NBA Power Rankings: Bucks, Suns hold on to top spots while Cavaliers climb
This early in the season there are always a lot of wild swings in the NBC Sports NBA Power Rankings — a 3-game winning or losing streak can change everything fast this early. However, we’ve got stability at the top this week with the Bucks and Suns staying put.
1. Bucks (6-0, Last week No.1). If you and I know what Giannis Antetokounmpo wants to do when he gets the ball — and we do, we’ve seen him rolling downhill — then you can be sure opponents know and game plan for it. Yet, Antetokounmpo is shooting a ridiculous 64.8% so far this season on two-point attempts — it’s one thing to know what is coming and another to stop the best player in the world from doing it. The Bucks are the only undefeated team left in the NBA, and they are doing it without their second-best player (Khris Middleton is still likely a couple of weeks away following wrist surgery). Fun matchup of two of the biggest teams in the league Friday when Milwaukee travels to Minnesota.
2. Suns (6-1, LW 2). The Suns moved Cameron Johnson into the starting lineup this season — and were going to do so whether Jae Crowder was there or not — because they wanted his shooting and the offensive bump it provided with the starters. So far it’s working, the Suns starting five — Chris Paul, Devin Booker, Mikal Bridges, Johnson and Deandre Ayton — has a 122.1 offensive rating. Sub Bismack Biyombo in for Ayton and that jumps to 129.8 (both lineups have played 62 minutes so far this season). Johnson’s shooting was on full display Tuesday night when he dropped 29 on the Timberwolves.
3. Cavaliers (5-1, LW 7). While Donovan Mitchell and his better-than-advertised play — 32.2 points and 7.3 assists per game — has been grabbing the headlines, the Cavaliers are off to a fast start thanks to the third-best defense in the NBA this season. The critical thing in Cleveland: None of this is a fluke. Mitchell can keep scoring like this (plus Darius Garland is back from his eye injury and can help) and they can keep defending like this. Also, it’s been a week, but let us not forget what Jarrett Allen did to Bol Bol.
4. Trail Blazers (5-1, LW 5). The fast start that has everyone around the league talking is in jeopardy because the Blazers will be without Damian Lillard for a couple of weeks due to a calf strain. We saw how Miami ran all over Portland with Lillard out (those two teams play again next week), the Blazers’ defense needs to tighten up with the Grizzlies then two against the Suns coming up. It’s going to be a long road, but the early returns on Shaedon Sharpe look promising.
5. Pelicans (4-2, LW 6). Zion Williamson is still an elite scorer inside the paint, but what has impressed this season — especially since Brandon Ingram went out — is his passing. He is seeing the floor and finding the open man, and GM David Griffin has done a good job surrounding him with shooters. “I would say before, I think I would rush it sometimes trying to see open pass. But now I just let it develop,” the more patient Zion said after a seven-assist game against the Clippers last Sunday.
6. Celtics (4-2, LW 3). While there have been flashes of the defense finding its footing — the win over the Wizards being the best example — it is still the offense carrying this team. And Jayson Tatum is carrying the offense. Tatum is scoring 30.8 points per game, shooting 66.7% on twos and 40.8% beyond the arc. A couple of good tests for the Boston defense this week, the Cavaliers on Wednesday and in Madison Square Garden against the Knicks on the weekend.
7. Jazz (6-2, LW 8). If you thought Utah’s fast start was just an aberration that would quickly fade (this is all about Victor Wembanyama, right?), note that they just took two games from the Memphis Grizzlies (Ja Morant missed the first but played in the second). Utah is 4-1 in clutch games (within five points in the final five minutes) with a +23.1 net rating in those minutes. The Jazz have legitimate talent on this roster, Lauri Markkanen has found a comfort zone, and there is no reason this team can’t be good — not 6-2 good, but good — all season long. Unless Danny Ainge breaks them up.
8. Raptors (4-3, LW 12). Pascal Siakam continues to put up All-NBA numbers to start the season: 26.1 points and 7.4 rebounds a night (he did make the All-NBA team last season, but this feels like a step forward. Toronto’s weakness is shots inside the arc — the Raptors are shooting 49.7% on twos, one of just four teams below 50% on that stat. Good to see Chris Boucher back in the rotation, which should take some pressure off Christian Koloko.
9. Grizzlies (4-3, LW 4). The story remains the same in Memphis: An elite offense that gets into the paint seemingly at will behind Ja Morant, but a worst-in-the-league defense (by NBA.com numbers) that can’t get stops and help them win games consistently. The Grizzlies won games without Morant last season, but the one game he missed this season the Jazz picked up the win. After a road-heavy start to the season (including Wednesday night in Portland), the Grizzlies are home for 4-of-5.
10. 76ers (4-4, LW 20). Philadelphia has strung together three wins in a row, but a couple of underlying stats still are cause for concern. First, the 76ers have the worst transition defense in the league, teams have a 142.9 offensive rating when they run against Philly. With the defense struggling, it wasn’t a surprise Doc Rivers turned to Matisse Thybulle (he should have done it sooner), with the wing getting 22 minutes in the Sixers win over the Raptors. Second, Joel Embiid is a distant third on this team in touches per game. He’s their best player, get him the rock more often.
11. Mavericks (3-3, LW 19). Luka Doncic is carrying the offense — and we don’t just mean the league-leading 36.7 points per game. Doncic also leads the league in usage rate (possessions that end with his shot/assist/turnover) at 40.9 — that would rank second all-time if he keeps it up for the season (to Russell Westbrook’s 2017 MVP/triple-double season at 41.7). Doncic is averaging 91.8 touches per game, fifth most in the NBA this season. If the Mavericks are going to make an early-season push, now is the time with 8-of-10 coming up at home.
12. Timberwolves (4-4, LW 11). The fit of the Rudy Gobert and Karl-Anthony Towns lineups is a work in progress, the Timberwolves have a -2.4 net rating when both are on the court this season. The challenge has been on the offensive end, where Minnesota is 24th in the league (they are top 10 in defense thanks to Gobert). The Timberwolves went an unimpressive 4-3 through a soft start to the schedule, and the loss to the Suns Tuesday as the start of a run of tough games. Next up is the Bucks.
13. Spurs (5-2, LW 16). The record is a little deceiving, the Spurs have a -0.2 net rating on the season (-2.2 once garbage time is filtered out by Cleaning the Glass) but have gotten some fortunate wins so far. The Spurs’ offense has been good behind the 23.9 points per game of Keldon Johnson (he is impressive with the ball in his hands), but San Antonio remains bottom 10 in defense, which will drive Gregg Popovich mad. The Josh Primo situation is unusual and unfortunate for the Spurs, but they did the right thing for the culture of the franchise (and, hopefully, Primo).
14. Knicks (3-3, LW 13). Watching New York summer target Donovan Mitchell seemingly score at will and drop 38 with 12 assists on the Knicks was a haunting night-before-Halloween experience for Knicks fans. So far this season the Knicks are what we thought they were: the offense looks better with Jalen Brunson running the show, the defense is solid if middle-of-the-pack, they beat the teams they were supposed to and struggled with the Bucks and Cavs. If the Knicks are going to beat the Hawks and 76ers this week, Julius Randle and RJ Barrett need to hit some jump shots to open the offense up.
15. Hawks (4-3, LW 15). Dejounte Murray has found a nice offensive groove next to Trae Young, but he was brought in to be part of an improved defense and that has yet to happen. We’re a couple of weeks into the season the Hawks are still 25th in the league on that end (very similar to last season). Atlanta struggled last week when the schedule got tougher (Raptors and Bucks) and things do not get easier now with the Knicks, Pelicans and Bucks as the next three.
16. Nuggets (4-3, LW 21). The hope of Michael Malone and Nuggets fans heading into the season was the improved health and depth of this team would take some of the load off Nikola Jokic. Not so much. He leads the league in touches per game, and the Nuggets have a +7.3 net rating when he is on the court and a -21.8 rating when he is sitting. The Denver bench has to get better if the Nuggets want to be any kind of threat in the West. A home and home against the Spurs going up, the kind of games the Nuggets need to win if they want to move up the standings (and these NBA Power Rankings).
17. Bulls (4-4, LW 17). Zach LaVine was the fourth-quarter hero against the Nets, outscoring Brooklyn 20-19 in the final frame all by himself, exposing the Nets’ defense. The Bulls’ offense needed that shot in the arm, they miss Lonzo Ball and the 3-point shooting he brings, but they are moving the ball and getting shots. That will be put to the text, that game against Brooklyn was the first of five games in seven nights, with stops against the Celtics and Raptors in that mix. We’ll know more about the Bulls when this stretch of games is over.
18. Warriors (3-5, LW 9). The Warriors have started 0-3 on their five-game road trip, and after the success Miami had playing zone against Golden State Tuesday, the Warriors can expect to see a lot more of that defense coming up. Hopefully we don’t see any more Klay Thompson ejections like we did when Devin Booker got under his skin. There’s no one place to put the blame for the Warriors’ slow start, they are below league average in offense (16th) and defense (20th), and outside of Stephen Curry everyone’s play seems to be up and down. Eventually the Warriors will bring more urgency to the table.
19. Thunder (4-3, LW 26). It’s just six games into the season, but Shai Gilgeous-Alexander is putting up All-NBA numbers so far: 31.5 points per game with 6.8 assists a night on 51.8% shooting. It’s impressive he’s doing that efficiently on what is still a bottom-10 defense despite his play. The Thunder beat the Clippers twice this week, then beat the Mavericks and had Luka Doncic calling Lu Dort one of the best defenders in the league. Oklahoma City has a top-five defense, but that will be tested against Denver and Milwaukee this week.
20. Wizards (3-4, LW 10). Concerning stats of the week: Bradley Beal is averaging just 20.7 points per game and hitting just 31.3% from beyond the arc, all while dealing with a sore back. The good news, he’s knocking down shots inside the arc and getting to the line, but the Wizards’ bottom-10 offense needs more Beal (Kristaps Porzingis has tried to take on more with limited success). Losing Delon Wright to a strained hamstring for a couple of months is a blow to the defense — Washington’s D has been 6.8 points per 100 possessions better with him on the floor to start the season.
21. Heat (3-5, LW 22). The 3-point floodgates opened for the Heat against the Warriors Tuesday, with Duncan Robinson and Max Strus lighting up the scoreboard from deep (which opened lanes for Jimmy Butler and Bam Adebayo to make plays in the paint). Now the question is can the Heat carry that momentum into a softer part of the schedule the next couple of weeks, bet back north of .500 and build some momentum into the rest of the season? Tyler Herro is not expected to miss much, if any, time with his eye injury.
22. Hornets (3-4, LW 14). Dennis Smith Jr. is one of the feel good stories of the young NBA season. He went from forgotten and almost out of the league to making the Hornets, to starting by necessity and playing well — 12.3 points and 6.4 assists per game, shooting 44.4% from 3. LaMelo Ball and Terry Rozier remain out right now due to injuries, which means more Smith in the short term. The Hornets have dropped three of their last four and have a tough week ahead with Chicago, Memphis and Brooklyn next up.
23. Pacers (3-5, LW 25). The Pacers have their backcourt of the future: Tyrese Haliburton and Bennedict Mathurin are combining for 42.3 points and 11.5 assists a game so far, and when they share the court the Pacers have a +8.6 net rating. Myles Turner made headlines saying the Lakers should take a long look at trading for him, but he didn’t change any minds in the Los Angeles front office — they did take a long look at him this summer and decided to hold onto their picks, a trade this early in the season would reek of desperation.
24. Clippers (3-4, LW 18). The Clippers have the second-worst offense in the NBA as they try to figure out how to balance the ball movement and 3-point shooting of last season with the isolation-heavy preferences of Kawhi Leonard and Paul George. Nicholas Batum and coach Tyronne Lue have said it will take the Clippers a couple of months to get used to the rotations and Leonard being in and out of the lineup day-to-day (more out than in of late, but Lue says he is doing “better”). George is playing, which is good they need his game-winners.
25. Kings (2-4, LW 27). De’Aaron Fox will be out for a few games (at least) with a bone bruise in his knee, but considering how things looked for a while that is not a bad outcome. Look for a lot more Davion Mitchell for a few games. Coach Mike Brown not being able to fix the defense shouldn’t be a shock, not with Sabonis at center, but the fact the offense is bottom half of the league is a little surprising (and will hold this team back from their play-in/playoff quest).
26. Nets (2-6, LW 23). Steve Nash is out as coach and it’s a classic case of him not creating the problems on the Nets roster, but him not being able to fix them, either. The question is, can any coach fix them? If Ben Simmons is afraid of getting fouled and hesitant because of it, if Kyrie Irving is being Kyrie Irving off the court, if the Nets are undersized defending in the paint, what exactly is Ime Udonka or anyone going to do to fix it? Kevin Durant is playing at an MVP level and carrying this team, but the man needs more help.
27. Lakers 1-5, LW 18). The biggest concern in the Santa-length list of concerns for Lakers fans right now: Anthony Davis’ back is clearly bothering him. You can see him grabbing at it in games, and one scout told me he isn’t moving like peak Davis. This is the guy Darvin Ham said he needs to anchor both ends of the court to build a winner. The Lakers have moved Russell Westbrook to the bench for now, but we’ll see how long that can continue without being a distraction.
28. Magic 1-7, LW 30). Bol Bol is just fun right now. Given a chance due to injuries, he has has found a role with this team, coming off the bench for 21 minutes a night as a backup center, averaging 11.1 points a game. He can blocks some shots and get some boards on defense, but the real fun is when Bol Bol gets the board and decides to bring it up himself and make a play. Orlando isn’t a very good team but they are an entertaining one.
29. Pistons (2-6, LW 24). There are encouraging signs of late, not only beating the Warriors but then putting a scare into the best team in the NBA to start the season, the Bucks. Also encouraging, rookie Jaden Ivey had 34 points in those two games against the NBA’s elite and has scored in double-digits every game. The Pistons locked up Bojan Bogdanovic and now there are doubts around the league the Pistons will flip him at the deadline (they still can if they want). If Detroit is in the mix to chase a play-in spot come January, Bogdanovic may spend the full season in Detroit.
30. Rockets (1-7, LW 29). For a team with some dynamic athletes such as Kevin Porter Jr., Jalen Green and Jabari Smith Jr., it’s strange to see the Rockets with the third-worst offense in the NBA this season. Shooting is an issue, but that’s part of the development plan in Houston, they are going to take their time. The Rockets are 0-6 on the road this season and after a home game against the Clippers on Wednesday five of their next six are back out on the road, with some tough games like the Pelicans and Mavericks in that mix. It’s going to be a long season in Houston.
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