In this week’s NBA Power Rankings we’re looking at the Knicks, the Suns, the 76ers and the other teams who are smashing expectations this year.
Our new look NBA Power Rankings are back, a non-traditional structure for a non-traditional era of professional basketball. The world is no longer just about wins and losses and teams are no longer the primary crucible of basketball power. So each week we’ll be dissecting how basketball power is presently distributed — between players, teams, friendships, diss tracks, aesthetic design choices, across leagues and whatever else has a temporary toehold in this ever-changing landscape.
Who has the power in this week’s NBA Power Rankings?
To set up these rankings I took each team’s current win percentage, prorated for a 72-game season and compared that to their preseason win total projection from Vegas. The Philadelphia 76ers were expected to be a very strong team, tied with the Miami Heat for the fourth-highest preseason win total projection in the East but they’re currently on pace to exceed that by just over six wins.
Joel Embiid’s monstrous MVP-level performance has been the biggest driver for the 76ers outperforming expectations but he’s not the only reason. Tobias Harris has arguably never been better and the added shooting has really helped make Ben Simmons and Embiid a viable offensive pairing. So far this season, the 76ers are scoring are averaging 118.3 points per 100 possessions when those two are on the floor together. That’s a full five points better than the previous high mark since they become teammates — 113.3 points per 100 possessions in 2017-18.
LaMelo Ball is the obvious explanation for the Hornets outperforming preseason expectations by a pace of nearly nine wins. Even among his most ardent predraft supporters, it would have been hard to find someone claiming he was going to be this good, this quickly — averaging 15.9 points, 6.1 assists, 5.9 rebounds and 1.6 steals per game on a 56.2 true shooting percentage.
But while Ball may have injected some life and excitement into this team, pretty much everyone on the roster has been a positive surprise. Gordon Hayward has been more productive than he was at any point during his Celtics’ tenure. Devonte’ Graham and Terry Rozier have combined to shoot 39 percent on more than 16 3-point attempts per game. P.J. Washington has been a perfect offensive complement, Malik Monk is finally delivering on his promise as a shooter and Miles Bridges is dunking everything in sight (and suddenly making nearly 40 percent of his 3s). This team is deep, talented, versatile and young. The Hornets are smashing expectations despite having the fifth-youngest roster in the league.
If you saw the Utah Jazz using the frustration of last season’s playoff loss to the Nuggets to build a regular-season juggernaut, you’re much smarter than me. The Jazz returned mostly the same roster as last season — only the Spurs and Pacers have had a higher percentage of their team’s minutes played by returning players — and yet somehow they’re a completely different team. Their defense is still among the league’s best but they’ve used a lot more pace and movement to create open shots on the perimeter and their offense is also one of the best in the league.
Even with Jordan Clarkson’s shooting percentages coming down to earth they have eight players hitting at least 37 percent of their 3-pointers on at least two attempts per game. They also have depth in shot creation to counter a variety of matchups and defensive schemes — five different players rank in the 73rd percentile or better in scoring efficiency as the ball-handler in the pick-and-roll. Fans are understandably skeptical of a team that has been able to maintain its regular-season level of performance in past postseason runs. But this is not the same Jazz team we’ve seen before, and certainly not the one we were expecting.
It was universally recognized that Chris Paul was going to make the Suns better. But that was presumably factored into their preseason win project and they’ve flown past that mark. Deandre Ayton has been dramatically improved on defense, Mikal Bridges has become even more potent as a spot-up threat and the deep bench has been incredibly productive. Cameron Payne has become a reliable backup point guard, Langston Galloway and Frank Kaminsky have both played meaningful minutes and shot better than 40 percent from the field. And then there is Dario Saric, who has been one of the most effective Sixth Men in the entire league.
That versatility and depth could be tremendously important in the playoffs. Phoenix’s primary starting lineup — Paul-Booker-Crowder-Bridges-Ayton — has played more minutes than any other unit in the league this season, outscoring opponents by an average of 5.0 points per 100 possessions. But they also have five other five-man units that have played at least 50 minutes together, all of which have a point differential of plus-7.3 or greater.
As I covered in The Whiteboard this morning, no team has been a bigger (positive) surprise than the New York Knicks:
The hiring of Tom Thibodeau seemed sure to raise the team’s floor, especially at the defensive end. But no reasonable or rational person expected this.
The Knicks currently hold a seven-game win streak, the longest active streak in the league. They’re fifth in the Eastern Conference standings and a half-game out of the No. 4 seed and the right to host a first-round series. Thibs delivered on the defensive improvement — they currently have the third-best mark in the league. But their offense has also improved dramatically. Vegas set the Knicks’ preseason over/under at 21.5 — they won their 22nd game nearly a month ago, on Mar. 23. The NBA prediction model at 538 gave the Knicks just a five percent chance of making the playoffs before the season began. As of today, their odds are over 80 percent and it would take an epic collapse for them to fall out.
The offensive improvement is impressive and the individual numbers of R.J. Barrett and Julius Randle are drawing the most attention. But Thibs has built an elite unit out of cast-offs, inexperienced young players and however you want to describe Randle’s defensive track record before this season. It’s a freaking miracle.