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NBA Power Ratings And Playoff Odds: Waiting On Durant

It’s Monday, and that means it’s time for another edition of FiveThirtyEight’s NBA Power Ratings. The least you need to know about how these numbers work: Each team is ranked according to a projection of its strength over the upcoming week — and the upcoming week only — using Real Plus-Minus (RPM) player ratings provided by Jeremias Engelmann and Steve Ilardi. For more details on the ratings, see our introductory rankings post.

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(Note: These ratings were calculated before news broke that Chicago’s Jimmy Butler would miss three to six weeks with an elbow injury. Butler carried a strong +3.2 RPM rating, so replacing his 26 minutes per game with a replacement-level player would drop the Bulls from 11th place to a tie for 19th with the Pistons. Chicago’s saving grace might be that the average player below Butler on the team’s depth chart is significantly better than replacement level, but there’s no doubt that this news reduces the Bulls’ rating.)

Some observations about the rankings this week:

  • The Oklahoma City Thunder climbed more in the rankings from last week than any other team, leaping from No. 13 to No. 6. The biggest reason? The expectation that Kevin Durant will return in some capacity this week, even if in reduced minutes, was worth 1.7 points per 100 possessions to OKC’s overall rating. The ripple effects of Durant’s return extend beyond his own increased minutes. Our playing-time projections also see Dion Waiters (whose extremely negative RPM falls below the replacement level) getting fewer minutes on the wing — a boon of 0.8 points/100 to the Thunder’s rating. More minutes may also go to plus-minus darling Andre Roberson,1 and fewer minutes will go to guard D.J. Augustin, an additional 0.6 point boost for OKC’s rating. The mix of very good and very poor players on the Thunder roster makes the team a great case study in how much effect playing-time reshuffling can have on a team’s overall talent rating.
  • The Atlanta Hawks dropped four spots in this week’s rankings, largely because Al Horford (+2.3 RPM rating), Jeff Teague (+1.3), DeMarre Carroll (+1.2) and Pero Antic (+0.8) are all listed as day-to-day in the team’s injury report. Those slight playing-time downgrades gave more minutes to a host of negative RPM players; chief among them are Dennis Schroder and Kent Bazemore.
  • Joining the Hawks with a four-slot decline this week are the Toronto Raptors. More than half of Toronto’s 1.8 point ratings drop is driven by an injury to Kyle Lowry — and the resulting uptick in playing time for the man behind him on the team’s point guard depth chart, Lou Williams. Williams’s box-score numbers are very good, and Toronto has played much better with him on the court this season. But Real Plus-Minus isn’t convinced despite his great 2014-15 season to date. His long-term predictive RPM is currently -1.9 — with a -3.6 defensive mark — numbers only slightly improved from his -2.0/-3.7 ratings from the end of last season.
  • For all the changes just outside the league’s top tier — in addition to the rise of OKC and declines of Atlanta and Toronto, the Memphis Grizzlies and Houston Rockets both moved up a pair of spots — the top four in our rankings stayed constant. This marks the first time that’s been true since we introduced the rankings in mid-January.
  • With Oklahoma City’s gains, the Western Conference playoff picture is all but set. Seven teams have postseason probabilities in excess of 97 percent, and the Thunder don’t sit too far behind, at 92.7 percent. As for the East, it boasts six teams with playoff odds of 99.6 percent or greater, although there’s some drama to be had with six teams battling for the conference’s final two playoff berths. The Indiana Pacers have the inside track for one of the slots, with a 62.7 percent playoff probability, but none of the five teams behind them are any more than 40.2 percent likely to qualify, which ought to bring at least some tension to the final month and a half of the season.
  • Related to the previous point, it’s worth mentioning that the Utah Jazz have a zero percent probability of making the playoffs despite ranking 12th in talent. What happened? Utah’s record has undershot its Pythagorean expectation by three wins, but the team has also improved its talent rating recently (granted, by too little and too late) by jettisoning Enes Kanter and his -2.5 RPM in a three-team trade with Oklahoma City and the Detroit Pistons.
  • Finally, who on earth is Joffrey Lauvergne? Our projections had the French big man down for 2.8 minutes per game for the Denver Nuggets last week, but he ended up averaging 21 minutes per game instead (and even got a starting nod against the Jazz on Friday). Denver might be toning down Lauvergne’s playing time after he shot 38 percent from the floor and posted a -36 plus-minus in that lone start, but his expected role increase — and -4.4 RPM rating — is still enough to help the Nuggets drop by five slots in the rankings. They’re still not New York Knicks bad, but after their mass talent exodus at the trade deadline, the Nuggets now bring up the rear of the non-Knicks/Philadelphia 76ers division of the power rankings.

Footnotes

  1. Relative to other metrics at least; from his awful 9.9 Player Efficiency Rating (PER), you wouldn’t expect his RPM to be a strong +2.4.

Neil Paine is a senior sportswriter for FiveThirtyEight.

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