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NBA Power Rankings: Brooklyn is a beast (when Kevin Durant plays)

Kurt Helin and Corey Robinson analyze the Warriors' start to the season and discuss if Golden State can fix their defensive issues to generate success.

The opening couple weeks of the season are always Power Rankings chaos: Are Atlanta/Cleveland/Orlando for real? What to make of Brooklyn’s losses? Or the Clippers getting blown out? I answer those questions as best I can in this week’s rankings — which means not punishing Brooklyn much — and know that things will settle down in a few weeks. Hopefully.

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1. Nets (2-2, Last Week No. 5). We are not punishing Brooklyn in these rankings for its two losses because both came with Kevin Durant on the bench — and he has been nothing short of spectacular in his return. It’s not just the 26.7 points a game with a ridiculous 69% true shooting percentage, it’s the way he is moving like the pre-Achilles version of himself. Just how well he’s moving is more evident on defense, where on Christmas Day Durant did a good job checking Jayson Tatum for stretches of the game. Brooklyn will miss the depth Spencer Dinwiddie brought to the table after the key backup point guard tore his ACL.

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2. Clippers (3-1, LW 3). After impressive wins over the Lakers and Nuggets to open the season, Paul George was asked what that meant considering the team’s struggles in the bubble. “Nothing, I kind of buried last year. I left last year in the bubble.” Then the Clippers proved how little those games meant with a historically ugly loss to Dallas (without Kawhi Leonard, but still). Nicolas Batum turned out to be a good roll of the dice by the Clippers; he is in much better shape and is giving them solid minutes as a starter. He looks like the Batum of five years ago, and I did not see that coming.

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3. Lakers (2-2 LW 1). The Lakers have the third-best offense in the NBA, and that seems sustainable with this roster (stats via Cleaning the Glass), but the defense that carried L.A. to a title last season has been middle of the pack so far this young season. A lot of new players get used to each other and it shows at moments. Well, that and the Lakers have not seemed focused in half their games so far this season. The two early losses are not that concerning, especially with Dennis Schroder and Montrezl Harrell combining for an average of 31.8 points per game through the first four. The Laker offense can carry them a long way while the defense comes around.

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4. Hawks (3-0 LW 16). The Hawks have looked good against a soft opening schedule, the real test comes starting tonight with two games at Brooklyn. Trae Young’s numbers to start the season are eye-popping — 34 points and 7.3 assists a game, shooting 42.1% from three — but he always dazzles. What’s more impressive is they have played good defense without centers Clint Capela or Onyeka Okongwu in the lineup (out with injuries, although Okongwu is close to a return). DeAndre Hunter has played great defense but, more importantly, is contributing on the other end of the court as well. Atlanta may have a steal in Nathan Knight if he can keep this up. The team will be without Kris Dunn and his defense for at least a few weeks after he had his ankle scoped this week.

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5. 76ers (3-1 LW 9). How good is Philadelphia? When Joel Embiid is on the court, very — they are +25.9 points per 100 possessions better when he plays. Embiid anchors their defense — which gives up less than a point per possession when he is on the court — and takes advantage of the spacing created by Seth Curry and more shooting. Philly is 3-1, but they have some ugly wins, got blown out by Cleveland (without Embiid), and while the Sixers’ defense is top five, the offense is inconsistent and is bottom five in the league so far. The 76ers need to find some consistency when Embiid sits, but they are winning.

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6. Bucks (2-2, LW 2). The Bucks’ two wins — Golden State on Christmas, Miami on Tuesday in a barrage of threes — have been blowouts, but behind that some questions linger. Milwaukee’s elite defense is off to a pedestrian start this season (18th in the league), particularly in the halfcourt. That could be small sample size theater, but it’s worth monitoring as the season moves along. Has Giannis Antetokounmpo taken a step forward? As always, he is getting to the rim, with 40% of his shots in the restricted area and hitting 82.6% of those, but outside three feet he is 8-of-36 shooting (22.2%) and is 4-of-18 from three. Again, it’s early, but those are numbers that are concerning.

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7. Magic (4-0 LW 22). I’m hesitant to praise the Orlando offense as having made major strides when two of their first three games were against Washington and its terrible defense. Let’s see how Orlando fares against better teams. What does seem real is Markelle Fultz playing well, he had 10 of his 26 points in the fourth quarter Sunday, sparking a comeback against those Wizards. Fultz has taken a step forward this season. Orland has 5-of-7 at home before a six-game road trip hits them mid-January.

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8. Suns (3-1 LW 17). While everyone was waiting for Deandre Ayton to break out as the third star in Phoenix, Mikal Bridges has taken that title and ran with it this season. Bridges is averaging 15.5 points a game and shooting 45.5% from three on 5.5 attempts a game this season. Bridges has always played hard and had ridiculous length, but his handles look better this season, allowing him to get his shot. The Suns also have the third-best defense in the NBA to start the season; we will see if that is sustainable or small sample size theater.

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9. Trail Blazers (2-1, LW 12). This ranking may be too high, or at the least I’m not sold Portland can maintain it if it keeps playing this way. Give the Blazers their due, this team has beaten the Rockets and the Lakers, Damian Lillard has been MVP-level, and Jusuf Nurkic brings so much to this roster. But Terry Stotts switched up the Trail Blazers defensive system this season and they have not figured it out yet — this a bottom-five defense in the league so far, and their half-court defense has been dreadful. That will come back to bite them if it doesn’t improve. There are only so many CJ McCollum game-winners a team can count on.

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10. Celtics (2-2, LW 7). Jayson Tatum started the season settling for jumpers, becoming the first player in league history to attempt 20 or more shots in consecutive games without drawing a free throw. Tatum got to the line 14 times over the next two games. Boston’s defense has not looked good to start the season, and you know that is gnawing away at Brad Stevens. On the bright side, Payton Pritchard has had a real impact on this team as a rookie. He played four years at Oregon and averaged 20.5 points a game his senior season, but I didn’t expect this kind of leap and impact in the NBA.

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11. Pacers (3-1, LW 15). New coach Nate Bjorkgren has Indiana attacking the rim — 37.6% of their shot attempts this season have been in the restricted area (and that was pushing 50% before defenses adjusted). That has worked well for Domantas Sabonis, who is averaging 21.8 points, 11 rebounds, and 7.3 assists a game, all while playing strong defense and looking like a guy out to prove his All-Star selection was no fluke. Indiana also has a disruptive defense under Bjorkgren that Boston could not solve for seven quarters. This is a strong Pacers team, and they may prove this early-season ranking too low.

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12. Jazz (2-1 LW 10). If you watched Utah tear apart Portland on opening night, you’d think this ranking is too low. If you watched Utah’s frustrating loss to Minnesota, you’d think this ranking is too high. Which of those versions of the Jazz will the team lean to during the season? Right now, it’s too early to tell. Sunday Utah heads to San Antonio to start a seven-game road trip that should give us a better idea of just how good this team can be — and maybe give us another Donovan Mitchell game-winner.

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13. Cavaliers (3-1, LW 29). Cleveland had a soft schedule to start the season, but that doesn’t change the fact the Cavaliers have the second-best defense in the NBA this young season, allowing less than a point per possession. Andre Drummond may not be the greatest defender ever, but he is an upgrade over what the Cavs had (plus he is a beast on the boards). Collin Sexton is averaging 27 points a game, right in line with the 25.5 a night he averaged after the All-Star break last season — he has made a leap. Injuries have hit the Cavaliers hard: Kevin Love is out 3-4 weeks with a calf strain, while promising young rookie Dylan Windler out with a broken left hand.

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14. Kings (3-1, LW 23). In a backcourt with the streaky De’Aaron Fox, the offensive focused Buddy Hield, and the defense focused Cory Joseph, Tyrese Haliburton has been a smart and steady revelation that the Kings have needed. There are rookies putting up bigger counting stats (10.5 points, 5.3 assists a game) but none playing better than Haliburton. Sacramento has racked up two wins now against Denver, which is a good sign, and the first one came in dramatic fashion thanks to Buddy Hield.

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15. Mavericks (1-2, LW 8). Before their Sunday thrashing of the Clippers, Kristaps Porzingis was out on the court to get some run and some shots up pregame. He seemed to move well and the uncontested shots were falling, but these were not close to game conditions. Still, KP is making steps. Josh Richardson has looked fantastic next to Luka Doncic, averaging 16.7 points a game and shooting 40% from three. Was the 51-point win over the Clippers a turning point for a Mavs team that lost to the Suns and Lakers to open the season, or just a one-off great game? We should get a sense of that with some interesting games coming up, including Friday hosting Miami.

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16. Heat (1-2 LW 6). The ball was moving, Duncan Robinson couldn’t seem to miss, and Bubble Miami showed up on Christmas Day. The other games... not so much. A blowout loss to the Bucks is concerning (even if the loss was without Jimmy Butler, who will miss a little time with his sprained right ankle). The bright spot in Miami is they seem to have found another mid first-round pick they could develop into a stud in Precious Achiuwa, who was guarding Zion Williamson on one end and getting buckets on the other on Christmas Day.

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17. Pelicans (2-2, LW 18). Stan Van Gundy came in with a mandate to fix the New Orleans defense — and so far this young season they have been better (about league average, which is a step up, and that number may be skewed by the ugly first half against Miami on Christmas). The offense has been inconsistent, although Brandon Ingram is averaging 23.3 points and 6.6 assists a game, he appears to have taken a step forward with his playmaking skills.

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18. Spurs (2-1, LW 24). DeMar DeRozan suddenly loves the three ball. Well, relative to seasons past. He averaged less than one three pointer attempted per game the past two seasons, but with Gregg Popovich trying to open the offense up DeRozan is putting up 2.7 a game this season, and hitting 37.5 of them. Lonnie Walker IV and Dejounte Murray are playing well, the Spurs have a top-10 defense again, and while it’s early maybe we should have put San Antonio in the playoff mix in the West. Time to start a new streak!

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19. Warriors (2-2, LW 13). The Warriors have looked sort of what we expected them to be: They got beat by elite teams (Brooklyn, Milwaukee) and picked up wins against lesser foes (Chicago, Detroit). With Marquese Chriss out, it means more run for rookie James Wiseman — and that’s a good thing. His development should be a focus this season because with Klay Thompson back (*knocks on wood*) and a healthy roster next season, they need Wiseman to make a run. Wiseman is averaging 12.5 points and 5.8 rebounds a game, but his feel for the game is lacking. He looks like a guy who played just three games in college — Wiseman needs a lot of court time. Also, you have to love that with Stephen Curry on the court, Damion Lee called his own number for the game-winner.

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20. Knicks (2-2, LW 27). This ranking feels too low and doesn’t do justice to just how much harder this team is playing and how much more disciplined they are under coach Tom Thibodeau — this is a team that beat the Bucks. Julius Randle is being asked to do a lot this season (including defensively), but he has been up to the task so far — and of course Thibodeau is going to lean on the guy most able to get him wins right now. Hopefully, Obi Toppin (strained calf) and Immanuel Quickley (hip pointer) can get healthy and back on the court soon, their development matters.

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21. Timberwolves (2-2, LW 21). It’s unclear how long Karl-Anthony Towns dislocated wrist is going to keep him on the sidelines, but it was clear in the two losses since that injury how much he means to this team’s offense (the team was 18.7 points per 100 possessions better with him this season, and while that’s a small sample size it was 12 per 100 last season). D’Angelo Russell and Anthony Edwards have to pick up the slack, and Naz Ried will start in place of Towns, but this is not the same team without him.

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22. Hornets (1-2, LW 26). After all the preseason hype, coach James Borego is keeping LaMelo Ball’s minutes in check to start the season (the most he played was 20 minutes against Brooklyn) — which is the right move to make. Ball may be a flashy and elite passer, both his decision making and shooting need work. While you can say Ball is hitting 40% of his threes, he’s shooting 27.3% on twos and just 38.1% finishing in the restricted area. It’s not like he’s making up for those numbers on defense. Best to bring him on a little slowly, let him find his way in the NBA game.

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23. Nuggets (1-3 LW 4). The biggest drop and the most surprisingly bad start to the season. Bubble Jamal Murray has only shown up in flashes this season after getting his contract extension. Michael Porter Jr. continues to get exposed on defense. Paul Millsap looks a year older. The lone bright spot for Denver is Nikola Jokic has played at an MVP level, averaging a triple-double — 24.5 points, 13.5 assists, and 11.8 rebounds a game — but even he has had a couple ugly turnovers at key moments. The Nuggets players around Jokic need to step up.

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24. Thunder (1-2, LW 30). The Thunder are feisty. They are not going to win a lot of games this season, but with Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, George Hill, Al Horford (kinda), and the emerging Luguentz Dort, this team is putting up a fight nightly. Gilgeous-Alexander’s maturity — and a year playing next to Chris Paul — is showing this year. Teams are blitzing him on the pick-and-roll get get the ball out of his hands, and he is showing patience and making the right decision.

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25. Rockets (0-2 LW 14). CJ McCollum put it best after draining the game winner to beat Houston: “James Harden is really good man. Regardless what he does in his free time, He is really f****** good at basketball.” As Harden returns to putting up video game numbers on the league, there is zero reason for the Rockets to lower their asking price for him in a trade. Right now, no team is willing to pay that, but the Rockets are banking that the market will come back to them as some teams become disolusioned about their start.

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26. Grizzlies (1-2, LW 209). Jaren Jackson Jr. was already out, and now Ja Morant is out 3-5 weeks with a Grade 2 ankle sprain. That’s not good, but watching it happen, it could have been so much worse. This is a setback for Memphis’ hopes of the playoffs/play-in games, but more importantly it’s a setback for the development of the cornerstone player of Memphis’ future. Plus, it just sucks for NBA fans because we don’t get to watch him for a few weeks.

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27. Bulls (1-3, LW 25). Chicago bounced back and got its first win, but it came against a struggling Washington squad, so don’t read too much into it. This is still a team with a bottom-10 defense and a bottom-five offense to start the season. In a season that should be about player evaluation in Chicago, what does Arturas Karnisovas make of Wendell Carter Jr., Coby White and others have been up-and-down? Eight of Chicago’s next 10 games come on the road.

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28. Raptors (0-3 LW 11). Another surprising start to the season. The defense may have taken a step back without their centers (Marc Gasol and Serge Ibaka both left for Los Angeles), and the Raptors have struggled to defend the three. But the bigger issue is on offense, where the Raptors have been the second-worst team in the league in half-court offense to start the season. That despite Pascal Siakam, Fred VanVleet and plenty of talent on the roster. This is likely just some small sample size issues to start the season, but it’s worth watching.

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29. Wizards (0-4 LW 19). Russell Westbrook has a triple-double in all three games he’s played to start the season, Bradley Beal is averaging 32 points a game (but has struggled from three, shooing 24% so far), yet the Wizards can’t get a win. Washington’s defense has been as bad as expected, but the offense is bottom 10 in the league — the Wizards thought they could win shootouts, and they have not. Frustration is bubbling up in Washington D.C. Rookie Deni Avdija has played fairly well for Washington, all things considered, including getting starts.

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30. Pistons (0-4 LW 28). While the Pistons have some solid veterans, they are trying to develop their young stars and have tried to turn the offensive keys over to rookie Killian Hayes and just signed Jerami Grant (who was always going to have to grow a lot to be the player on offense the Pistons paid him to be). That has not been pretty, as expected. Suddenly, when things get tight, it’s Blake Griffin, Delon Wright, and Derrick Rose with the big minutes and the ball in their hands, but that has not yet been enough. I’d ask “What’s the plan?” but we’ve been asking that about the Pistons since the start of the offseason.

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