The average NBA team has played about 50 games in this season to date. I think it’s a good time to take stock of the state of the league. Who are the real contenders? What teams are a step away from joining that group? Which team with 28+ wins is merely a pretender that doesn’t deserve to be mentioned alongside the others? These questions and more can be found in the results of my research on lineup data for the 12 best teams in the league.
My methodology involved using NBAWOWY.com (the acronym stands for National Basketball Association With Or Without You) to remove any data that included players outside the top ten of each respective team’s rotation. I then split that data to show how the team performed both with and without their best player on the court. This will give us a better idea of how the team will perform in a playoff setting when rotations are cut down and the best players often stay on the court for 40+ minutes per game.
To estimate the team’s net rating with their playoff rotation I took the net rating with the best player on, multiplied it by the 40 minutes I expect them to play, then took the net rating with the best player off, multiplied it by the eight minutes I expect them to rest, added those two figures together then divided the total by 48 minutes to produce what I’m calling their estimated Net Rating (eNRtg) for the remainder of this article. This number is just a guideline - not the summation of my opinion on each team. But it’s a useful way to group the teams into tiers, and a reminder that if I choose to bump a team up or down a tier I should have a strong argument for why I’m doing so.
Tier 5: The pretender
12. Oklahoma City Thunder (+1.7 eNRtg)
Despite their record, the Thunder just aren’t that good. Russell Westbrook is playing a ton of minutes with their best players, and yet those lineups only have a +2.4 net rating, lower than several teams without their best player. With him off the court, they’re a negative even against a league average team. Westbrook is putting up amazing numbers. Carrying this team into the playoffs is a real accomplishment. Just don’t expect them to make much noise once there.
Tier 4: A step (or two) short of contending
11. Washington Wizards (+5.0 eNRtg)
The Wizards have been playing some great basketball lately. John Wall has been on fire, and Bradley Beal has become a very good second option. Still, they lack the high-end firepower to keep up with the best teams, nor do they have a dominating defense to slow those teams down. The bench, while holding par in the regular season, is also weak relative to playoff competition. I’ll tip my hat to them for playing surprisingly well this year, but I there isn’t enough evidence for me to believe they’ll make any significant noise in the playoffs. Being in the Eastern Conference, they have a reasonable chance to win one series, but the Conference Finals are probably out of reach, let alone anything more.
10. Memphis Grizzlies (+5.6 eNRtg)
Yet again, the Memphis Grizzlies are lining themselves up to be a tough out in the postseason. Mike Conley drives a solid offense, with Marc Gasol and Tony Allen anchoring a hard-nosed defense. The difficulty this team will likely run into is how to keep pace when one or both of Conley and Gasol are off the floor. With those two they can cause problems for most teams, but one rests the team becomes vulnerable on one end of the floor. The wild-card here is Chandler Parsons. He’s struggled with injuries all year (and, for that matter, the last several years). If he can get healthy in time for the playoffs he just might give the Grizzlies enough juice to compete with some of the stronger Western Conference teams.
9. Atlanta Hawks (+6.0 eNRtg)
Well, the Hawks are an interesting one. On one hand, they have one of the best defenses in the league with Paul Millsap on the court. In theory, that should at least give them a chance of slowing the high-powered offenses of Cleveland, Toronto and Boston in the Eastern Conference playoffs. On the other hand, their offense is relatively weak regardless who is on the court, and their defense is an absolute tire fire sans Millsap. They could be Memphis-east this year, making life miserable in the second round for one of the stronger Eastern Conference teams. But asking their defense to slow down two or three high powered offenses in a row seems like a tall task, especially since Millsap will have to push himself to the limit to have a chance to survive even one tough series. Dark horse for the Eastern Conference Finals if they happen to catch a good draw, but that’s as far as I can see them going.
8. Boston Celtics (+5.0 eNRtg)
What a change in Boston’s identity since last season! Formerly a scrappy, defensive team, this season they’ve transformed into an offensive powerhouse. Isaiah Thomas has been among the league’s best scorers, newcomer Al Horford is drawing opposing bigs out of the paint, and Avery Bradley has become an offensive weapon. The previously stout defense has all but disappeared, however. Thomas and Bradley have been targeted relentlessly, and Horford isn’t the type to erase the mistakes of perimeter players. With Thomas off the court there’s some semblance of the energetic defense they were known for last year, but without him the offense just falls apart. But with him on the court their offense ranks among the league’s best, and that will give them a chance in any series. But a chance isn’t often good enough for a deep playoff run, and making the Eastern Conference Finals is probably the best Boston can realistically shoot for this season unless they make a splash at the trade deadline.
Tier 3: In the hunt
7. Houston Rockets (+8.2 eNRtg)
With newcomers Eric Gordon and Ryan Anderson spreading the floor, James Harden is putting up a career year. The offense is scorching hot, the defense is... well, bad, but not terrible, and unless a challenger steps up the Rockets are cruising to the No. 3 seed in the Western Conference. I’m still skeptical about the bench performing so well with Harden off the court (+12.7 net rating is simply ridiculous), so I’m not entirely sure they’re as strong as the numbers make them appear. But maintaining a 117.6 offensive rating over 3,688 possessions with Harden on the court is extremely impressive, bringing back memories of the Steven Nash, Mike D’Antoni Phoenix Suns a decade ago. They’ll have a hard path in the playoffs, with the No. 3 seed likely drawing a tough first round before facing elite teams in every ensuing round. They have the firepower to win any series, but enough flaws not to win every series. A second-round exit or a loss in the conference finals seems likely. That said, this team is best iteration of the Harden Rockets yet. Don’t count them out.
6. San Antonio Spurs (+8.1 eNRtg)
The Spurs are a bit of a conundrum. They dominate opposing benches to such a degree that I’m not sure the starters really have to push themselves. Their +6.9 net rating with Kawhi on the floor is closer to John Wall and the Wizards than LeBron James and Cavaliers. But perhaps that number is deflated as their bench allows them to merely coast to victory much of the time. That said, it’s difficult to figure how good their A-game really is, and we probably won’t know until the postseason. Despite being the No. 2 seed, I have to say that a second round exit wouldn’t surprise me at all. But at the same time I’m not dismissing them; they just might have that extra gear when it really matters.
5. Toronto Raptors (+7.9 eNRtg)
With Kyle Lowry on the floor, the Raptors have a solid argument to be rated as the fourth or fifth best team in the league. Without him, their net rating is worse than the Brooklyn Nets. I... don’t really know what to make of that. Is the Cory Joseph - DeMar DeRozan backcourt pairing really that bad? Does Kyle Lowry really have an MVP-level impact? Still, during the playoffs Lowry will be on the court 80-90 percent of the time, so if they can merely survive while he rests another run to the conference finals seems likely. They’re still looking up at the Cleveland Cavaliers, but the distance between the two is smaller than this time last year. If not for the abhorrent sans Lowry minutes, I would consider them a legitimate title threat. As is, I have a hard time seeing them win against both the Cavaliers and the Western Conference champions. But stranger things have happened, and the Raptors are in the hunt even if they are towards the edge of the championship picture.
4. Utah Jazz (+8.6 eNRtg)
After just missing the playoffs last season, Utah is leaving no doubt this season. They will definitely make the playoffs, and may even nab home court in the first round if they can capitalize on the injury to Chris Paul and pass the Los Angeles Clippers in the standings. While their offense is relatively weak compared to other playoff teams, their defense is capable of flat out dominance. Rudy Gobert is simply eliminating the paint (and beyond!) this year. The Utah Jazz are among the top five in the league in opposing FG% in the 0-2 foot range, the 3-9 foot range and the 10-16 foot range. They’ve managed this while ranking No. 6 in defensive FT/FGA. The top offenses in the league are so good this year that very few defenses can force them to alter their game plan, but the Jazz are the exception to that rule. If any team has a chance to mimic the 2003-04 Detroit Pistons this season it’s this one. They have some work to do improving lineups with Gobert on the bench (even in the playoffs it’s difficult for a big man to play as many minutes as the elite guards and wings of the league), but injuries have contributed to their poor net rating in that department. I’m confident the bench is capable of more. But the draw might be the real stumbling block here. A potential 4-5 match up with the Los Angeles Clippers is a nightmare by itself, with the distinct possibility of having to go through the Golden State Warriors in round two, the San Antonio Spurs in the conference finals and then the Cleveland Cavaliers in the NBA Finals. If the Jazz are going to make a run, they really need to finish strong and do their utmost to overtake the Rockets for the No. 3 seed and the considerably easier draw that comes with it.
Tier 2B: The defending champions
3. Cleveland Cavaliers (+8.9 eNRtg)
The reigning NBA champions just went through a very rough month. Still, they clearly rate among the NBA’s best when their top players are actually on the court. A +10.1 net rating with LeBron on the court is very solid, and the bench has actually performed pretty well when he’s off the court (at least, when that bench is made up of five guys from the playoff rotation). We know from experience this team has another gear for the postseason, with a 24-4 record and a +12 net rating in the Eastern Conference playoffs the last two years. Only because we know of this extra gear could I justify putting them in a separate tier than Utah, Toronto, San Antonio and Houston. Their performance this season has them right in line with those teams, but with several starters capable of absorbing extra postseason work they deserve to be a notch above.
Tier 2A: The wild card (+12.5 eNRtg)
Injuries may once again derail this sleeping giant, but what they’ve managed to do when healthy is extremely impressive. Chris Paul was having one of his best per-minute seasons ever before tearing a ligament in his thumb. However, he’ll be back in time for the playoffs, while Blake Griffin is back in action and hoping to keep the Clippers afloat in the standings in the meantime (Blake has only been on the court for 23 percent of those minutes without CP3, so take that -1.2 net rating sans Paul with a grain of salt). If, somehow, all the important pieces are healthy when it matters then make no mistake: the Clippers are a legitimately great team and a threat to the Warriors in the Western Conference. I just hope they don’t end up facing the Utah Jazz in round one, bringing back memories of the epic San Antonio - Los Angeles first round series a couple years ago, which ended with a Chris Paul series-winning buzzer beater over Tim Duncan but left the Clippers so battered that they failed to get through the second round. This core deserves one healthy shot at a ring before the uncertainty this team will face over the summer.
Tier 1: The favorite (+19.5 eNRtg)
For any that are still arguing that the Warriors were better off without Kevin Durant: give it a rest. They were an excellent team last year without a doubt, but this season Durant has taken them to another level. Over 2,700 possessions with a +20.9 net rating?! Last season only their best lineups could touch that number, and only for a few hundred possessions. They were deeper, sure, but as long as the top four are healthy it doesn’t really matter. Staggering minutes between the stars allows the bench lineups to be roughly as effective as the starters for Toronto, Cleveland and Utah. Does this mean they are untouchable? Certainly not. I’d venture to say the competition this season is unusually strong, with seven teams that are in the championship picture and four more that can make any given series a slog. Los Angeles, Cleveland and Utah each have mismatches that they may be able to exploit enough to win four games out of seven. But make no mistake, barring major injury to a key player they will enter the postseason as favorites once again. Perhaps even favorites against the rest of the field combined. However, the mighty don’t always win the battle...