In this latest edition of 2012 NBA Power Rankings, the Philadelphia 76ers, Chicago Bulls and Miami Heat are cemented as the class of the Eastern Conference, but out in the Western Conference things are still wide open. The Los Angeles Lakers and Oklahoma City Thunder still look strong, but the Denver Nuggets and Portland Trail Blazers are the ones currently out ahead of the pack.
Meanwhile, young teams like the Los Angeles Clippers and Indiana Pacers are finally making their moves upward, while many others are trapped in the blob of mediocrity. The Utah Jazz, Houston Rockets and Milwaukee Bucks seemed ready to prove themselves, and all three recorded some signature wins over the past week, but letdown losses have held them back for the time being. To get a detailed look at the NBA landscape check out the the current version of my NBA Power Rankings.
The Sixers Continue To Impress. The Philadelphia 76ers are still playing some of the best basketball in the NBA even when factoring their light schedule. With a stunning efficiency differential of +12.85 points per 100 possessions, the 76ers (17-7) the Sixers have destroyed their opponents on most night. On an average night they win by double-digits, and five of their seven losses have come against top teams in the NBA -- Miami (2x), Denver, Portland, Utah. Their schedule has gotten more difficult in the past week, and Doug Collins' squad has responded with wins over the Chicago Bulls, Orlando Magic and Atlanta Hawks. An underwhealming combination of Elton Brand, Tony Battie and Lavoy Allen patrol the paint, but Jrue Holiday and Andre Iguodala have been the backbone of the team's success.
On offense, the Sixers take care of the ball better than anyone else in the league. Perimeter options like Holiday, Iguodala, Lou Williams, and Evan Turner have managed to keep the turnover rate down to 11 percent, which is a full 1.7 percent better than the next team (the post-oriented Utah Jazz). Philadelphia still averages the lowest percentage of shots at the rim in the league, so their drive-and-kick model has found success largely because their ball handlers have been extremely careful while still making plays and generating open mid-range looks for teammates. On defense, pick-and-roll defense from those same offensive assets has forced opponents into the second-highest percentage of long-range jumpers (29.8 percent of total shots). By forcing their opponents to take the longest two-point jumpshots on the court more often than any other team, the Sixers have managed to build the most efficient defensive unit in the NBA without a single impact shot blocker or interior defender (though Elton Brand has been very good this season in those areas).
Trail Blazers And Nuggets Are Tops In The West. Denver has been doing it with an explosive, up-tempo offense led by Ty Lawson, while Portland is doing it with strong defense and an offense funneled through LaMarcus Aldridge. When they faced off in a head-to-head matchup on Saturday, the Blazers not only flexed their defensive muscles but also brought some offensive fire-power from Nicolas Batum and Aldridge to down the Nuggets 117-97 in the Rose Garden.
Nate McMillan is next in line for coach of the year if Doug Collins and the Sixers begin to falter. Losing Brandon Roy and Greg Oden has only accentuated his ability to maximize the talent on the roster, as he has shaped the 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, Gerald Wallace and then Jamal Crawford. The Blazers are currently the sixth fastest team in the NBA and have thrived in the open court. The game plan has been tailored to fit the changing personnel, and for that McMillan deserves credit. Most coaches take their system and impose it upon the roster, sometimes forcing square pegs fit into round holes, but he has shown a willingness and flexibility to make the best out of what he has been given.
Along the same lines, George Karl is embracing the fundamental change brought on by the Carmelo Anthony trade. Ty Lawson has become the focal point of the offense, while Danilo Gallinari and Nene have provided potent options on the perimeter and in the paint. The plan has been to push the ball after every defensive rebound and forced turnover, and it has worked to perfection. Denver leads the league in pace (97.9), points per game (104.6), offensive efficiency (105.5) and assists per game (23.8). For now, they are also the highest ranked Western Conference team in the Power Rankings at No.5 overall, but the Trail Blazers are right behind them at No. 6. This much is certain, both teams are very good and should be among the finalists in the conference come playoff time.
Why The Miami Heat Can Lose To Anyone (But Still Beat Almost Everyone). At 18-6, the Miami Heat are certainly not in any serious trouble. In fact, they have the third-best record in the NBA -- behind only the Chicago Bulls (20-6) and Oklahoma City Thunder (18-5). LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh have been enough to overwhelm most opponents on most nights, but there have still been a few unexpected losses along the way.
Part of the reason the Heat have been knocked off unexpectedly a few times this season -- notably by the Milwaukee Bucks and Golden State Warriors -- is that opponents have adopted a high-risk, high-reward approach when playing Miami. Opponents have used a league-leading 27.3 percent of their total shots to launch three-pointers, and thus the Heat can sometimes fall behind when those shots go in. Dorell Wright's 6-11 performance from beyond the arc sunk them against the Warriors, while Brandon Jennings' 7-14 explosion from three caused their most recent loss. Teams have largely opted to live or die from deep against the Heat, at while it works out well on most nights for LeBron and company, sometimes things go the other way.