Top 5 teams in NBA include a number of surprises after Nets

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The second half of the NBA season is underway. 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.

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. Here are my top five teams:

1. Brooklyn Nets

One of the hottest teams in the NBA, the Nets entered the All-Star break on a 10-1 SU and ATS run that includes wins over the Suns, Lakers and Clippers. Over those 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.

The Nets are 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 they 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

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 the Nets, 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.

I believe we can expect to see a similar pace going forward 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, that is one to circle.

Donovan Mitchell
Donovan Mitchell
AP

3. Phoenix Suns

Since Jan. 28, the Suns have been nearly untouchable. They entered Thursday on a run of 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. In total, though, 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 the Nets, both Los Angeles teams, Milwaukee, Philadelphia and Utah.

4. Philadelphia 76ers

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 excel at protecting the rim and the corners, 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.

Joel Embiid
Joel Embiid
Getty Images

5. Milwaukee Bucks

“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, and that skid followed a five-game winning streak in which they outscored their opponents by 20.8 points every 100 possessions.

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 western trip 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.

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