The NBA’s Growing Middle Class

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There’s something interesting going on in the National Basketball Association that would make Bernie Sanders proud. The middle-class is expanding rapidly. Expected top-tier teams are being taxed, so to speak, by injury, chemistry issues and the weight of high expectations. Meanwhile, projected bottom-feeders are rising above the poverty line in alarming numbers as talent has increased league-wide and rising teams are finding their identities.

I’ll caveat this all by pointing out that it’s still November. In two months the market may have corrected with the rich getting richer and teams showing unexpected promise may tumble. There’s plenty of time for last season’s cream of the crop to rise into the top conference seeds, aside from New Orleans and Brooklyn. But for the time being, class lines are blurry, traditional tiers are dissolving and ultimately it’s gotten really freaking hard to put together a Power Rankings.

The Warriors stand alone at the top. They are the Koch Brothers, Bill Gates and Trump sipping Brandy in the parlor room. The 76ers, Nets, Lakers and Pelicans occupy the bottom rung, foraging for moral victories. Just about everyone else falls somewhere in the widening middle class. There are 18 teams that are within two games of .500, either at, above or below the median win income.

This is a net positive for a league that has seen just 10 different champions in the past 35 years (Lakers, Celtics, Pistons, Bulls, Rockets, Spurs, Heat, Mavericks, Warriors, 76ers). Of course, that number will remain the same if Golden State continues its torrent through the league en route to a repeat championship. But taking the long view here, the more average to potentially good teams there are, the less predictable the season becomes and the potential for haphazard playoff surprises increases. This equals more fun, more fanbase hope and more general interest in the outcomes. Just look at what parity has done for the NFL.

Will this be a blip on the radar, or a continued pattern? Time will tell, but it does seem teams are getting smarter about roster construction and the value of draft picks. Bottom feeders in small markets like Detroit and Minnesota suddenly have a jolt of energy and identity. Of course, the jump in cap space could bring us back to a world dominated by Los Angeles, Boston, Miami and other big markets. Or it could create more chaos, as smaller market teams suddenly wake up with deeper pockets.

For now, let’s embrace the unpredictable and take a stab at the Power Rankings, with each team’s record listed and some words about their identity.

The 1 Percent

  1. Golden State Warriors (12-0) – Our elitist overlords.

Crony Capitalists

2. San Antonio Spurs (9-2) – Old money mainstays.

3. Cleveland Cavaliers (8-3) – Promising blue chip stock that has underperformed recently.

4. Atlanta Hawks (9-5) – New money, gets to sit at the table but no one considers them a threat to take over.

$30,000 Millionaires

5. Chicago Bulls (8-3) – Having an identity crisis. Are they a run and gun team? Well, they rank pretty low in points per 100 possessions. Do they lean on defensive principles from the Thibs era? Up and down on that side to say the least.

6. Dallas Mavericks (8-4) – The guru coach and grizzled veteran team led by an ageless German. I suspect the early success is superficial, and in a town where plastic people drive ’98 BMWs to give the impression that they’re wealthy, there’s solid team-city synergy here.

7. Oklahoma City Thunder (7-5) – Trying to stay afloat with KD injured and a horrible defense. Luckily they have Russ.

8. Los Angeles Clippers (6-4) – Chris Paul is banged up and maybe showing signs of serious decline? Classic case of nepotism over meritocracy in Paul’s absence.

Bernie Sanders’ Wet Dream aka The Massive Middle-Class

9. Phoenix Suns (6-5) – The frenetic pace, dual point guard threat team. Need more shot-making, though Devin Booker has been promising.

10. Toronto Raptors (7-6) – Fast starters that struggle to finish games. Defense is on the rise.

11. Miami Heat (6-4) – Another identity struggle. Dragic and Wade play drastically different styles, can Coach Spo figure out the right mix?

12. Boston Celtics (6-5) – The blue-collar everyman team that plays defense, runs and out-smarts opponents thanks to Brad Stevens.

13. Utah Jazz (6-5) – Defense, defense, defense. A team that dictates pace out of necessity and needs more consistent guard play.

14. Washington Wizards (5-4) – The small ball team that can’t figure out how to defend bigs.

15. Indiana Pacers (7-5) – The Superstar (Paul George) and role players team.

16. Detroit Pistons (6-5) – The Reggie Jackson-Andre Drummond pick and roll death machine. Lack of shooting and bench hurts their ceiling.

17. Memphis Grizzlies (6-6) – Stagnation personified. The last days of grit n grind may be upon us.

18. New York Knicks (6-6) – All it takes is a healthy Carmelo and a freakish Latvian rookie to inject life back into the Big Apple.

19. Charlotte Hornets (6-6) – Raining threes, constant attacking and pace. The Hornets are playing the Rockets model better than the Rockets.

20. Orlando Magic (6-6) – The Young, Exciting Talent & Hustle Squad. Will lose more close games than they win due to inexperience but all their games seem to be watchable.

21. Denver Nuggets (6-6) – Another surprise riser. Michael Malone has them believing; love the play of Gallo and Mudiay.

22. Minnesota Timberwolves (5-7) – Hard pressed to find a better pair of under-21 anchors on the same team in recent memory. Andrew Wiggins and Karl Anthony Towns make this team must-see TV.

23. Houston Rockets (5-7) – 1-0 after Kevin McHale’s firing, but it took a miracle three to force overtime against Portland. Terrible body language, pathetic defense and the shots aren’t falling. C’mon Beard!

24. Milwaukee Bucks (5-6) – Their defense made them dangerous a year ago but it hasn’t showed up this season. Offensively they look good and Jabari Parker keeps getting better. Work cut out for them to make it back to the playoffs.

The Proletariat

25. Portland Trail Blazers (4-9) – You knew it’d be tough with all the personnel losses they endured, but Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum have been electric on offense.

26. Sacramento Kings (4-8) – Their breadwinner, Demarcus Cousins, can’t be counted on due to injury and suspension. Pleasant surprise that Rajon Rondo has turned back into a triple-double machine.

The Untouchables

27. Los Angeles Lakers (2-9) – Old money denizens living in a once-beautiful castle with no heat or modern plumbing.

28. New Orleans Pelicans (1-11) – The M.A.S.H. unit that’s getting screwed out of their disability benefits.

29. Brooklyn Nets (2-10) – The Underwater Team, as they’ve mortgaged most of their future assets.

30. Philadelphia 76ers (0-12) – The saddest team.

 

Dispatches From DeAndre’s Dallas Experience

Last night I had the opportunity to witness the Clippers’ first visit to American Airlines Center in Dallas since the Great DeAndre Jordan Free Agency Fiasco of 2015. This date had been circled on my calendar since that fateful night this summer when Twitter emojis and rumors of a scorned Mark Cuban driving aimlessly around Houston briefly took over our collective lives. I knew the AAC would be electric, and a late-arriving crowd didn’t disappoint. The few that were there pre-tip off even booed DJ in warmups as he practiced clanking free throws. Here was his official introduction:

As the game got underway, we were amused that each time DeAndre touched the ball he was booed mercilessly. I was even more amused when another fan in my section lamented that he doesn’t really touch the ball all that much, so he couldn’t boo as much as he wanted. See DJ, you could have been the centerpiece here in Dallas!

For the record I think Jordan made the right decision for his career to stay in L.A., he just made it in the most clumsy fashion imaginable and hurt Dallas’ chances to land another big free agent in the process. But as the crowd booed every rebound and post up from DeAndre, it got me thinking of the irony. Perhaps Dallas dodged a bullet with Jordan’s change of heart. They aren’t going anywhere this season anyway. How much better could they have been with DeAndre? Not enough to make much of a dent in the West, and while he would have boosted Dallas’ porous defense, his one-dimensional offensive game doesn’t seem to fit the mold of a Rick Carlisle attack. I looked to Twitter for backup on these jumbled thoughts and it delivered. Here’s a tweet from Eric Freeman that perfectly captured the irony that was unfolding before me:

Eric Freeman (@freemaneric)

Mavs fans just cheered the failed DeAndre Jordan post-up that was supposed to be the focus of their offense.
DeAndre generally struggled all night, but did shut the crowd up with a sweet early dunk off a Chris Paul alley-oop:
Another thing I learned on Twitter during the game was that Jeff Van Gundy dropped a verbal bomb on the Dallas fans, essentially calling them hypocritical for booing Jordan then turning around and cheering for Greg Hardy on Sundays. I may need to stop going to Mavs games that are broadcast on ESPN so I don’t miss these JVG gems. Last season I went to see my Bulls play the Mavs, when Van Gundy famously crushed John Paxson on air, in defense of his buddy Tom Thibodeaux. Van Gundy is always inflammatory and his observation is interesting. It misses the point a bit, however. I agree with him that what DeAndre did pales in comparison to the misdeeds of Hardy, and at the end of the day we shouldn’t be throwing too much shade at a 27-year old making an 8-figure financial decision with the whole world watching. But the fans last night are not in the wrong for booing. I mean, c’mon. It was a Wednesday night in North Texas, just game number eight of an 82-game slog for a bad Mavs team. The DeAndre game gave people something to be excited about. It was a reason to care and be enthusiastic about basketball in November. It was a net positive. The guy who was relentlessly told he sucks may disagree, though.
Plus, it’s really incomprehensible just how bad DeAndre is at shooting free throws. So it was amusing to watch sequences like this (also listen for the guy calling Doc Rivers a douchebag):

The fans left happy as Dallas pulled out a close victory, led by Dirk Nowitzki’s 31 points. It was an impressive win for the Mavs, in what may amount to the highlight of their season. DeAndre and the Clips have bigger fish to fry, but for one night Dallas had the last laugh.

Around the (NBA) World – Tuesday, Nov 10

Named after a time-honored driveway shooting game, Around the World takes a look at notable items going on in and around the NBA universe.

Humbled By the Champs – The Pistons stormed into Oracle Arena as the talk of the league after an amazing comeback win in Portland in which they outscored the Blazers 41-11 in the fourth quarter. Andre Drummond put up an insane 29 points and 27 rebounds in that game, while Reggie Jackson scored 26 of his career-high 40 in the fourth quarter. The Pistons’ outburst to start the season can be explained  by simple addition and subtraction. Gone is Greg Monroe, whose presence clogged the paint, hampering Drummond’s growth and the team’s overall spacing. Also by subtracting Josh Smith and replacing him with a big who can actually knock down threes consistently (Ersan Ilyasova), defenders can’t collapse as much on Drummond. When they do decide to double the big man, that leaves wide open layups for Jackson out of the pick-and-roll. The addition has been Drummond emerging as perhaps the best two-way big in the game. It’s early to say that, but the 22-year old is on the right track. Jackson blossoming into a star point guard who can knock down shots and make the right PnR decisions is another welcome addition, and one that I have to admit I was wrong about. I thought he was overvalued by Detroit this offseason.

However, the red-hot Pistons cooled down once they got to Oakland. As detailed in my column last week, the Warriors’ true source of brilliance is their defensive prowess. The undersized Draymond Green can somehow guard Drummond, at least enough to get in his head. The Warriors maintain integrity guarding the pick-and-roll by switching nearly everything and getting away with it due to their versatility. And on the other end Steph Curry is unstoppable. The Pistons may very well bully their way into the playoffs this season and demolish weak defenses like Portland’s as they go, but they were humbled in the Bay last night. Most teams are.

Young Wolves are Teething – The NBA is really in a great place right now, and it’s only getting better with up and coming stars like Andrew Wiggins and Karl Anthony-Towns of the T-Wolves. Towns has played like a veteran through the first six games of his career, averaging 15.5 points and 10 rebounds while shooting 50 percent from the floor. With Towns, Drummond, Jahlil Okafor and Demarcus Cousins coming up, there’s hope for us big men! Meanwhile, Wiggins continues to bloom into a superstar. The pair gives me flashbacks to those awesome Kevin Garnett-Stephon Marbury teams that fell apart too soon. Here’s hoping this ends better. Wiggins took over last night with 33 points and some vicious drives to the rim. Observe:

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The Wolves have a lot of growing up to do and the roster has holes, evident in nearly blowing a 34-point lead Monday against the Hawks. But it’s finally an exciting time for Wolves fans again.

Speaking of Rookies – The 2015-16 rookie class looks amazing already. On Monday, Emmanuel Mudiay posted 18 points, 5 dimes, 6 rebounds and 2 nasty blocks. Remember when rookie point guards had a steep learning curve? Okafor is scoring in bunches – totaling 21 points and 15 boards in a loss to Chicago Monday – and is cause for hope in Philly. Kristaps Porzingis is bringing life to the Knicks as well. This was really tough, but here are my early season top 10 rookie rankings:

Rank Player Draft Position Points Rebs Asts
1 Okafor 3 19.9 6.9 1.3
2 Towns 1 15.5 10 1.2
3 Mudiay 7 12.7 4.3 5.6
4 Porzingis 4 12.3 8.6 0.7
5 D’Angelo Russell 2 9.3 3.2 2.3
6 Justise Winslow 10 7.1 4.9 1.3
7 Stanley Johnson 8 7.6 4 1.1
8 Willie Cauley-Stein 6 6.6 5.9 0.5
9 Mario Hezonja 5 4.5 1.3 0.8
10 Jerian Grant 19 7.1 2.7 4

Kings in Turmoil – We knew coming into the season, the potential for disaster was everywhere. Boogie Cousins paired with Rajon Rondo, with George Karl at the helm? Big, difficult personalities abound in Sacramento. The Kings have stumbled to a 1-7 start, getting outscored by nearly eight points a game, and predictably the royal castle is crumbling from within. This team was sloppily put together and the dysfunction flows from ownership on down to the players on the court. Big change could be coming soon, once again, for this team that’s consistently been in the lottery while failing to get better with all their draft picks.

Awesome DeAndre Game Promo – More to come on this game – I will actually be in attendance tomorrow night – but ESPN got us primed for it with a great promo featuring Phil Collins, DeAndre screaming, Dirk shoving and Mark Cuban looking sad:

A November Must Watch

The Detroit Pistons seem to be for real. Andre Drummond is single-handedly bringing back the center position. This vine has me captivated:

Tonight the Pistons take on Golden State at Oracle Arena. It’s the second night of a back to back for Detroit so I will take the Warriors in this one. Out on a limb, I know. But Drummond just may have entered an echelon we haven’t seen since Dwight Howard’s prime, maybe even since prime Shaq, if he continues his run of dominance.

Whether the Fighting SVG’s win or lose tonight, must-see basketball in November means we’re all winners.

So You Want to Be the Warriors?

The Warriors' secret ingredients
The Warriors’ secret ingredients

Look at the NBA landscape and things are pretty clear – it’s the Warriors, and everyone else. The Dubs, fresh off a championship, have come out firing to a 5-0 record, against four teams that were in last year’s Western Conference playoffs. Not until Wednesday’s thrilling win over the Clippers had the Warriors even had to sweat in a fourth quarter. Steph Curry is lethal and it seems each key cog has somehow improved from last year.

Naturally, the league’s other teams want to emulate Golden State. They are the standard-bearer for NBA excellence, sure, but the effort to transform into a Warriors-like identity is especially strong because they are viewed as unorthodox. They’re challenging convention by playing small, fast and with a deep bench. Ask 10 casual fans about who the Warriors are and I bet nine of them will talk about their pace and knack for outside shooting. It’s only part of the answer, however. Several teams have latched onto this half-truth in building their rosters, coaching staffs and overall identity.

Teams seem to forget the main ingredient in the Warriors’ hearty basketball stew – DEFENSE.

Yes, Curry is in the conversation for best scoring point guard of all time. Indeed, the Warriors led the league last year in pace, scoring, effective field goal percentage and three-point percentage, while finishing second in offensive rating. But it was their versatile and suffocating defense that drove the Dubs to 67 wins and an NBA title. Pace and space is a great concept, until your stretch four is getting smoked on the perimeter and your “rim protector” is getting dunked on (See: Mirotic, Nikola and Gasol, Pau).

I’m going to pick on the Bulls for another minute because I watch most of their games and I still can’t believe Charlotte hung 130 on them Tuesday night. Chicago scored 105 in that game, something they did 29 times in 2014-15. Last season, under Tom Thibodeaux, the Bulls went 24-5 in games in which they scored at least 105 points, winning those 24 games by an average of 11 points. They never lost by more than 11 when scoring that much, and in fact all season only allowed 130+ once, in a double overtime loss to the Mavericks. After kicking Thibs to the curb, the Bulls’ brain trust took major steps to Warriorize the team, bringing in Fred Hoiberg to install his pace-and-space, three point-heavy system. Hoiberg immediately moved Joakim Noah to the bench and is using stretch lineups with more shooters on the floor, such as Doug McDermott, Nikola Mirotic and Aaron Brooks. In a vacuum, this all makes perfect sense for a plodding offensive team looking to change its ways.

But the Bulls, and others such as the Pacers, Mavericks, Pelicans and even the Thunder, are missing the forest for the trees. There is a foundational dilemma at the heart of the small-ball revolution. How do you score in bunches, push the pace and create matchup nightmares for opponents on one end, while not becoming a sieve on the other end? Is it possible to gain the upper hand in matchups on both ends and blow teams out of the gym? If you’ve constructed a roster like the Warriors, then yes and yes. The LeBron-era Heat and the 2013-14 Spurs also proved the model. Teams that are playing small for small’s sake and not emphasizing the defensive end are setting themselves up for some ugly nights. Like when you give up 130 to Charlotte, those kind of nights. The Spurs were able to surround Tim Duncan’s rim protection with three or four deadly shooters. The Heatles had LeBron, Wade and Bosh in their primes and featured a trapping, frenzied defensive scheme that made up for lack of size in the middle.

Golden State works because they can go small or big, while always rolling out lineups that can switch screens, protect the rim and force turnovers. They have Draymond Green and nobody else does. He can cover quick guards for stretches on the perimeter, switch any screen and as he showed against Zach Randolph in the Warriors’ 50-point demolition of Memphis, he can body up almost any big. His unique talents combined with the rim protection and rebounding of Andrew Bogut allows Golden State to go small or super-small and never give up much defensive integrity in the paint. Klay Thompson, Harrison Barnes and Andre Iguodala are swiss-army knives on the perimeter that can switch to big men without allowing easy buckets. Throw all of this together with their shooting and running ability. The result is a championship-proven monolith that may not be replicable. The Warriors have set a standard that is not statistically attainable. Here are some Warriors numbers from last season to go with the offensive ranks listed above: 1st in opponent’s field goal percentage (.428), 1st in defensive rating, 1st in margin of victory, 2nd in blocks, 4th in steals, 5th in opponent’s turnovers, 6th in rebounding. Dear Lord.

Good luck matching that with Mirotic and Gasol playing more minutes than Noah and Taj Gibson. Or with Paul George at the four, next to Ian Mahinmi. Or with Enes Kanter taking minutes from Steven Adams.

OKC and Chicago are breaking in first-year coaches, and the season is very young. They may well figure out the right mix of minutes, tempo and defensive strategies. But they don’t have – and no one does – the roster versatility on both ends that Golden State has. They’d be well served to do like the rest of us: simply watch the Warriors in awe and try to make their own way.

Quick Updated Power Rankings

Note: Column on the mighty Warriors and their impact on the league coming later today.

DotB Week 2 Power Rankings

  1. Golden State Warriors (5-0)
  2. L.A. Clippers (4-1)
  3. Cleveland Cavaliers (4-1)
  4. San Antonio Spurs (3-2)
  5. Atlanta Hawks (5-1)
  6. Toronto Raptors (5-0)
  7. Chicago Bulls (4-2)
  8. Oklahoma City Thunder (3-3)
  9. Washington Wizards (3-1)
  10. Phoenix Suns (3-2)
  11. Portland Trail Blazers (4-2)
  12. Detroit Pistons (3-1)
  13. Miami Heat (3-2)
  14. Utah Jazz (3-2)
  15. Memphis Grizzlies (3-3)
  16. Houston Rockets (2-3)
  17. Minnesota Timberwolves (2-2)
  18. New York Knicks (2-3)
  19. Dallas Mavericks (2-3)
  20. Charlotte Hornets (2-3)
  21. Denver Nuggets (2-3)
  22. Indiana Pacers (2-3)
  23. Milwaukee Bucks (2-3)
  24. Boston Celtics (1-3)
  25. Orlando Magic (1-4)
  26. Sacramento Kings (1-4)
  27. New Orleans Pelicans (0-4)
  28. L.A. Lakers (0-4)
  29. Brooklyn Nets (0-5)
  30. Philadelphia 76ers (0-4)

Has Anyone Ever Seen Fred Hoiberg and Marc Trestman in the Same Room at the Same Time?

Trestberg

Really makes you think. The Bulls gave up 130 points tonight to the immortal Charlotte Hornets. Not quite as bad as the Bears losing 55-14 to the Packers, but it’s eerily similar to the “sacrifice defense for modern offense” routine that Chicago fans are all too familiar with after Trestman’s failed reign.

Maybe Trestman ditched the glasses, put on a suit and tricked John Paxson into making him the new Bulls coach? It’s admittedly far-fetched, but I mean his day job with the 2-6 Ravens can’t be all that demanding.

(For the record I was all for both the Trestman and Hoiberg hires because, well, I don’t know, I’m an idiot? Or I was sick of watching terrible offense and unwisely took stout defense for granted? Let’s go with that. There’s still hope for Hoiberg obviously, but I’m officially a little nervous. Also: D-Rose held under 10 points for three straight games? Make that terribly nervous.)