Welcome to the conclusion of the NBA Fan Confidence Rankings! Click here for Part One, Part Two, and Part Three.

We are halfway through the NBA regular season. The stereotypical sports talk radio host would say that the second half of the season is when teams develop into their true identity and gain momentum for the playoffs, thus implying that the first half of the season, the half we just witnessed, is subservient in value to the second half. That is what most fans think and it is a logical conclusion.

Yet, it turns out that ideology is wrong. In a phenomenal piece published in 2012, ESPN’s Tom Haberstroh (link here!) analytically illuminated a core NBA insight: the record of a team during the first half of a season has a higher correlation with post-season success than a team’s record during the second half of the season. In the fabled words of former NFL coach Dennis Green, these teams “are who we thought they were.”

Knowing this revelation of the first-half of the season really mattering, let’s proceed to the conclusion of the NBA Fan Confidence Rankings.

  1. Team Apocalypse
  2. Team Do Not Renew the Season Tickets
  3. Team At Least We’ve Got This One Thing
  4. Team Future
  5. Team Only A Couple Moves Away
  6. Team Contender

I have six teams in The Team Contender category. These six will be analyzed in order from least in contention for a title to strongest contender. Starting with the…

Toronto Raptors: 27 Wins – 15 Losses

Credit: Dan Hamilton-USA TODAY Sports

Credit: Dan Hamilton-USA TODAY Sports

Scouting Report: In the name of American exceptionalism (also word count) I will keep this section short. This season I have seen the Raptors answer multiple question marks that have been looming over them. Guards DeMar DeRozan and Kyle Lowry have shown they can effectively coexist. The two are sharing ballhandling duties, DeRozan is making up for his lack of shooting by attacking the rim relentlessly and Lowry is hitting almost three three-pointers per game.

*Side-note: DeMar DeRozan clearly concurs with the character Margo Roth Spiegelman from John Green’s book Paper Towns, that middle letters deserve to be capitalized too. As Spiegelman says, “the rules are so unfair to the letters in the middle”.

TV Viewing Tip: Not every drive to the basket has to be done at light-speed. Yes, he is a monster athlete, but DeRozan is exceptionally good at using hesitations halfway through his drive to get to the rim. It is super effective and probably a move all of us could add to our own slowly deteriorating pickup basketball skills.

Big Question: The Raptors are loaded with assets. They have the Knicks’ first round pick this year (unless they jump the Nuggets in the lottery), the Clippers’ first rounder next season, all their own first rounders and a collection of young players with real value (Terrence Ross, Bismack Biyombo, Delon Wright and Bruno Caboclo). They also know they cannot realistically challenge Cleveland this year. I think they are the NBA’s most intriguing Trade Deadline team. Will they make any moves?

Los Angeles Clippers: 27 Wins – 14 Losses

Credit: Craig Mitchelldyer-USA TODAY Sports

Credit: Craig Mitchelldyer-USA TODAY   Sports

Scouting Report: The Clippers are so confoundedly entertaining that the coach’s son carrying a bigger load than he should is their eighth biggest storyline! This season was supposed to be different for the Clippers. They added Josh Smith, Lance Stephenson and Paul Pierce to improve their depth and championed an “expanded role” for DeAndre Jordan. 41 games in Lance Stephenson is their ninth man and has completely lost Doc Rivers’ trust. Josh Smith is eleventh (eleventh!) on the team in minutes played per game, and nothing about DeAndre’s game has really changed. DeAndre is playing the same number of minutes per game as last season, still only shooting six times per game and his usage rate remains unchanged at 14%.

The Clippers need to evolve to win the western conference. Yet game after game nothing changes. Blake Griffin still does not know what to do versus double teams. Austin Rivers still plays huge minutes at backup point guard even though he averages 2.1 assists per 36 minutes and generally does not acknowledge that teammates exist. For comparison, James Michael McAdoo, the Warriors 14th man who plays power forward or center, averages 2.2 assists per 36 minutes. The Clippers still have the emotional composure of a college student who did not get their daily dose of Starbucks AND just found a parking ticket on their car. Finally, the Clippers still have no answer for the Warriors’ small ball lineup. I realize that was a bit of a rant but the Clippers’ lack of evolution is downright frustrating (although quite beneficial for Warriors fans).

TV Viewing Tip: As you watch the Clippers play, ponder this question: if his name was not Doc Rivers, would Doc Rivers be on the hot seat?

Big Question: In the final eight minutes of a game versus the Warriors (a fairly likely second round opponent for Clippers), who plays versus the Warriors’ “Death Lineup” of Curry-Klay-Iguodala-Barnes-Draymond? They cannot play DeAndre because the Warriors will simply pick-and-roll him to death and he lacks value on offense because he cannot hit free-throws. This leaves Blake Griffin to play center. Who does Coach Doc surround Blake with?

Oklahoma City Thunder: 32 Wins – 12 Losses

Scouting Report: Durant and Westbrook are genuine basketball wonders. Westbrook plays like peak Derrick Rose every night and somehow is not chronically injured because of it. Durant is a seven footer who might be the NBA’s best perimeter scorer. Any pick-and-roll involving these two is immediately one of the best plays in basketball. We are lucky to watch these guys. That said, the Thunder have over-invested in big men and under-invested on wings. Their best lineups feature Durant at power forward and Ibaka at center yet they spent consecutive first-round picks on big men (Mitch McGary and Steven Adams) and just gave a max contract to center Enes Kanter. There is hope though. A closing lineup of Westbrook-Dion Waiters-Anthony Morrow-Durant-Ibaka is still deadly on offense and Waiters is playing scrappier defense this season.

TV Viewing Tip: Any time Dion Waiters is shooting a free-throw. rush to your television! Waiters’ free-throw percentage has declined the past two seasons and he believes must of his misses are to the left. So, Waiters came up with the logical solution: he began shooting his free-throws off-centered from the basket. He moved to the right, so his free-throws resemble more of an elbow jump-shot than a free-throw. I swear I’m not making this up. I am not sure if Waiters is still doing this but if so you must see it.

Big Questions: Would you rather have Westbrook and Durant or Curry and Draymond? With Durant’s free agency approaching, has any team ever had more at stake in one single season than OKC does right now? This team could look massively different very soon.

Cleveland Lebrons: 29 Wins – 11 Losses

Credit: Brad Penner-USA TODAY Sports

Credit: Brad Penner-USA TODAY Sports

Scouting Report: Here is a sentence I did not expect to type today: the Cavs remind me of the Federalist Papers written by John Jay, James Madison and Alexander Hamilton which advocated for the ratification of the US Constitution. This just got super nerdy, I know, but stay with me on this analogy. When people think about the authors of the Federalist Papers, they think of a big three: Jay, Madison, and Hamilton. Yet, here is what is less commonly known. Of the 85 essays written, Jay wrote a mere five, Madison wrote 29, and Hamilton wrote the other 51! Right now, LeBron is Hamilton, Kyrie Irving is Madison, and Kevin Love is Jay. All of this to say that the Cavs’ Big Three is not working like it should. Love has once again been reduced to a spot-up three-point shooter and the team is relying too heavy on a LeBron who is in his 13th season.

Yet, here is the dichotomy: much of this is LeBron’s fault. If we assume that LeBron wields the type of power in the Cavaliers front office that most say he does, then the current state of the Cavs is partly his fault. LeBron’s reluctancy to play power forward, his most effective position, led to the Cavs trading Andrew Wiggins for Kevin Love. Now, the Cavs have too many big guys (Love, Tristan Thompson, Timofey Mozgov, Anderson Varejao) and not enough wings. In the ultimate irony, the lineup best suited to stop the Warriors’ “Death Lineup” with Draymond at the five would be Kyrie Irving-JR Smith-Iman Shumpert-ANDREW WIGGINS-Lebron.

TV Viewing Tip: You will likely never experience this but Cleveland’s announcers refer to LeBron as “The King” during the flow of the game. I cannot decide if I admire their outright lack of neutrality or if it is a little too much.

Short Rant: I could try to conjure a Kevin Love trade but instead I want to talk about something else: Dan Gilbert, the Cavaliers’ owner, is the CEO of Quicken Loans. Multiple times Quicken Loans has been deemed guilty of issuing subprime loans to families. As a finance student, I find few things more disgusting than predatory lenders. Here are a couple links to stories illuminating Quicken Loan’s tactics.

San Antonio Spurs: 36 Wins – 6 Losses

Scouting Report: The Spurs are so good that the follow statements are not overly hyperbolic:

  • Tim Duncan and Greg Popovich are the greatest player-coach combo since Russell and Auerbach.
  • This season Kawhi Leonard could shoot 50% from the field, 50% from three and 90% from the free-throw line PLUS win Defensive Player of the Year.
  • Kawhi Leonard is the NBA’s best wing defender since Scottie Pippen.
  • This Spurs team is on pace to be a top ten team of all time. If the season ended today, they would have the greatest point differential in the history of the NBA.

TV Viewing Tip: Because the Spurs are not already good enough, they keep a 7’3” Serbian center named Boban Marjanovic on the bench. Occasionally he enters the game and proceeds to crush human beings (see video below). If the Spurs are on and your buddy shouts “BOBAN!” stop what you are doing and absorb every moment of the Boban experience.

Big Questions: Dissecting the Spurs vs. Warriors matchup is a whole article in itself (foreshadowing!), but here are a couple key questions: Do the Warriors have the faith in small-ball to put 6’6” Draymond Green on Lamarcus Aldridge or Tim Duncan if the Spurs go big? Complimentarily, can Harrison Barnes guard the other big guy if both are in? Is Kawhi the only guy in the league who can guard Steph? Also, how does Popovich manipulate his defense so Kawhi plays defense on Steph? Does Kawhi start the possession on Draymond and then switch on to Steph in the likely pick-and-roll?

The good news: the Spurs and Warriors play next Monday.
The bad news: the odds of Popovich revealing his gameplan to stop the Warriors are about as high as Jed York admitting he should have kept Harbaugh.

Golden State Warriors: 39 Wins – 4 Losses

I am not going to dissect the Warriors because we have the rest of the season to do that. However, I do want to comment on something. In this piece and the three preceding this one, I talked about every NBA team yet in some way every NBA conversation comes back to the Warriors. Not in an arrogant way but in a realistic way. The Warriors are so good that if you want to really win right now, you have to take big gambles on talent otherwise you just will not beat them (or the Spurs). This is part of the reason I had no problem with the Rockets acquiring Ty Lawson. Yes, it was a risk and it did not work, but if you want to beat the Warriors you need to take big gambles. Everything is cyclical and right now every NBA discussion comes back to the Warriors.

Thanks for reading this series! If you have any knowledge as to whether Dion Waiters is still shooting mis-aligned free-throws, shoot me an email at [email protected]. This is important stuff! Enjoy the Pacers game tomorrow and Spurs game on Monday.