Catching Up in the NBA



by Mathew Hurley, Managing Editor

We haven't had much of a chance yet to talk about the NBA here in the NOTEBOOK. And, the busy bowl schedule coming up...along with the stretch run in the playoffs will mostly keep pro hoops off of these pages until the new year. The quiet college football week allows us to pop in an NBA update before getting back to the NFL these next two days (summaries and notes Wednesday, stat previews Thursday just in time for the Indianapolis/Tennessee game). Look for college basketball themed pieces Friday and Saturday to get you ready for a big basketball weekend.

What's going on in the NBA? You probably know that the Miami Heat weren't quite as great as anticipated. But, they've kicked things up a notch in recent days after some behind-the-scenes meetings. You'll see in a moment that they grade out as championship caliber even when you account for some disappointing results.

The LA Lakers started out on fire...but a recent slump had some of their fans concerned. No worries, they still grade out as a championship level team. Remember that the best NBA teams have to pace themselves for the long haul. There's no reward for being the Kings of December. It's an 82-game season...and the playoffs are still several months away. You're just not going to get peak performances out of the best teams every single game.

You longtime readers know our shorthand stat for NBA evaluation is the average margin of victory/defeat. You can use these as a virtual Power Rating because they express the numerical differences between the teams. These are based on ACTUAL RESULTS after all. Our stat handicappers use these as a starting point each night while making their evaluations. We add in additional adjustments of course for schedule sequences, fatigue, injuries, trends, and information we hear from our Wise Guy connections. That's what makes our exclusive TEAM HANDICAPPING APPROACH so dangerous!

Let's start with the cream of the crop. In our view, only five teams right now have established that they're capable of winning the league championship. There are two in the West, and three in the East.

San Antonio +8.9
LA Lakers +8.8
Boston +8.8
Miami +8.4
Orlando +7.3

There's a drop off of about a point and a half to the next group, so these five have isolated themselves right now as the teams to beat. No surprises. It's the usual suspects. The Lakers and Spurs have dynasties going in the West...and still play beautiful basketball with talented veterans on their best nights. Miami is getting the hang of playing together, but has already established a championship level game margin even during the feeling out process. That's a good sign for success down the road. We still believe they need to shore up their internal defense and the point guard position. Boston hasn't lost a step from last year. If they can stay healthy, they can outlast Miami and Orlando this Spring.

Dallas +5.9
Utah +4.3
Denver +2.9
Atlanta +2.3
New Orleans +2.3

This next group of teams is clearly playoff caliber right now, but is just as clearly NOT as good as the superpowers on a night in night out basis. Dallas did impress vs. Miami...but that caused the series of meeting that got the Heat back on track. No shame in being the third best team in the West behind the Lakers and Spurs. Do you think right now that Dallas can beat those teams back-to-back in the Western playoffs?

New Orleans has cooled off after a hot start. It can't be a good sign that the league is about to take over ownership of the franchise. You may have noticed the Hornets posted some ugly results right after that news went public.

We have to say we're disappointed with Atlanta. We thought they'd be much closer to Dallas right now. And, we wouldn't have been surprised if they had cracked the top group based on how things were progressing last year. Looks like a regression right now, particularly in terms of recent form.

Denver's hanging around deciding the fate of Carmelo Anthony. There are worse kinds of water to be treading in. Still feels like it might be a wasted season.

Of course, there will be 16 teams in the playoff brackets once the season ends. We only have 10 teams right now who have qualified as championship or playoff caliber. That sets up an exciting race amongst many others to make the playoffs. That will likely just earn them the right to lose in the first round though. The difference between the 'have's' and .500 caliber is so great right now that .500 caliber has very little chance of pulling off a best-of-seven upset.

Here's the large hunk of teams who are currently within a bucket of net zero.

Indiana +1.8
New York +1.4
Chicago +0.5
Oklahoma City even
Phoenix -0.6
Portland -0.8
Houston -1.2
Philadelphia -1.5
Milwaukee -1.6
Toronto -1.7
Memphis -2.0
Charlotte -2.1

That's a dozen teams who haven't been able to get much separation from each other. And, in our view, some STUNNING developments.

*Oklahoma City looked like a budding champion last year. They gave the LA Lakers all they could handle in a playoff series. And, it was a YOUNG team that was likely to get better. Their defense has taken a huge hit this year because an assistant coach moved elsewhere. The offense comes and goes...which is a big surprise in itself. The backtracking of OK City has to be one of the biggest stories of the year.

*Portland was supposed to be better than this too. Injuries have finally taken their toll on a team that had been able to overcome that in the past. There's only so much bending you can do before you break. This isn't as big a surprise as Oklahoma City...but we certainly would have expected the Blazers to be mathematically up in the group with Dallas, Utah, and Denver.

*How about New York and Indiana jumping up to respectability this year. They still have nights where they look awful. Those are less common than they used to be. Credit to both franchises for making some positive moves in the offseason, and working towards developing teams who know what they're doing. It's amazing how far that can get you in this league.

Here are the teams who haven't yet established that they know what they're doing...

New Jersey -4.9
Golden State -5.1
Detroit -5.5
LA Clippers -6.8
Minnesota -7.1
Washington -7.7
Sacramento -7.7
Cleveland -8.2

Now, each of these teams will have occasional moments. They hit some shots. They catch a better team in a fatigue spot or having an off night. Upsets will happen. Over the course of many weeks though, we're still talking about the dregs of the league.

Golden State had showed promise until the injury to David Lee. When Lee is healthy and contributing, they're probably playing at one level above what we're showing here. Cleveland has fallen apart lately. Their monstrous loss to Miami was a punch in the stomach they may not recover from for awhile. Talk about a wake-up call. Pundits no longer think the Cavs can survive without LeBron. Few Cavs seem to think that as well. It was a horrible sign for Cleveland that they got annihilated by Minnesota the next time they took the floor.

There's your NBA update. Again, we encourage you to use those margin averages as virtual Power Ratings in your handicapping. You can find updated averages daily on the NBA standings page at ESPN's website. Remember to tweak the lines daily based on schedule rotations, fatigue, and injuries.

Or, you can take the easy way out and sign up for JIM HURLEY'S basketball program. You get the best college and pro plays on the board every night of the week. Call 1-800-323-4453 to get on board. Or, try out a few nights here at the website. Selections go up a few hours before tipoff every night. Tonight's hoops will include NBA, and our best shot from the Memphis/Kansas--Michigan State/Syracuse TV doubleheader in the colleges.

Back tomorrow for more NFL coverage. You know you'll be getting key indicator stats for the bowls once those get here. Make sure you're with us EVERY DAY so you know what's REALLY happening in the world of sports!

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