With two weeks of games in the books, the Hollinger Power Rankings are out again, and that means it's time once again for me to explain how this thing works.
The shortest, sweetest explanation is this: Scoring margin is a better predictor of future success than a team's record. So the Hollinger Power Rankings focus on scoring margin, rather than a team's position in the standings, to determine where everyone stands.
Hollinger's Power Rankings
We all saw the payoff a year ago, when San Antonio -- which was No. 1 in the rankings from mid-February onward -- rolled to the championship while Dallas, which had nine more wins, lost in the first round of the playoffs. While I can't promise the rankings will deliver results like that every year, last season's playoff results offered a reminder of how useful they can be.
Of course, this early in the season there are some other anomalies in the rankings that come up. Basically, we're still dealing with a very small sample of games, so there are going to be some outliers relative to our general perceptions of these teams' abilities. The Hornets and Lakers, for instance, have played extremely well in the early going and are ranked second and forth, respectively, at the moment; at the other end of the spectrum, Chicago is ranked dead last.
Those of you who are interested can see in greater detail about how it works, but for the rest of you it's easiest just to keep in mind these basics: Scoring margin is paramount, and beyond that, the two things that matter are strength of schedule and home-road differential.
So with that out of the way, I thought I'd go through the inbox and check out some of the questions/rants about where teams are ranked today. First I'll deal with some team-specific ones, and then the type of generic comments that we typically see throughout the season, only the names of the teams involved change week-by-week.
Is Chicago really the worst team in the league?
Going forward, almost certainly not. But just looking at the first seven games? It's almost inconceivable that you could choose another team.
The Bulls had a Charmin-soft schedule and still got pasted, losing three times at home (including once by 30) and barely eking out their one win.
Remember, the rankings don't know that Chicago won 49 games last season or that they're supposed to be a contender in the East. This is both the best and worst feature of the rankings: They remove all the subjective biases that creep into our heads, but when we're dealing with small samples early in the season, it can render some extreme judgments.
Why is Miami ahead of Charlotte?
The Bobcats are 4-4 and have beaten the Heat twice; the Heat are 1-7 and most descriptions of their play have involved the word "corpse" at some point. So how can Miami be 25th, and better yet, how on earth are the Bobcats 29th when they're at .500?
The simple answer is that Charlotte hasn't played nearly as well as its record. The Bobcats have been outscored by over five points per game. Included in their record are losses by 31 and 32, the latter coming to a Philadelphia team that isn't exactly drawing comparisons to the '96 Bulls. Also, five of the Bobcats' eight games were at home and six of their opponents had sub-.500 records.
Conversely, Miami's defeats have mostly been close. They lost twice by two points, once by five and never by more than 15, and for the season have nearly as good a scoring margin as Charlotte. Moreover, the record has come against much tougher competition, since the Heat played competitively in losses to Phoenix and San Antonio. So as bizarre as it sounds, they've played better in their first eight games than the Cats, even while losing to them twice.
How can New Orleans be ahead of the Spurs when San Antonio is the defending champ, beat them head-to-head and has a better record?
Remember, two of those three items are irrelevant.
The Power Rankings are based on this season's games only, so the Spurs' rings don't earn them any extra bonus.
Additionally, head-to-head doesn't matter any more than the other games on a team's schedule. This isn't the NFL tiebreaker system here.
Thus, although San Antonio took care of business when it went to Nawlins, the Hornets' other games have been more impressive than the Spurs'. The Hornets already have three wins by 20 or more, and road wins against the No. 4 Lakers and No. 8 Nuggets.
Home-road differential is also a huge factor here. San Antonio has played five of its first seven games at home, while the Hornets have played five of eight on the road. So even though the Spurs have an edge in scoring margin, once you adjust it for schedule and home-road, the Hornets come out with a slight edge.
How can the Lakers be No. 4 when they're 4-3 and everyone knows they're just Kobe and a bunch of scrubs?
Basically, because those scrubs are playing darn well.
The Lakers have played what is far and away the league's toughest schedule thus far, and to come out of it with four wins in seven tries is pretty impressive.
Looking at the power rankings, L.A.'s losses have come to No. 2 New Orleans, No. 3 San Antonio and No. 5 Houston. They avenged the Houston loss, and also have beaten No. 11 Utah and No. 12 Phoenix (on the road, by 21 points). They've only played one bad team, Minnesota, and won that game easily.
I have doubts about the Lakers' ability to keep this up just like everyone else, and it may very well end up fizzling much as last season's fast start did. But if all you're looking at is the results from this season how could you not rank them No. 4?
What's up with Boston being so far ahead?
Well, have you seen the Celtics? They're No. 1 in defensive efficiency and a close No. 2 in offensive efficiency after ripping off six blowout wins in their first seven games. It's not like they're just beating on bad teams, either, as they blasted a good Denver team to the four corners of the Earth last Wednesday and are winning by an average of 17 points a game. While it will be all but impossible to sustain such a high level for 82 games, the ranking reflects how torrid Boston's start has been.
With those specifics out of the way, let's focus on the more generic questions that we're sure to get in the coming weeks and months this should save us all a lot of time.
How can a team with a record of (X) be ranked so low, while a team with a worse record of (Y) is ahead of them?
Because win-loss record is sometimes a very misleading indicator of quality, as we saw with teams like San Antonio and Miami in the playoffs last season. Scoring margin tends to be a better predictor of success, so that's what goes into the formula. Additionally, at this early stage in the season, schedule strength can make a huge difference.
In today's rankings, the popular examples are the Bobcats and Heat, although Toronto (4-4) being ahead of Utah (6-2) is another case. In both of those cases, schedule strength is huge -- Charlotte and Utah have played much softer opposition than Miami and Toronto, respectively.
My team is ranked only (X) even though we've done (Y). Why do you hate my team so much?
The rankings are the result of a formula, plain and simple.
I have no subjective input into it whatsoever, and in fact the updated rankings are on ESPN.com before I'm awake. Although I am, in fact, horribly biased against your favorite team, their position in the rankings has nothing to do with this.
How is (Team X) ahead of (Team Y) even though (Y) beat (X)?
To review, head-to-head doesn't count any more than any of the other games on the schedule.
The fact the Spurs beat the Hornets, for instance, doesn't necessarily entitle them to the No. 2 spot when the Hornets have played better in their other games thus far.
How can you say (Team X) is better than (Team Y) when (Team Y) did so well last season?
I get this a lot early in the season especially, when the cream hasn't always quite risen to the top. Just to clarify, the Hollinger Power Rankings are based entirely on 2007-08 performance. So what the rankings are saying is Team X has played better than Team Y during the brief sample of the season that's been played thus far.
The Western Conference is a good example, since contenders like Dallas, Phoenix and Utah are ranked Nos. 9-11, respectively, while some teams that had lesser accomplishments a year ago are ranked ahead of them. But the rankings don't know or care how many games these teams won a year ago. If those three teams perform like they did last season, they'll move up the charts soon enough.
John Hollinger writes for ESPN Insider. To e-mail him, click here.