NBA power rankings: Brooklyn Nets on top

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The second half of the NBA season is upon us. Just over two months remain in the marathon that is the regular season, and we can now evaluate these teams using reliable sample sizes of data. Some teams are due for some regression after playing over their heads for about 37 games, while others will begin to ascend through the standings when play resumes.

For those who are just diving into the NBA for the second half, I’ve ranked these teams based on myriad factors. Let me be clear: This is not a power rating. I do not believe, for example, that the Suns are better than the Lakers or Clippers, but recent form and level of play has Phoenix playing like the third-best team in the league. I added some analysis of the second-half schedules for several teams as well so you can see what to expect.

1. Brooklyn Nets (24-13 SU/20-17 ATS)

Win total: 45.5

Record needed: 22-13

One of the hottest teams in the NBA, Brooklyn entered the All-Star break on a 10-1 SU and ATS run that includes wins over the Suns, Lakers and Clippers. Over these 11 games the Nets led the league in offensive rating, averaging 121.8 points every 100 possessions, and were second in net rating at + 9.7. Those are all impressive accomplishments, but when you consider their best player, Kevin Durant, played in just one of those games, it becomes all the more notable. And their third-best player, Kyrie Irving, missed two contests as well. Brooklyn is scoring at a historic rate, and the offense has not even been complete since acquiring James Harden. The defense is below average, as we expected, but if the Nets can maintain giving up about 112.2 points every 100 possessions, as they have during this streak, that will be enough for a team with this level of firepower. The second half of the schedule is not particularly daunting. They have seven back-to-back situations, but unlike many teams, you will not find a single five-games-in-seven-nights scheduling spot on the docket. That is extremely important for a team that has been cautious about the workload of its stars.

2. Utah Jazz (27-9 SU/25-11 ATS)

Win total: 42.5

Record needed: 16-20

Utah enters the second half considerably cooler, ending the first half on a two-game slide and a 3-4 SU and ATS stretch that culminated in a meltdown against Philadelphia. That speed bump puts the Jazz behind Brooklyn, but when a team goes 27-9 SU/25-11 ATS in the first half of the season, no way I can rank it lower than second. Utah is second in offensive efficiency (119.3) and defensive efficiency (107.9) and first in overall net rating (+ 11.4) in non-garbage minutes, according to Cleaning The Glass.

As we enter the second half, I believe we can expect to see a similar pace for Utah, as the schedule is littered with lesser teams. Of the Jazz’s 36 games in the second half, 19 come against opponents that rank 15th or lower in net rating, and 15 rank 20th or lower, according to Cleaning The Glass. Utah has one scheduling quirk to look out for. On April 8 the Jazz will play Portland for their fifth game in seven nights. That will also be their ninth game in 14 days and the second leg of a back-to-back. For those who look for poor scheduling spots, there is one to circle.

3. Phoenix Suns (24-11 SU/24-11 ATS)

Win total: 38.5

Record needed: 15-22

Since Jan. 28, the Phoenix Suns have been nearly untouchable. They are 16-3 SU and ATS with the second-best net rating (+ 11.0) and defensive rating (109.0) in the league, and those go along with the fourth-best offense (120.0). Their lone slip-ups have been at home to Charlotte, a blown 24-point lead to James Harden and the Nets, and a beatdown in New Orleans that they avenged 16 days later. The beginning of their second-half schedule will allow them to pad their record even more, as 10 of their first 14 opponents rank 15th or lower in net rating, with seven at 20th or worse. However, the second half for Phoenix is no cakewalk. The Suns have nine back-to-backs, and 12 of their final 16 games will be on the road. The Suns have just one five-games-in-seven-nights situation, but they also have nine games left against Brooklyn, both Los Angeles teams, Milwaukee, Philadelphia and Utah. That’s nearly a quarter of their second-half schedule against the top teams on the odds board. Nine teams have odds equal to or better than Phoenix to win the title, so there seems to be some trepidation to buy into the Suns. The second half will surely answer some of those questions.

4. Philadelphia 76ers (24-12 SU/20-15-1 ATS)

Win total: 44.5

Record needed: 21-15

The 76ers ended the first half with a massive overtime win at home against Utah, but a loss to Cleveland the weekend before drags them down this list. The problem has been a mediocre offense and a reliance on Joel Embiid. They enter the second half just 15th in offensive efficiency (113.1) due to a lack of shooting. Philadelphia takes the third-fewest 3-point attempts per game (29.1) and ranks 15th in terms of percentage (36.5%). The offense revolves around the mid-range area of the floor, where the Sixers rank sixth in frequency of attempts (37.3%). They lack shot creation around Embiid, and that shows when he rests as their offensive rating dips from 118.7 to 104.8 per 100 possessions. Defensively, the 76ers have been exceptional, ranking sixth in efficiency (110.0). They excel at protecting the rim (61.2%) and the corners (32.2%), two key areas in today’s NBA. Their remaining schedule is considered the sixth easiest in the league, but some challenges await. They have nine back-to-backs, two five-games-in-seven-nights situations and four games against top East foes Brooklyn and Milwaukee. As long as Embiid is healthy, the 76ers will continue to contend for the top seed in the Eastern Conference, but the heavy reliance on Embiid makes me think a move will be made before the trade deadline.

5. Milwaukee Bucks (22-14 SU/17-19 ATS)

Win total: 49.5

Record needed: 28-8

“Streaky” is the word that comes to mind when I think of Milwaukee’s first half. The Bucks went into the All-Star break with wins in six of seven games and a 3-4 ATS record over that stretch. In the five games before that they were 0-5 SU and ATS with a -8.0 net rating, and that skid followed a five-game winning streak in which they outscored their opponents by 20.8 points every 100 possessions. Part of the problem has been availability, specifically with Jrue Holiday, who missed 10 games due to a positive COVID-19 test. The other part has been a perimeter defense ranking 22nd or lower in all three shooting categories (overall, non-corner, corner). The Bucks’ remaining strength of schedule is 12th hardest in the league. They have five games left against Brooklyn and Philadelphia and a six-game trip to the West Coast on which they will face the Clippers, Lakers and Mavericks. They must endure just one five-games-in-seven-nights scheduling spot, but a sneaky scheduling spot lurks May 5, when they will be playing their eighth game in 12 nights.

6. Los Angeles Lakers (24-13 SU/17-20 ATS)

Win total: 46.5

Record needed: 23-12

The last 20 games of the first half did not go so well for Los Angeles. The Lakers went 11-9 SU/7-13 ATS, posted the 22nd-ranked offensive efficiency mark (109.5) and were the worst 3-point-shooting team in the league (31.4%). Things got even worse when they lost Anthony Davis to a calf injury. Los Angeles won its first game without Davis in Minnesota but went 2-6 SU/3-5 ATS with a -1.9 net rating in the final eight games of the first half. Davis’ injury coincided with the four-game absence of Dennis Schroder due to contact-tracing protocols. Marc Gasol missed the last two games due to health and safety protocols, and Kyle Kuzma was sidelined as well. The Lakers still have their flaws. They rank 24th or lower in all three shooting categories, and that will not improve when the roster is fully healthy. The Lakers have the seventh-hardest remaining schedule in the league, with eight back-to-backs and two five-games-in-seven-nights situations. Davis can return as early as March 18, but we should probably expect a cautious approach with him for the rest of the season. In the big picture, the Lakers should be fine, but a potential slip in the standings is definitely in the cards.

7. Los Angeles Clippers (24-14 SU/19-18-1 ATS)

Win total: 46.5

Record needed: 23-11

The case can be made that the Clippers can still be the best team in the Western Conference, but when you lose three straight and end the second half on a 3-6 SU and ATS slide, it is hard to rank much higher on this list. The most disappointing aspect of Los Angeles’ first half has been a defense that is 21st in efficiency (113.6), according to Cleaning The Glass. A look at the tracking data on NBA.com shows the Clippers rank second in frequency of very tight opponent attempts (defender within 2 feet) but 26th in opponent shooting when tightly defended (50.8%). Does that regress to the mean in the second half? Logic says it will, and if their defense improves to match their third-ranked offense (119.1), the league will have a problem. Remember, Los Angeles enters the second half as the best overall shooting team (42.4%) and corner 3-point-shooting team (50.1%). The Clippers also have a very favorable second-half schedule. Their remaining opponents give them the 17th-toughest schedule, they have a slight majority of home games, only five trips to the Eastern Time Zone and just seven back-to-backs. They trail Phoenix by 1.5 games in the Pacific, but a division title is definitely within the grasp of Los Angeles with this schedule.

8. Miami Heat (18-18 SU/15-19-2 ATS)

Win total: 44.5

Record needed: 27-9

The Heat look primed for a monster second half. After dropping a home game to Washington and falling to 7-14, Miami ripped off an 11-4 SU/8-7 ATS run that includes a 7-1 SU and ATS run in its last eight games. Much like the Lakers, the Heat’s problem has been availability of star players. Jimmy Butler and Goran Dragic missed 14 games and Tyler Herro missed 11 with injury or positive COVID-19 tests. Once Miami started to get healthy, the wins followed. Over their final 15 games, the Heat ranked second in defensive efficiency (107.9) and sixth in net rating (+ 5.0). Their offense still needs some work, averaging just 113.0 points every 100 possessions during their run to the second half, but that should come with time together. Miami’s second-half schedule will allow a climb up the standings as well. The Heat have the fourth-easiest schedule remaining, and only eight opponents rank inside 10th in net rating. They face two five-games-in-seven-nights situations in the second half, and a tough meeting with Chicago on April 24 will be their ninth game in 14 days. However, the current trajectory and strength of schedule make Miami a team to watch in the second half.

9. Boston Celtics (19-17 SU/17-19 ATS)

Win total: 45.5

Record needed: 27-9

Things were looking pretty bleak in Beantown during the first half. From Jan. 17 to Feb. 24, Boston was in a tailspin, posting a 7-14 SU/8-13 ATS record with a -1.5 net rating. The Celtics’ offense had become an inefficient mess, ranking 19th in efficiency (110.4) and 27th in assist rate. The slide culminated in a listless 127-112 beatdown in Atlanta that had many, including me, questioning Boston’s ability to keep it together. However, the Celtics ended the first half on a 4-0 SU/2-2 ATS run that seemed to bring some temporary stability to the franchise. Marcus Smart is on the verge of a return from a calf injury that caused him to miss 18 games. With better health and a more favorable second-half schedule, we could see some positive momentum from Boston. According to Tankathon, the Celtics have the 18th-ranked second-half schedule, including 19 home games and eight back-to-backs. The Celtics have to endure just two five-games-in-seven-nights scheduling spots and one three-game trip to the West Coast for the rest of the season. They do have five games left against Brooklyn, Milwaukee and Philadelphia, but with 15 games against opponents that rank 20th or lower in net rating, the second half will likely have people believing in Boston again.

10. Denver Nuggets (21-15 SU/17-19 ATS)

Win total: 44.5

Record needed: 24-12

Four straight wins and covers helped Denver wash away the taste of a subpar first half, but some real questions must be answered. The defense continues to be a problem, and the issues are in multiple areas of the floor. The Nuggets are 16th in defensive efficiency (112.9), 28th in defensive efficiency in transition (132.2) and 30th in rim defense (69.9%). Those figures need to improve if they plan to make a second consecutive appearance in the Western Conference finals. Gary Harris played in just 19 games in the first half and Paul Millsap missed the last 10, so player availability has been a problem. But Denver comes into the second half with the fifth-easiest schedule in the league, including 20 home games, tied for second most in the league. The Nuggets also get to work on their defense against a slate of lesser offensive opponents, as only nine of their 36 remaining games will come against teams in the top 10 in offensive efficiency. The Nuggets are one of the best offensive teams in the league, and if they can get healthy and even out the defense, a deep playoff run is not out of the realm of possibility.

11. Portland Trail Blazers (21-14 SU/19-16 ATS)

Win total: 41.5

Record needed: 21-16

Like many teams on this list, Portland is where it is mainly due to health issues. CJ McCollum has played in only 13 games, and Jusuf Nurkic has been out since Jan. 12 with a wrist injury. Thanks to the heroics of Damian Lillard, the Trail Blazers control the fifth seed in the Western Conference and are on pace to challenge the Over on their win total. Much like Denver, the problems with Portland stem from an abhorrent defense that gives up 117.1 points every 100 possessions. The Blazers have no real threat as an on-ball defender, so they allow the fourth-most attempts at the rim. That leads to drive-and-kick opportunities, so it is no surprise to see them last in opponent corner shooting (45.8%). Even with better health the defense will not improve much, and the timetable for McCollum and Nurkic is unknown. That is not great for the Trail Blazers heading into a potentially rough second half. Portland has the ninth-toughest second-half schedule, which includes 10 back-to-backs, the second most in the second half. The Blazers also face three five-games-in-seven-nights spots, and 13 opponents rank in the top 10 in offensive efficiency. Portland has been a great story, but the second half looks like it will bring the franchise back to earth.

12. New York Knicks (19-18 SU/21-15-1 ATS)

Win total: 22.5

Record needed: 4-31

For the first time since the 2012-13 season, the New York Knicks are above .500 this late in a season. They are third in defensive efficiency, allowing just 108.6 points every 100 possessions in non-garbage time, and they need just four wins to clinch the Over on their win total. The first half could not have gone better for the Knicks, which is why it is so fitting that the second half looks like it could be an absolute disaster. New York has the fifth-hardest remaining schedule in the league, and the quality of opponents is downright brutal. Ten remaining opponents are 10th or higher in net rating, and 12 rank 10th or higher in offensive efficiency. New York might have one of the best statistical defenses in the league, but that looks like it will regress in the second half. According to the NBA’s tracking data, the Knicks allow the fifth-most wide-open looks, but they rank first in opponent shooting on wide-open attempts (37.7%). Against a schedule littered with elite offenses, we can expect some regression to the mean for New York’s defense, and the Knicks could plummet down the standings in a tough second half. They do have the fewest back-to-backs in the league with six, so that’s good, right?

13. Dallas Mavericks (18-16 SU/15-19 ATS)

Win total: 42.5

Record needed: 25-13

The Mavericks enter the second half with some real momentum after Luka Doncic dragged them to a 9-2 SU/5-6 ATS finish. Doncic regained his All-Star form, averaging 31.7 points, 7.6 rebounds and 8.0 assists on 51.9% shooting during that 11-game run. It is unrealistic to expect Doncic to maintain that level of play, but he might have to if this defense does not improve. Dallas comes into the second half with the 25th-ranked defense in the league (114.6), placing the Mavs 18th in net rating (-0.8) despite an offense that is scoring 113.8 points every 100 possessions. The good thing for the Mavericks is their second-easiest second-half schedule, according to Tankathon. Dallas does have 10 back-to-backs in the second half, but a staggering 15 of their 38 games will be against teams that rank 20th or lower in net rating. That includes a total of nine games against Minnesota, Detroit, Sacramento and Cleveland. The Mavericks need 25 wins in the second half to surpass their win total, something that likely will not happen, but a schedule like this allows them to climb out of the play-in tournament should they take advantage of the friendly hand they’ve been dealt.

14. Charlotte Hornets (17-18 SU/19-16 ATS)

Win total: 25.5

Record needed: 9-28

Coach James Borrego has quietly laid the seeds of a quality team over the last few seasons in Charlotte, and during the first half of this season those seeds started to sprout. The Hornets might be a game below .500 and 21st in net rating (-1.5), but this is a decent team that can compete any night. That showed when Charlotte beat Brooklyn, Milwaukee and Phoenix in the first half, and it should continue into a second half that will present some challenges for a young team looking to grab a playoff seed. Charlotte has the 14th-toughest remaining schedule in the league, including eight back-to-backs and a unique scheduling spot in late April and early May. On April 28, the Hornets will be in Boston playing the Celtics. That will be the first of a 16-day stretch in which Charlotte will play 10 games. The Hornets have a five-game West Coast trip as well, and 12 opponents in the second half rank 10th or higher in offensive efficiency. Defense has been the Hornets’ weakness. They rank 23rd in efficiency (113.7) and opponent overall shooting (38.3%) as well as 21st in rim defense (65.2%) and transition defense (128.5). A schedule loaded with the offensive elite will not work in their favor.

15. Memphis Grizzlies (16-16 SU/17-14-1 ATS)

Win total: 31.5

Record needed: 16-24

Despite heading into the season with injuries to key role players like Justise Winslow and Jaren Jackson Jr., the Memphis Grizzlies enter the second half just one game out of the eighth seed and well in the mix for the Western Conference play-in tournament. Memphis was astounding on defense in the first half and is seventh in efficiency, allowing 110.3 points every 100 possessions. The Grizzlies rank 13th in rim defense and allow just 95.1 points every 100 plays in the half-court. That defense has kept them on pace to surpass their win total, but the offense will need to improve should this team want to gain more solid ground in the playoff race. Memphis is 21st in offensive efficiency, averaging just 110.7 points every 100 possessions, and its game revolves around mid-range scoring. Against a schedule considered the 13th hardest, according to Tankathon, that has to improve. The impending return of Jackson will help, but his timeline is unknown. Sixteen of the Grizzlies’ opponents rank 10th or higher in defensive efficiency, so do we really expect this offense to take steps forward?

 

16. Toronto Raptors (17-19 SU/17-19 ATS)         

                                     

Win total: 41.5

Record needed: 25-11

17. San Antonio Spurs (18-14 SU/18-14 ATS)

Win total: 29.5

Record needed: 12-28

18. Golden State Warriors (19-18 SU/18-19 ATS)         

                             

Win total: 36.5

Record needed: 18-17

19. Washington Wizards (14-20 SU/18-16 ATS)

Win total: 32.5

Record needed: 19-19

20. Atlanta Hawks (16-20 SU/18-18 ATS)                                                   

Win total: 36.5

Record needed: 21-15

21. New Orleans Pelicans (15-21 SU/15-21 ATS)                  

Win total: 36.5

Record needed: 22-14

22. Chicago Bulls (16-18 SU/19-14-1 ATS)

Win total: 29.5

Record needed: 14-24

23. Indiana Pacers (16-19 SU/14-21 ATS)

Win total: 39.5

Record needed: 24-13

24. Oklahoma City Thunder (15-21 SU/19-15-2 ATS)

Win total: 22.5

Record needed: 8-28

25. Sacramento Kings (14-22 SU/15-21 ATS)

Win total: 27.5

Record needed: 14-22

26. Cleveland Cavaliers (14-22 SU/15-21 ATS)

Win total: 22.5

Record needed: 9-27

27. Orlando Magic (13-23 SU/16-20 ATS)

Win total: 31.5

Record needed: 19-17

28. Detroit Pistons (10-26 SU/18-16-2 ATS)

Win total: 23.5

Record needed: 14-22

29. Minnesota Timberwolves (7-29 SU/14-21-1 ATS)

Win total: 28.5

Record needed: 22-14

30. Houston Rockets (11-23 SU/11-23 ATS)

Win total: 34.5

Record needed: 24-14

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