offense, #29 in defense)
It looks as though the Lakers will finish with the fifth worst record in the NBA and keep their lottery pick. Mission accomplished! (Oh, and once again, a Byron Scott team is going to finish with a bottom five defense.)
#28: Denver Nuggets
Neutral Site Win %: 35.2% (down 11; #23 in offense, #21 in defense)
We’ve seen this roster be good with better coaching. But this season is a waste.
#29: Minnesota Timberwolves
Neutral Site Win %: 30.9% (no change; #29 in offense, #30 in defense)
If your best players don’t play (Ricky Rubio, +2.5 pm per 48) or get cut (Jeff Adrien, +2.4) and you play mostly rookies, you’re going to stink. Adrien was good for the Wolves, and indeed has been good for a few teams, yet he never sticks. But the good news, is that at least Andrew Wiggins has shown brief flashes recently:
#30: Orlando Magic
Neutral Site Win %: 29.9% (down 5; #22 in offense, #28 in defense)
There’s still room for one more picture. Here’s a visual showing the full simulation as of today.
Bring on the All Star Weekend.