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Power Rankings #7: The very model of a modern NBA General Manager

(A quick note before we start, rankings are thru the games of Sunday, January 12th)

Masai Ujiri's story and path to the GM's chair in Toronto is fairly unique. Born in 1970 in Nigeria, he played soccer as a youth before gravitating to basketball. He learned the game on outdoor courts and by reading magazines and watching tapes of games (a man after my own heart). Yes, even "The Fish that Saved Pittsburgh". He then got himself to America to play some college ball at Bismarck State College, and was good enough at the game to play six years as a pro in Europe. Later, he worked as a youth coach in Nigeria. During a trip to summer league, he met David Thorpe, who introduced him to some college coaches. They started talking to him about prospects. He was traveling with a Nigerian player to a draft tryout and met Gary Brokaw, Doc Rivers and John Gabriel (the Magic's scouting director, coach, and GM at the time). They liked him and took him on as an unpaid international scout. He did a year traveling the world as a scout on his own money, during which time he impressed the Nuggets front office enought that they hired him as a paid scout. Eight years after that he was the first African born GM of a major american sports franchise (see this Sports Illustrated feature for the full story).

Why the long story? Simple, everything about that story tells me that Mr. Ujiri is a unique and talented individual who has earned every shot and maximized his opportunities (and certain teams should avoid taking his phone calls).

It really shows in his virtuoso work as a general manager. His solution to the disaster of a situation in Denver with Melo was a masterwork. He transformed the Nuggets into a better team. In his final year, they set a franchise record for wins and that still have a possible lottery pick coming. What he's done with the Raptors is even better: when he took over, they were carrying two of the top five worst contracts in the league, and were an utter  mess. Seven months latter he has more cap space, more picks and a young team that looks like the third best team in the East. It's almost magic.

45% of the way into the season and he's clearly the executive of the year again (sorry Danny).

Let's get to the rankings:

BoxScore Geeks Power Rankings as of 01/12/14:

Rank Team Strength Schedule Rank Offense Rank Defense Rank
1 San Antonio 9.2 10 3 6
2 L.A. Clippers 6.5 6 4 7
3 Indiana 5.6 30 19 1
4 Golden State 5.3 25 13 4
5 Denver 4.9 19 16 9
6 Oklahoma City 4.8 3 6 3
7 Miami 4.4 29 1 25
8 Minnesota 4.4 12 8 8
9 Portland 3.9 24 2 19
10 Memphis 1.7 17 14 21
11 Atlanta 1.6 23 11 15
12 Toronto 1.4 13 18 5
13 Houston 1.4 16 7 13
14 Sacramento 1.3 22 10 30
15 Phoenix 1.1 26 12 11
16 Dallas 1.1 8 5 22
17 Brooklyn -0.4 1 17 27
18 Chicago -0.9 27 29 2
19 New Orleans -1.1 7 9 26
20 New York -1.2 11 15 24
21 Washington -1.4 28 20 17
22 Charlotte -2.2 15 26 10
23 Utah -2.8 2 23 28
24 Boston -3.3 5 24 12
25 Detroit -4 14 21 14
26 Cleveland -4.2 21 28 16
27 Orlando -4.3 9 25 20
28 Milwaukee -5.3 18 30 18
29 Philadelphia -7.6 20 27 29
30 L.A. Lakers -8.5 4 22 23

Those are our Power Rankings through 45% of the season (and it includes pace and schedule adjusted offense and defense). ICYMI, all the ratings went up as a visual post ). Since it's the last rankings before the halfway point of the season, let's talk highlights with an eye towards how the postseason projects:

  • #1 San Antonio Spurs Neutral Site Win: 79.3% (Up 3, #3 in offense, #6 in defense): San Antonio is not only back to number 1 in our rankings, but back strong. A 9.5 differential is a ridiculously high number. In fact, it’s so high that the model currently likes them to overtake Indiana for the number 1 overall seed, and you could easily make the argument that they haven't played their best ball all year. Tim Duncan (0.193 WP48) and Manu (0.211 WP48) are having renaissance years so far. They do need an additional big to shore up the rotation. Bynum would work on this squad. Continue to make finals plans, Spurs fans.
  • #2 Los Angeles Clippers Neutral Site Win:71.7% (No Change,#4 in offense, #7 in defense): Blake and DeAndre are much, much better players than they used to be (0.173 WP48 and 0.302 WP48) respectively. Together, with some help from understudy Darren Collison, they have been able to keep the Clips playing at a very high level even without CP3. Right now, if I had to pick a Western Conference Finals matchup I'd go with the Spurs and the Clippers, with health and home court being the critical parameters to picking a favorite. The one knock against this team is that they haven't been to the big dance in the Conference Finals before and that puts them at a historic disadvantage to win the title. Another big might help here, too (Bynum, of course).
  • #3 Indiana Pacers Neutral Site Win: 69% (Down 2, #19 in offense, #1 in defense): The Pacers continue to be the class in the East but have come down to earth somewhat. Their offensive woes continue (down from 12th to 19th). The Lance Stephenson injury really doesn't help there. What's really interesting is the possibility of a Danny Granger trade. This is complicated by the fact that they need to not to take any money back so they can resign Lance, who will be an unrestricted free agent. My suggestion: Danny Granger and Ian Mahinmi for Pau Gasol and Swaggy P, who says no? I think it's a better option than Bynum (yes, Bynum again, funny how all the good teams are interested).
  • #4 Golden State Warriors Neutral Site Win: 68.2% (Up 7, #13 in offense, #4 in defense): Andre Iguodala is the most underrated player in the NBA (0.293 WP48). Andrew Bogut is a close second right now (0.288 WP48). The problems my model had with this Warriors team in the preseason had more to do with the fragility of their roster than with its construction. I am willing to call Curry, Thompson, Andre, Lee and Bogut the best starting five when healthy in the NBA. I just have serious reservations about their ability to remain all healthy together for extended periods of time. This team is the dark horse of the season. I just have to consider them not a favorite because of their injury history and the lack of any conference finals or finals pedigree. History tells us a heartbreaking WCF loss to the Spurs could be in their future.
  • #5 Denver Nuggets Neutral Site Win: 66.8% (Up 8, #16 in offense, #9 in defense): Ty Lawson and Kenneth Faried are the two best players on the Nuggets roster by far (0.190 and 0.266 WP48). With them out injured, then banged up and playing below par, the Nuggets had issues and lost 9 of 10. With them back in form, they play like a top five team winning five straight convincingly. I think the truth for this team is somewhere in the middle. They're good and young but not really a threat to make any noise in the postseason.
  • #6 Oklahoma City Thunder Neutral Site Win:66.6% (Down 3, #6 in offense, #3 in defense): As the dust is settling, Kevin Durant looks like he's going to win the MVP this year in a landslide (0.342 WP48). However, the injuries to Westbrook and their ongoing rotation issues make me take this team off the list of serious contenders. I worry that Russell is Penny part 2 and that his best years are behind him. Right now, I wouldn't bet on this team beating the Spurs, Clippers or the Warriors in a playoff series. This is really a surprising state of affairs.
  • #7 Miami Heat Neutral Site Win: 65.1% (Down 2, #1 in offense, #25 in defense): Lately, Miami has hit the three-peat wall hard. Look, we knew the Heat were old and were going to have problems. They can also get a two seed with 45 wins and have zero worries about winning on the road in the Playoffs. They've looked really banged up lately, even LeBron. Depth and size are key issues for them in the regular season and I think that Oden might be the answer they're hoping for. I think Miami will do everything in its power to have everyone healthy come playoff time. Look for them to underwhelm the rest of the regular season but be prepared to throw that out come playoff time.
  • #8 Minnesota Timberwolves Neutral Site Win: 65% (Up 1, #8 in offense, #8 in defense): Win big or lose close seems to be the motto for this Wolves team. The Twolves are 0-10 in games decided by four points during regulation for the season. This is very, very weird. Like 0.1 % likely. I suspect this turns around and they go on a run at some point. This team should really make the playoffs.
  • #9 Portland Trail Blazers Neutral Site Win: 63.3% (Down 2, #2 in offense, #19 in defense): Portland is seeing some significant slowdown from their initial hot start, going 6-5 in their last 11. This is still a very young good team with killer offense and fantastic spacing (you're going to have to wait for Sloan for me to properly explain that). That youth is going to tell in the postseason. Right now I think they scare someone in round one as a five seed but ultimately fall.
  • #10 Memphis Grizzlies Neutral Site Win: 55.9% (Up 16, #14 in offense, #21 in defense): Quietly, Memphis has won 7 of their last 11 and actually seems to rounding into shape (two of those losses are a scheduled loss in Denver and a tough loss to San Antonio). Conley, Miller and Allen have all continued to be great (0.146, 0.174 and 0.185 WP48) but it's the surprising James Johnson (0.263 WP48) that has provided the sparkplug. Be ready for all those "here come the Grizzlies back from the dead" stories in three or four weeks, particularly once Wendigo! is back in the rotation.
  • #11 Atlanta Hawks Neutral Site Win: 55.6% (Down 3, #11 in offense, #15 in defense): The Horford injury hurts, but doesn't kill the Hawks. The Hawks have credible bigs in Brand, Ayon and Millsap to offset the loss of those minutes with a minimal loss of productivity. Because they own the Nets' pick, they also don't need to tank, as there is still a strong possibility that they'll end up picking in the lottery this year. This has the makings of a classic Hawks season: a 4/5 seed, and a scrappy round one or two loss. Better times are ahead though.
  • #12 Toronto Raptors Neutral Site Win: 54.9% (Up 2, #18 in offense, #5 in defense): Toronto is blazing up this chart since the Rudy Gay trade and legitimately looks like a three seed in the East. They're 12-5 since the trade, with those five losses coming to San Antonio (twice), at Miami, at Indiana, and an OT loss in Charlotte. This team is legit. I think they're standing pat but if Masai decides to make another trade we might have to up their celling to possible spoiler. I do think that only happens if a major calamity befalls the Heat or Pacers. Right now, I see them losing in round two in six and being upbeat about the future.
  • #13 Houston Rockets Neutral Site Win: 54.9% (Down 3, #7 in offense, #13 in defense): Fun fact: I'm developing a model for predicting player performance and for some reason this Rockets team seems to do significantly worse when it has road games with layovers in cities with a good strip club scene. Remember the 96-97 Lakers (the first Shaq/Kobe team) coached by Del Harris that lost in round two to the Jazz? This team feels kind of like that. They downright mail in games. Even with an Asik trade, I don't think they're ready. Maybe they need an ex-bulls coach to get them focused and take them over the hump. Paging Tom Thibodeau.
  • #14 Sacramento Kings Neutral Site Win: 54.5% (Up 11, #10 in offense, #30 in defense): What in the world are the Kings doing this high up? Three things got them here: Cousins playing like a franchise center (0.158 WP48) [Editor's note: Really? 0.158 is a franchise center? Scroll up to see Andrew Bogut's performance. Note Cousins is a player on Arturo's fantasy squad], Isaiah Thomas balling (0.177 WP48) and Rudy Gay not sucking for a small sample size (0.165 WP48). I trust the first two more than the third. However moving to a secondary role in an offense might be turning Rudy around. Nope, still can't talk myself into it.
  • #15 Phoenix Suns Neutral Site Win: 54% (Down 9, #12 in offense, #11 in defense): The Bledsoe injury is tough for this team because even though they can somewhat replace his production (0.166 WP48 [Editor's note: you mean franchise level? Ok, I'm done]), any loss in the West sees them leave the playoffs (as opposed to the East were they could almost sleepwalk to first round bye). If they can sneak in, they'll give their first round opponent a scare but ultimately fail with honor.
  • #16 Dallas Mavericks Neutral Site Win: 53.9% (Down 4, #5 in offense, #22 in defense): They finally have Wright back and he's been excellent (0.262 WP48) although as always with the Mavs, he should play more. As fun as they are to watch and as much as I like them, the issues with this roster remain. This is a small team and an old team. They also don’t have a lot of depth at guard (Larkin, Mekel, and Ledo are atrocious). Given that, a Bynum gamble makes sense for them. As it stands, they don't have enough bullets to get past round one, and that's if they get in.
  • #17 Brooklyn Nets Neutral Site Win: 48.6% (Up 4, #17 in offense, #27 in defense): The Nets are out of the cellar and back to semi-respectability on the shoulders of Reggie Evans, Plumlee, and Livingston. Evans (0.149 WP48 and rising), their leading win producer from last year, is finally back from a terrible start. Livingston and Plumlee (0.130 and 0.158 WP48) are just about replacing the production of Deron and Brook (0.125 and 0.161 WP48). So functionally, this is an older version of the 2013 Celtics. They're not catching Toronto and they're getting killed by Miami or Indiana in round one.
  • #18 Chicago Bulls Neutral Site Win: 47% (Up 4, #29 in offense, #2 in defense): As much as the Bulls' front office apparently wants to lose, this team is still too talented not to flirt with the playoffs in the East. They are still number two in the league in defense. Butler, Noah, Dunleavy, Gibson, Boozer, and Hinrich are still on the roster. Thibbs is still the coach. If the front office doesn't make another move (like say shut down Noah at some point), I could see them sneaking a six seed and possibly stunning the Raptors before giving the Heat a bloody nose.
  • #19 New Orleans Pelicans Neutral Site Win: 46% (Down 3, #9 in offense, #26 in defense): In his House in the Big Easy, Pierre the Pelican lies dreaming of the future. Aminu and Davis are a legit star and superstar combo (0.217 and 0.257 WP48). Holiday, Gordon, and Tyreke are three decent guards. If they can just simply clear the crap from their roster (Austin Rivers, Smith, and Stiemsma) and perhaps find a center (hint: Houston might have one for you), this team will be set for years. This year though? Not happening in the West.
  • #20 New York Knicks Neutral Site Win: 45.7% (Up 3, #15 in offense, #24 in defense): The Knicks are finally taking advantage of Carmelo's career year (0.163 WP48 with some defense being played) to finally look like almost a five hundred team. They even stepped up, took a stand, and benched JR. This was of the good, as it meant Iman got to play. They even got some Amaré health, which meant less Bargs. I don't believe it will last. J.R. will get back on the floor and so will Bargs. Things will go to hell and the Melo drama will come back after a too-brief hiatus. I think they'll sneak in and get stomped by the Heat in round one.
  • #21 Washington Wizards Neutral Site Win: 45.2% (Down 3, #20 in offense, #17 in defense): The Wizards win our "better on paper" award. Going 4-6 over their last ten, let's give them credit for beating who they were supposed to (Detroit twice, the Bobcats, and the Pelicans) while losing by at least 7 points to everyone else. I still think that this is the worst coached team in the association. If they get in, Indiana will do bad things to them but at least it won't be before a national audience.
  • #22 Charlotte Bobcats Neutral Site Win: 42.5% (Down 5, #26 in offense, #10 in defense): The Bobcats continue to be the well-coached likeable team that plays hard defense and runs a smart offense, but couldn't make a jumpshot using those mini-basketballs they give to kids. I wish there was a way for them to get some shooting (picks and fodder for Hayward?) but I don't see it.
  • #23 Utah Jazz Neutral Site Win: 40.2% (Up 4, #23 in offense, #28 in defense): We said in the previous power rankings to expect this team to continue to move up the rankings and they have. Their offense is slowly improving and they're halfway respectable winning five of nine. I expect them to continue to improve but ultimately fall in the 35 win range.
  • #24 Boston Celtics Neutral Site Win: 38.4% (Down 5, #24 in offense, #12 in defense): It's hard to win in the NBA without an actual center. Sullinger and Humphries have done a decent job of covering but this team really needs that big man. That said, I'd expect the coming Rondo upgrade will make this team significantly better than a five hundred team. They could really sneak in to the playoffs. Decision time Danny, go all in or shut it down?
  • #25 Detroit Pistons Neutral Site Win: 36.2% (Down 10, #21 in offense, #14 in defense): The Pistons have a twenty year old franchise center in Drummond (0.306 WP48 [Editor's note: Also known as twice as good as Cousins! Ok, really done.]). Everything else about this team makes zero sense. The good news for Pistons fans is that this might actually cost Dumars his job. With this roster, I'd be trying to move Josh for picks to a contender.
  • #26 Cleveland Cavaliers Neutral Site Win:35.5% (Up 3, #28 in offense, #16 in defense): The Cavs went all-in to flip Bynum for Deng (0.146 WP48). The results so far are mixed (a win against a mediocre Utah team and getting blown out by the Kings). I'm not convinced they have enough. Luckily, they have pieces still to move. If they really want to compete, I'd be packaging the terrible two, Waiters and Bennett (-0.040 and -0.267 WP48) for another asset. The great part is that, as terrible as those two have been, someone will still take them.
  • #27 Orlando Magic Neutral Site Win: 35.2% (Down 3, #25 in offense, #20 in defense): Eight losses in a row. Yep, still tanking.
  • #28 Milwaukee Bucks Neutral Site Win: 32% (No Change, #30 in offense, #18 in defense): However bad this is Bucks fans, you have a future top five player in the Greek and still growing Giannis. John Henson is another good piece. Add another great draft pick coming their way, and the future is bright.
  • #29 Philadelphia 76ers Neutral Site Win: 25.2% (Up 1, #27 in offense, #29 in defense): Four road wins in the West followed by four losses. This Sixers team is one big ball of variability. They're also better with MCW. I love their strategy of playing at a ridiculously fast pace to raise the perceived value of all their assets. They won the draft in a landslide. They have the nicest set of assets for the coming draft and they're about to bilk someone in a trade, just watch. Evan Turner for Waiters and Bennett and picks. Who says no?
  • #30 Los Angeles Lakers Neutral Site Win: 22.5% (Down 10, #22 in offense, #23 in defense): Hey, the Lakers have lost ten of eleven and all of a sudden look like the worst team in the NBA by a country mile. If only someone had told you that in the preseason. Nick Young's performance has fallen off a cliff (-0.039 WP48) while the return of Kaman (-0.037 WP48) is really not a good thing. I fully expect this team to just throw it in the rest of the season and go all out for a number one pick.

Finally, let's sim out the rest of the season. How does the model think all this plays out over 82 games?

Rank Team Wins Playoffs? Top 4 Seed? #1 Seed?
E1 Indiana 61 100% 100% 91%
E2 Miami 55 100% 100% 9%
E3 Toronto 45 100% 87%  
E4 Atlanta  43 99% 75%  
E5 Washington 38 89% 15%  
E6 Chicago 38 81% 10%  
E7 Brooklyn 37 78% 7%  
E8 New York 36 66% 5%  
E9 Charlotte 34 41% 1%  
E10 Boston 33 21%    
E11 Detroit 32 17%    
E12 Cleveland 30 8%    
E13 Orlando 27 1%    
E14 Philadelphia 25      
E15 Milwaukee 21      
W1 San Antonio 63 100% 100% 91%
W2 Oklahoma City 57 100% 93% 5%
W3 L.A. Clippers 56 100% 88% 3%
W4 Portland Trail 53 99% 57%  
W5 Golden State 53 100% 55%  
W6 Denver 47 72% 2%  
W7 Minnesota 46 73% 3%  
W8 Houston 46 71% 3%  
W9 Dallas 44 45% 1%  
W10 Phoenix 43 33%    
W11 Memphis 40 8%    
W12 Sacramento 36      
W13 New Orleans 35      
W14 Utah 29      
W15 L.A. Lakers 24      

It's crazy that the eight seed in the West could get the three seed in the East. See you all next week.