The first edition of an NBA Power Rankings feature that promises to keep you highly informed on the NBA at-large.
Welcome to a different brand of NBA Power Rankings. There are many ways to approach the exercise, but most subjective rankings converge to reflect consensus opinions and reinforce notions established before the season ever even started. It's no secret that the Chicago Bulls, Miami Heat, Los Angeles Lakers, Oklahoma City Thunder, and San Antonio Spurs are very good teams. By the same token, everyone knows the Washington Wizards, Detroit Pistons, Charlotte Bobcats and New Orleans Hornets are going to do any damage (at least to other teams) in the 2012 NBA season. While basketball truisms are reasserted on the margins of power rankings, the middle is often muddled by a lack of clear standards. I set up these rankings to focus on efficiency -- how effectively teams score and prevent points on a per possession basis -- but I have also included plenty of other information that should help provide context to how each teams is playing in different aspects of the game.
The Chicago Bulls haven't always played pretty basketball this season, but then again, head coach Tom Thibodeau has never promised pretty. His suffocating, disciplined and tenacious defensive system has proven to be highly effective, yet a compressed schedule and an offense heavily reliant on star guard Derrick Rose to be great has meant the Bulls are more grindy than oppressively dominant on most nights. Yet here the Bulls stand, with the league's best record (12-2) highlighted by impressive road victories against the Los Angeles Lakers, Los Angeles Clippers, Orlando Magic and Boston Celtics. Joakim Noah has been subpar, Derrick Rose has battled a pesky turf toe injury that all but promises to rear its ugly head at least once more in this jam-packed season and Richard Hamilton has largely been missing in action. It just doesn't seem to matter. They aren't collecting style points along the way, but the Bulls headed towards home-court advantage in the Eastern Conference playoffs. What more could a reasonable Bulls fan ask for, honestly?
Anyways, here is a select statistical profile for each team that will allow you to essentially make your own NBA Power Rankings. Scoring efficiencies, shot distributions, rebounding rates, and more are provided for your enjoyment, and teams are listed according to their efficiency differential. All stats are from Hoopdata, and each category is arranged such that green marks a top rankings, yellow signifies an average rankings, and red puts a failure on display. The data for this version is from the beginning of the season through 1/13/2012. Take a look at the breakdown and tell me what you see:
The Philadelphia 76ers Are Really, Really Good: The only NBA team with a better defensive efficiency rating than the Bulls is the Philadelphia 76ers (9-3). Their overall efficiency differential of +17.5 points per 100 possessions is almost better than the next two teams combined. Translation: Jrue Holiday and Andre Iguodala are killing it right now. Might as well make Doug Collins the favorite for Coach of the Year, because he has managed to create a top defensive team with Elton Brand and Spencer Hawes in the starting frontcourt. Remember, magicians never reveal their secrets, so don't bother asking.
Great Coaching In Portland: Nate McMillan is coaching his hinie off with the Portland Trail Blazers. Losing Brandon Roy and Greg Oden accentuated his ability to maximize the talent on its roster by shaping his system to meet the needs of his players. After electing to operate with the slowest pace of any team in the NBA last season to allow LaMarcus Aldridge opportunities in the post, McMillan has completely flipped the script since the team acquired Raymond Felton and Gerald Wallace. Now the Blazers are the third fastest team in the NBA and have thrived in the open court because the game plan is tailored to fit the new personnel. Most coaches take their system and impose it upon the roster, sometimes forcing square pegs fit into round holes, but McMillan has shown a willingness and flexibility to make the best out of what he has been given. If Portland can keep up their strong start, everyone should be talking about Nate McMillan and his place among the best coaches in the league.
Trouble On The East Coast: The New York Knicks and Boston Celtics aren't very good basketball teams right now. Boston has unsuccessfully tried to navigate the transition between their core of aging superstars and the next wave of talent to pair with Rajon Rondo, while the Knicks simply lack a competitive roster behind Amare Stoudemire, Carmelo Anthony and Tyson Chandler. I don't care what anyone else says, incessant chatter about rookie guard Iman Shumpert is nothing more than elaborate code speak for a crippling lack of depth on New York's roster. There is still plenty of time for both teams to turn things around, but at the moment neither team is excelling an any important areas of the game.
Pace Isn't Telling Us Much: Of the top 10 NBA teams in terms of offense efficiency, 6/10 play at a pace below the league average. The Orlando Magic, Oklahoma City Thunder, Los Angeles Clippers, Atlanta Hawks, Chicago Bulls and Phoenix Suns (Say whaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaa?) all play slower than the average team, but still manage to produce offense better than most of the NBA. In contrast, the New York Knicks, Milwaukee Bucks (sigh), Sacramento Kings, Memphis Grizzlies, Charlotte Bobcats and Washington Wizards all play faster than most teams, but also toil away among the bottom 10 in terms of offensive efficiency.
A Truism Under Fire? The default reaction to poor offense and scoring droughts by most fans and analysts is to demand a shift away from jump shots to focus on attacking the rim. Jump shots are certainly embedded in NBA basketball, and basketball at any level, so at times the criticism seems to ignore the reality that every team takes a bunch of jump shots. In other words, if you don't like jump shots you might as well turn off basketball altogether. It's a fact of the game. Just looking at the NBA averages across the league, it comes as no surprise that 57 percent of shots come from 10ft and beyond. What does surprise me that even for the top teams in offensive efficiency, there are a wide variety of shot distributions used to accomplish good NBA offense. In fact, two of the top three teams in offense of efficiency actually attempt less than the league average percent of shots at the rim (76ers and Thunder). These idiosyncrasies derive from a diverse collection of talent on each team, but the early numbers do point out some interesting trends that might make you think twice about blankly calling for your favorite team to attack the rim more often on a nightly basis.
So there it is, the first of many make-your-own NBA Power Rankings this season. Look over the numbers, let it all sink in and then please take the time to share some of your thoughts and observations in the comment section.
Steve von Horn is a writer and editor at SB Nation's Milwaukee Bucks blog, Brew Hoop, and a contributor for SB Nation's NBA Scores And More feature. If you have questions, comments or new writing opportunities, he can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter: @StevevonHorn.