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Old 03-12-10, 12:19 PM
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Insider: After 13 in a row, Mavs still No. 13

Dallas Mavericks just No. 13 in John Hollinger's Power Rankings - ESPN
After 13 in a row, Mavs still No. 13
PER Diem: March 11, 2010
By John Hollinger

The Mavs are four-and-a-half games up on the Thunder. But can they beat KD & Co. in the playoffs?
This is the fourth season of the Power Rankings, and most of the time the world order is fairly straightforward. Generally, the teams at the top (and bottom) are there for a reason, and the rankings more or less follow the general consensus of NBA observers.

Every once in a while, however, the rankings deviate from the norm, and the e-mails pour in. For some reason, the Dallas Mavericks have been more involved in these controversies than most teams. In 2007, the Power Rankings had hardly debuted when I was excoriated for ranking a 58-win San Antonio team ahead of the 67-win Mavs. Columnists in both cities called me an idiot, marking possibly the first time the two Texas rivals agreed on something. Alas, the Spurs won the NBA title that season, and the episode was forgotten quickly.

This time around, we have another difference of opinion regarding the Mavs. Dallas has won 13 straight games, owns the fourth-best record in basketball, is tied for the NBA lead with 22 road wins and has most folks considering it a strong title contender in the wake of a deadline-week trade for Caron Butler and Brendan Haywood.

The Power Rankings? Not so much. They place the Mavs at a modest 13th in a 30-team league.

Why the disconnect? Well, I can pinpoint a couple of reasons. For starters, I've been writing for a while about how compressed the top of the league is this season relative to the middle and the bottom, and the Mavs provide an object lesson.

With a rating of 102.4, the Mavs are about as close to top-ranked Orlando (107.3) as they are to No. 18 Chicago (97.7). Only 3.4 points separate No. 4 Los Angeles from No. 14 Miami, implying that a meeting between nearly any of those 11 teams would hinge on home-court advantage. As if to prove that point, the Lakers and Heat went to overtime in Miami last week, and the Heat prevailed.

The other thing to keep in mind is that first and foremost, the Power Rankings are a predictive tool. The idea is to compare the rating to the left of each team's name, add three points to the team with home-court advantage, then make a prediction. Wednesday night, for instance, the Power Rankings had the Mavs as 13.6-point favorites at home against New Jersey; Dallas actually won by nine.

It may surprise people to learn that in building a predictive tool, scoring margin and schedule strength are more important than wins and losses. (Or maybe it's not a surprise, since I've railed about this for so long.) Dallas doesn't grade terribly well in these categories -- the Mavs' scoring margin is the league's 12th-best, for instance, against opposition that's a perfectly average .500 when not playing the Mavs.

The Power Rankings weigh a team's most recent 25 percent of games most heavily, which you'd think would favor the Mavs because they've won 13 straight. Actually, it doesn't. Included in the mix are a 36-point beatdown in Denver and an awful home loss to Minnesota, and no victories by more than 13 points. As a result, their scoring margin in their past 17 games, which have been against the league's fourth-weakest schedule (.458), is an unimpressive plus-3.1.

If you're curious, the Minnesota defeat will go off Dallas' recent-games résumé after Saturday's game against the Knicks, while the Denver fiasco won't disappear until March 21. (In a scheduling quirk, Dallas only plays three games in the next 10 days.) Barring any other meltdowns, the Mavs' power ranking should improve by about a point, which would move them to 10th -- still well short of their perceived place in the universe.

Let's get back to the predictive tool thing for a minute.

Believe it or not, the Power Rankings have predicted recent Mavericks games quite well. It installed Dallas as a favorite in all but three of the 13 games in the streak (at Atlanta, at Charlotte and at Orlando), with the Lakers game seen as a toss-up. In other words, 10 of Dallas' 13 wins didn't do much to change their standing in the world of the Power Rankings. Once you adjust for home-court advantage, Dallas' six previous games all were won by the higher-ranked team as well, meaning the Power Rankings have gone 16-3 with one push in the Mavs' 20 most recent games. Not too shabby.

I also should point out that my predictive model is not the only one that is dismissive of Dallas. The predictor of USA Today's Jeff Sagarin has it ranked 12th.

Nonetheless, most fans seem flabbergasted that I have Dallas just 13th. So let's take it team by team with the franchises ranked ahead of Dallas and ask two questions: 1. How are they ranked ahead of the Mavs? and 2. Would I pick the Mavs to beat them in a series? Walk through the exercise, and perhaps their positioning will become more understandable:


1. Orlando Magic
How are they ranked ahead of Dallas?
The Magic are only a half-game ahead of Dallas in win-loss record, but they are miles ahead in scoring margin both on the season (plus-6.4, second in the NBA) and in recent games (a league-leading plus-10.2), enabling the Magic to take the top spot in the Power Rankings.

Would I take Dallas to beat them in a series?
No. Dallas' win in Orlando on Feb. 19 was the most impressive of the 13-game streak, but Orlando also shot 4-for-25 on 3s in that game -- an event unlikely to repeat itself in future meetings. The Magic are playing better than any other team in basketball right now, so the Mavs will have their hands full when the two clubs reconvene on April 1 in Dallas.


2. Utah Jazz
How are they ranked ahead of Dallas?
The Jazz are 23-5 in their past 28 games and have the best scoring margin in the West in the past 25 percent of their schedule. For the season, the Jazz' scoring margin is nearly equal to the conference-leading Lakers', and they've played the league's most difficult schedule to date. (Opponents have a .520 winning percentage when not facing the Jazz.)

Would I take Dallas to beat them in a series?
No. The Jazz have won two of three meetings between the clubs and on paper appear to be a much better team this season. The two sides won't face each other the rest of the regular season but could very well meet in the second round of the playoffs.


3. Cleveland Cavaliers
How are they ranked ahead of Dallas?
The Cavaliers have the league's best scoring margin (plus-7.2) and, despite injuries to LeBron James and Shaquille O'Neal, have managed to improve on that margin in recent play (plus-8.5), including a win over San Antonio on Tuesday without either player.

Would I take Dallas to beat them in a series?
No. The teams split their two meetings this season, but the Cavs sport the ultimate trump card in James. They also arguably improved themselves more than the Mavs at the trade deadline with the acquisition of Antawn Jamison, a deal that will have cost nothing after the return of Zydrunas Ilgauskas.


4. L.A. Lakers
How are they ranked ahead of Dallas?
The Lakers sport the best scoring margin in the West at plus-6.0 and have played a very difficult schedule (.516, even though they're the only team that doesn't have to face the Lakers). Although they've scuffled in recent games, the Lakers' plus-3.3 margin in the past 25 percent of their schedule is still stronger than Dallas' plus-3.1, and it has come against much stronger opposition.

Would I take Dallas to beat them in a series?
No, but I'd think about it. The two teams split their four regular-season meetings, and the Mavericks appear to match up pretty well against L.A.'s size, especially in the wake of the Haywood trade. Dallas also has defended Kobe Bryant very effectively in their four meetings. The problem is the Mavs can't score on L.A., either.


5. Phoenix Suns
How are they ranked ahead of Dallas?
Thanks to a recent spurt after the insertion of Robin Lopez as the starting center, the Suns are 14-4 in their past 18 games with a plus-7.2 scoring margin -- against strong opposition, too. For the full season, the Suns' scoring margin isn't much better than the Mavs', however.

Would I take Dallas to beat them in a series?
No. Dallas won two of the three regular-season meetings but also was home for two of them, and a single point decided the first one (a 102-101 Mavs win on Nov. 8). Basically, it's a wash on that front. I'd take Phoenix based on its vastly improved D in the wake of the Lopez move. These two teams could meet as the No. 4 and No. 5 seeds in the West, in which case Dallas' home-court advantage would be another factor to consider. But I'd still take Phoenix.


6. Denver Nuggets
How are they ranked ahead of Dallas?
The Nuggets haven't awed, but they've been consistently solid. They have a plus-5.1 scoring margin for the season, and although that's down to plus-4.0 in recent games, they've played the league's second-toughest schedule during that stretch. All those marks are superior to Dallas'.

Would I take Dallas to beat them in a series?
You saw the playoffs last year, right? Although the Mavs have somewhat addressed the glaring athletic deficit that faced them in their second-round smackdown by the Nuggies in 2009, this probably would be the worst matchup for Dallas. I should note that the 127-91 beating by Denver in February came on a terrible back-to-back for the Mavs, so that's probably an unfair indicator. The two teams will meet March 29 in Dallas, and if the Mavs win, they'll take the season series 2-1 thanks in part to having two of the games at home. But home or away, I'd take Denver in a series.


7. San Antonio Spurs
How are they ranked ahead of Dallas?
Because the Spurs are great at beating the teams they're supposed to. San Antonio has struggled mightily against the big boys, but when Sacramento or the Knicks come to town, they take of business. As a result, they have a solid scoring margin (plus-4.4) despite a strong schedule overall (.506). Subjectively, though, I think the Power Rankings have overrated San Antonio for a while thanks to some early-season blowouts.

Would I take Dallas to beat them in a series?
Yes, especially if it started today. Tony Parker is the one problem matchup for Dallas, and he's out for the next six weeks. Even with Parker, I'd be inclined to take Dallas because the Spurs don't match up well defensively against Dirk Nowitzki, and the Mavs beat San Antonio in five games last year. Dallas also has won two of three meetings this season, making it seven of nine going back to last March.


8. Oklahoma City Thunder
How are they ranked ahead of Dallas?
The Thunder's overall scoring margin (plus-3.5) doesn't beat the Mavs' by much, but they've picked it up lately -- OKC has outscored opponents by 5.8 points in the most recent quarter of its schedule. The Thunder also benefit from a relatively strong season schedule, so they have slight advantages on Dallas in the four main categories that the Power Rankings consider (home-road differential being the fifth, but that's rarely a factor this late in the season).

Would I take Dallas to beat them in a series?
No. Oklahoma City was the last team to beat Dallas, 99-86 on Feb. 16; the Mavs won the first two meetings, but one was by a single point on Jan. 15. Since that game, the Thunder are 18-6, and youngsters Russell Westbrook and Kevin Durant are still improving. The Thunder also have a lot of length to throw at Nowitzki defensively and are a tough cover for Dallas' wings with Durant. My theory will be tested on April 3, when the Mavs and Thunder meet again in Dallas.


9. Atlanta Hawks
How are they ranked ahead of Dallas?
The Hawks are a point ahead of Dallas in the Power Rankings based almost entirely on their superior scoring margin during the course of the season. Of late, the Hawks haven't played particularly well, but their scoring margin in recent games still isn't any worse than the Mavs'. Of note is that the Hawks came the closest to beating Dallas in the recent streak, leading by 14 in the fourth quarter before succumbing in overtime, thanks in part to the infamous Jason Kidd versus Mike Woodson encounter.

Would I take Dallas to beat them in a series?
Honestly, I'd probably flip a coin. The Hawks outrate Dallas at the moment but also have benefited from being unusually, ridiculously healthy. Presuming the Mavs are at somewhere near full health, too, that advantage for the Hawks would go away in a series. Head-to-head, it's about as even between these teams as you could get: They've split six meetings during the past three years. This season, Atlanta won the first meeting in Dallas, and the Mavs won the second one in overtime. In a seven-game series, I'd go with whichever side had home-court advantage.


10. Portland Trail Blazers
How are they ranked ahead of Dallas?
The Blazers are only a half-point ahead of the Mavs in the Power Rankings and have virtually identical marks across the board. The lone difference is that Portland's recent games have come against relatively strong opposition (.508), while the Mavs' have come against some of the league's weakest (.458).

Would I take Dallas to beat them in a series?
No. Not even with home-court advantage, which could prove interesting because they may face each other as the No. 2 and No. 7 seeds in the West. Portland beat the Mavs twice in Dallas already, once without Brandon Roy and twice with Juwan Howard manning the middle. The Blazers arguably also made more impactful deadline additions than the Mavs by trading for Marcus Camby and bringing Nicolas Batum back from injury. The state of Roy's hamstring is a lingering worry, but that would be the only reason to shift my choice to Dallas. The two sides will meet in Portland on March 25 and again on April 9.


11. Milwaukee Bucks
How are they ranked ahead of Dallas?
Of all the e-mails I get, the most common is, "How you can have MILWAUKEE ahead of the Mavs?!?!?!" This is unfair to the Bucks. Unbeknownst to most Mavs fans or the larger world in general, the Bucks may be the hottest team in the league right now. Since acquiring John Salmons, they've won nine of 10, with the lone defeat coming in overtime in Atlanta (immediately after Dallas went to overtime in Atlanta -- that was a heck of a basketball weekend in the Peach State).

Would I take Dallas to beat them in a series?
No. Dallas won both meetings versus Milwaukee but by the smallest of margins (one in overtime, the other by a single point). Because both contests happened before the Bucks' recent rejuvenation, I'd lean toward Milwaukee in a neutral-site series. The Bucks are unquestionably the East's most dangerous low seed heading into the playoffs.


12. Boston Celtics
How are they ranked ahead of Dallas?
The Celtics land one-tenth of a point ahead of Dallas based almost entirely on their body of work the first two months of the season, when Boston was 23-5 and competing for the top spot in the Power Rankings. Since that point, it's 17-18 with a barely positive scoring margin and in the most recent 25 percent of their schedule, its margin is a scant plus-0.3 despite a schedule nearly as soft as the Mavericks' (.472).

Would I take Dallas to beat them in a series?
Yes. Emphatically so. We'll get a test of that view on March 20 when the Celtics visit Big D, but the C's aren't looking real strong right now. Boston's veterans are running on fumes, and there's not enough help on the bench to drag it past the finish line, as Wednesday night's home blowout loss to Memphis further showed. It's possible the Celts won't make it out of the first round.
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