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Wednesday, February 29, 2012

NBA Power Rankings - NFL Draft Risers and Fallers


NBA Power Rankings
Feb. 29, 2012

Last Week: 1 Miami Heat (27-7)
The bad news for Heat opponents is that Dwyane Wade is flashing his vintage scoring prowess. After injuries reduced his dribble-penetration and cut his shooting percentage to 44.4 to start the season, Wade has shot 55.7 percent and gotten to the rim more than seven times per game in February. He has also dramatically reduced his three-point attempts, a wise strategy given his career 29.0 percent accuracy and bevy of teammates who can spread the floor from long distance. His return to form cements the NBA's most fearsome offensive unit, as four Miami's starters are making more than half their shots -- and Chris Bosh isn't too shabby an outlier at 49.4.


Last Week: 4 Oklahoma City Thunder (27-7)
The Thunder closed out the first half with offensive fireworks against the Nuggets and Celtics and then a hard-fought victory over the Lakers played at the more deliberate pace of their taller opponents. The Thunder get the least respect of any of the NBA's four elite teams because they concentrate their scoring load among three players and produced a defensive efficiency that was just league-average in the first half. But OKC's "Big Three" are all 23 or younger, are continually refining their prodigious talents and have benefitted from 17 games of playoff experience last year. As for the defense, the player who makes the greatest impact at that end of the court, wing stopper Thabo Sefolosha, has missed 16 games with a foot injury -- the Thunder are 16-2 when he plays and 11-5 when he sits. He's expected to miss at least another three weeks, and OKC is looking at a rough road trip to Philadelphia, Orlando and Atlanta before returning home to face Dallas. But if Sefolosha can return in time to re-establish his place in the rotation before the playoffs, the Thunder will be a tough matchup for anyone.


Last Week: 2 San Antonio Spurs (24-10)
Gregg Popovich has punted two games -- the overtime loss in Dallas last month the shellacking in Portland last week when he rested Tim Duncan and Tony Parker. But the latest setback for Manu Ginobili (strained oblique) has already compromised the Spurs' veteran leadership heading into the second half. And second-guessing Popovich on personnel matters involving players with whom he has won multiple rings doesn't seem wise from where I sit. When Ginobili is healthy, four of San Antonio's starters are 29 or older. And Pops is keeping three of them under 30 minutes per game, while honing a bench that can help the team weather the second half and, hopefully, a deep playoff run. The strategy is paying off so far.


Last Week: 3 Chicago Bulls (27-8)
Center Joakim Noah is quietly having an excellent year. He's played every game for a team that has been besieged with injuries for much of the first half, and even in this lockout-shortened season, he's on pace to set a career high in total minutes. His triple-double (13 points, 13 rebounds and 10 assists in fewer than 30 minutes) against Milwaukee in the final game before the All-Star break punctuates his career-best 2.4 assists per game, which he has accomplished while reducing his turnovers. His active hands and vigilance on the boards helps extend possessions without requiring touches or shots in the offensive sets, an ideal complement to point guard Derrick Rose, who is shooting just 35 percent in the 200-plus minutes he has been on the court without Noah. Perhaps most importantly, Noah is versatile enough to play against both smaller, quicker teams and opponents who feature a classic low-post center, a flexibility that helps the Bulls retain continuity in the playoffs.


Last Week: 8 Los Angeles Clippers (20-11)
The Clippers benefitted from Chris Paul aggressively looking for his own shot during the first half, and they need more of the same, plus continued good health, from their superstar point guard to maximize their chances of a deep playoff run. Paul is dropping dimes at the lowest rate (8.6) since his rookie season while shooting nearly as often as in his career-best seasons in '08 and '09. Most significantly, his three-point attempts (3.2 per game) and accuracy (44 percent) are career-highs, creating space in the half-court offense for Blake Griffin and DeAndre Jordan near the hoop and Caron Butler and Mo Williams in the corners. Consequently, the Clippers' offensive efficiency has leapt from 22nd a year ago to fourth in the NBA this season. They're scoring 15.75 more points per 100 possessions with Paul on the court compared to when he sits thus far this season.


Last Week: 7 Los Angeles Lakers (20-14)
Assuming Kobe Bryant's broken nose doesn't keep him off the court, Mike Brown's division of point guard minutes between Derek Fisher and Steve Blake will be one of the more intriguing second-half developments for the Lakers. Since Blake returned from a rib injury, the two have been statistically indistinguishable over the past 10 games, averaging approximately six points per game on woeful 37.7 percent shooting, with Blake getting the slight edge in playing time. Thus far, all but four of Fisher's 866 minutes this season have been played with Kobe, but according to NBA.com's StatsCube, Kobe has been more aggressive and the team has performed better when he and Blake share the backcourt. Of course numbers alone can't account for Fisher's extensive history with Kobe in crunch time and his proven ability to thrive under pressure, with the latest example being Fisher's crucial fourth-quarter jumpers in the win over Dallas last week.


Last Week: 5 Dallas Mavericks (21-13)
Vince Carter has been an unsung hero for the Mavericks this season. According to Basketball Value, Dallas scores more points per possession and allows fewer points per possession with Carter on the floor than with any other player. Overall, the team improves by a whopping 19.47 points per 100 possessions when he plays -- 12.80 on offense and 6.67 on defense. Yet a look at his individual numbers shows that he's boosting his team by becoming a complementary player; only his three-point shooting percentage stands out. After being much-maligned for selfishness and a lack of effort at various times over his 14-year career, Carter has remade himself into a glue guy who has dished out five or more assists more often than he's scored 20 or more points. Dallas is 13-6 when he starts, 11-4 when he plays more than 25 minutes and barely over .500 without that level of contribution.


Last Week: 6 Orlando Magic (22-13)
Dwight Howard, one of the game's three or four best players, has asked to be traded, and in similar situations with other teams, the superstar almost never changes his mind. If the Magic are convinced Howard will be leaving anyway, it would behoove them to make a deal. If they believe the additional money they can offer him under the collective bargaining agreement, along with the team's strong showing this season, is enough to keep him, they should sit tight. Why would Howard engage the distraction and strained goodwill of openly flirting with leaving town if he wasn't serious about a change in scenery? That's the question the Magic brass need to ask themselves, instead of the more plaintive "How are we ever going to replace Dwight Howard?"


Last Week: 10 Houston Rockets (20-14)
While the Rockets have established themselves as good bets to make the playoffs for the first time since 2009, shooting guard Kevin Martin has had a difficult season. Martin, who was part of the blockbuster Chris Paul trade that was voided, is making four fewer trips to the line per game this season, resulting in 3.5 fewer conversions (a significant ding in anyone's scoring average), is the only one of Houston's starters who improves the team's plus/minus ratio when he sits (primarily due to his porous defense), and played 28 minutes per game in February, down from 32.6 on the season. Martin's five-year, $53-million contract doesn't expire until the end of next season, making him virtually untradeable. His accuracy from the free-throw line is valuable in clutch situations. But Houston has enticing back-court alternatives, including subbing Courtney Lee for Martin, or going with the point-guard tandem of Kyle Lowry and Goran Dragic.


Last Week: 11 Indiana Pacers (21-12)
The Pacers need to regain the defensive momentum that propelled them to a 16-6 record to start the season. With a pair of 6-8 wings in Paul George and Danny Granger and 7-2 center Roy Hibbert to protect the rim, Indiana is long and rangy at three positions. And with Dahntay Jones, Tyler Hansbrough and (when healthy) Jeff Foster among the backups, its second unit is laden with physical grinders who aren't afraid to intimidate. But that ruggedness and zeal mysteriously disappeared during a five-losses-in-seven-days stretch in February, when the team that once led the NBA defensive field-goal percentage was allowing at least 46 percent. Not coincidentally, combo guard George Hill was out with a chip fracture in his ankle most of the month, depriving the Pacers of the flexibility of better defending taller point guards or quicker off guards.

21. Cleveland Cavaliers (13-18)
The next two weeks will provide a stern test for Cleveland's chimerical playoff quest. After hosting eight-seeded Boston on Tuesday, the Cavs play the Knicks, Nuggets and Thunder on the road, and the Bulls and Rockets at home among their next eight games. Fortunately, point guard Kyrie Irving shows no signs of hitting the fabled "rookie wall," following his dreadful 2-of-13 shooting display in an ugly loss to New Orleans to close out the first half with an MVP performance in the Rising Stars game during All-Star weekend. A declining field-goal percentage is the only significant consequence of Irving's increased playing time, and even that is counterbalanced by slightly greater accuracy from three-point territory and 94.1 percent shooting from the free-throw line in February. Best of all, Irving has cut down on his turnovers. If he and Antawn Jamison can tighten up their defense until Anderson Varejao returns from a fractured wrist, the Cavs could defy expectations and play meaningful games well into the spring.

Risers and Fallers

Dane Brugler -- (Updated 2/28/2012)


Robert Griffin III QB Baylor Whether he was really half-second faster than his "official" time or not, Griffin III did nothing but inflate his rising draft stock in Indianapolis. Cool with the media and cornerback fast in the 40, Griffin might not make the Colts second-guess what to do with the top pick -- that Luck guy proved to be quite athletic himself. But Griffin's ascent could be huge for the St. Louis Rams, who hold the No. 2 overall pick, and now have the demand for Griffin as a ruby under the rug, a found jewel they can cash in for other valuables that will benefit 2010 No. 1 pick Sam Bradford in St. Louis. The Cleveland Browns and Washington Redskins -- and many other teams -- have to take a hard look at paying whatever freight necessary to land the Heisman Trophy winner.
Stephen Hill WR Georgia Tech Well, everyone knew he was fast. But I don't think many predicted he was that fast. Hill ran a blazing 4.36 40-yard dash, an impressive feat for a player with his size and frame (6-4, 215), which tied for tops among receivers. He had just 28 catches and 5 scores in 2011 as a seldom used weapon in Georgia Tech's triple option offense. However Hill surprised many and decided to forego his senior season and his performance at the 2012 NFL Combine gave us a glimpse why he felt he was ready for the NFL. Hill will look to follow in the footsteps of Denver Broncos WR Demaryius Thomas who had limited production in the same offense, but turned a head-turning pre-draft performance into a first round pick in 2010 (22nd overall and the first receiver drafted that year). Hill won't be the top receiver drafted this year, but he could elevate his draft stock much higher than anyone thought, maybe into the top-50 discussion.
James Hanna TE Oklahoma Not sure many would have believed me if I predicted the Sooner tight end would run a faster 40-yard dash than Alabama speedster Joe Adams. But that's what happened over the weekend as Hanna tested off the charts, headlined by his 4.49 40-yard dash, which was easily tops among tight ends (and several receivers). He was also among the top performers in the vertical jump (36"), 3-cone drill (6.76), short shuttle (4.11) and long shuttle (11.43). Hanna also proved to be more than just an athlete with 24 reps of 225-pounds on the bench, good for fourth among his position. He wasn't a substantial cog in the Oklahoma passing attack, finishing fifth on the team with just 27 catches in 2011. However, Hanna has showed enough in the pre-draft process to be worthy of a late-round draft pick as a developmental tight end.
Dontari Poe DT Memphis Think you can't be a 6-3, 345-pound man without being a sloppy pile of wobble (ahem, Andre Smith)? Then you probably missed Poe running the 40-yard dash in 4.89 seconds and blowing through the 225-pound bench press testing with a 2012 Combine-best 44 reps. You might have also ignored another big body, Georgia offensive lineman Cordy Glenn, earning a bit of money with a very solid showing two days earlier. Poe sets up as a classic risk-reward draft choice in that his athletic ability indicates his potential is infinite, but his production merits modest reviews and a grade somewhere in the middle of the draft. If he takes to NFL-caliber coaching and continues to grow -- the Memphis-born junior is just 21 years old -- the glossy finished product could make some GM look like a genius a decade from now.
David Wilson RB Virginia Tech Explosive in workouts and impressive in interviews -- he donned a suit and tie for his sessions with team decision-makers as most prospects, following the typical path of past classes, trudged to these formal meetings in NFL-issued workout gear -- Wilson has plenty of upside beyond his track speed. He still has to convince scouts his unconventional, upright running style can work in the NFL and that he'll be as explosive against NFL-level talent. The natural, quick-twitch suddenness pushes him up the draft board. His 41-inch vertical, 4.49 40-yard dash and broad jump of 132 inches are credentials he can stand on to be one of the top backs off the board.


Mike Adams OT Ohio State The Ohio State left tackle held his own at the Senior Bowl and might not fall far, but pushing up just 19 reps of 225 on the bench might give credence to questions in scouting circles about whether he has enough strength to survive on his 6-7 frame against elite NFL defensive ends. At right tackle, he'd need more power and bulk and he's not a rare athlete as a left-side prospect.
Justin Blackmon WR Oklahoma State Usually an intense competitor, Blackmon decided not to run the 40-yard dash, instead opting to wait for his March 9 Pro Day in Stillwater, but not all eyes can be on the Cowboys that date, which is shared with Alabama, Wisconsin and Mississippi State. He did participate in the on-field drills, but didn't blow anyone away, looking hesitant and indecisive in his movements, a far cry from the demonstrative presence scouts were accustomed to seeing in the college setting. Blackmon, who measured-in at just 6-1, isn't the tallest or fastest, but he plays bigger and quicker than he'll time during drills. But regardless, he did little in the minds of scouts to convince them he's an elite-level receiver worthy of a top-10 pick. Blackmon will need a strong Pro Day performance to avoid losing ground at the position.
Michael Brockers DT LSU The 6-5, 322 pounder created quite a buzz during the measuring process once scouts put the tape to his 35-inch arms. Scouts love long arms on defensive linemen as it can give them an advantage when fighting blocks. Because of this fact, scouts won't be too worried about the fact that Brockers finished tied for last among all defensive linemen performing in the bench press drill (19). Simple physics make it more difficult for long-armed athletes to impress in the bench press and Brockers' strength is obvious on tape. Brockers performed just as poorly in several other Combine tests which should raise red-flags for scouts projecting the one-year starter as an immediate impact defender in the NFL. Brockers was clocked at an alarmingly slow 5.36 seconds in the 40-yard dash. This time was the third worst among the 49 defensive linemen tested in Indianapolis this year. The only two defensive linemen with a time more than a hundredth of a second slower than Brockers were Missouri's Dominique Hamilton and Southern Cal'sChristian Tupou. As a point of comparison, Brockers is currently rated as NFLDraftScout.com's No. 8 rated prospect overall. Hamilton and Tupou are rated 360th and 378th, respectively. Think the 40-yard dash time is an anomoly? Think again. Brockers finished among the worst in defensive linemen tested in the vertical jump (26.5 inches), broad jump (105 inches) and short shuttle (4.81), as well.
Vontaze Burfict ILB Arizona State Once regarded by some scouts as a surefire first-round pick, Burfict might not even belong in the second day of the draft, making him no better than a fourth-round pick. After his showing on the field at Arizona State last season, he needed to make a splash at the Combine, but he might instead have become the fly in the punch bowl, first intimating coaches were responsible for his poor 2011 season and then looking slower and less explosive than expected despite dropping weight. That 5.09 40-yard dash is miserable but any standard and won't soon be forgotten. This could've be remembered as the week scouts let the hammer fall on the nails Burfict himself tapped in his NFL coffin.

Mike Adams (6-7/323), Ohio State - My biggest issue all along with Adams has been his inconsistency, specifically his reaction timing and soft play style. His bench press number of a measly 19 reps backs up those concerns. Some may argue the low total was due to Adams' long arms (33 7/8"), but Cal WR Marvin Jones weighs 199 pounds with arms less than an inch shorter and put up 22 reps. I just don't know where Adams fits. His feet and reaction time are too slow for left tackle, and he lacks strength to match up with strong-side ends. I think Adams will be over-drafted as a tackle and have a career similar to Bears 2008 first-round pick Chris Williams.

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