NBA Power Rankings: Continuity matters with Bucks, Suns on top after first week
One week into the season, we have a lot of surprises — the undefeated Trail Blazers, the struggling Heat — and a lot of volatility in the NBC Sports NBA Power Rankings. That’s how it is in the first few weeks of the season until we get a real read on teams, but the team at the top this week should surprise nobody.
1. Bucks (2-0, Last week No.2). Undefeated and with the best defense and best net rating in the league, the Bucks are a reminder that continuity is usually a central component to a fast start. Giannis Antetokounmpo put on a show against the Rockets, scoring 44 points in 28 minutes, looking every bit the MVP again. The other early standout is Brook Lopez, who has been an anchor again on the defensive end and is averaging 13 points a game. Fun showdowns with the Nets and Hawks this week.
2. Suns (3-1, LW 6). Don’t sleep on the Suns. Devin Booker has started the season with a chip on his shoulder and is averaging 32.5 points a game, knocking down 48% from 3, and dishing out 5.8 assists a night. As with the Bucks, continuity to start the season helps, but wins over the Mavericks and Warriors to start the season are cathartic. Tuesday’s win over Golden State was the start of a six-game homestead, expect the wins to keep piling up.
3. Celtics (3-1, LW 3). The Celtics’ offense is on a tear to start the season, with a 118.3 net rating that is reminiscent of their play after the All-Star break last season (and is third in the NBA this young season). It helps that Jayson Tatum has started the season on fire, averaging 32.5 points per game. Without Robert Williams the defense has been shakier and is bottom 10 in the league, although that has some small sample size noise in it (still, it’s the area Joe Mazzulla needs to focus on). There are no easy weeks in the East and the Celtics have a couple of good tests against the Cavaliers this week, the first one without Grant Williams, who is suspended after bumping an official.
4. Grizzlies (3-1, LW 7). Ja Morant is his same quick-twitch explosive self, but what has made him unguardable this season is an improved 3-point shot — he’s not going to hit 60% from deep all season, but if he takes a big step forward off the 34.4% he shot last season he will be unstoppable. What will hold the Grizzlies back is the 28th-ranked defense in the league to start the season, Memphis has to tighten up on that end. Memphis heads out on the road for four this week, including two in Utah.
5. Trail Blazers (4-0, LW 22). The hottest team to open the NBA season, and this may be sustainable. Surrounding Damian Lillard with more athleticism and speed has worked, mostly because Lillard looks like his vintage self again — exploding to the rim (and showing improved extension again around the basket) or pulling up for a jumper. This Lillard is bad news for the rest of the league. Just ask the Suns, as Lillard dropped 41 on them.
6. Pelicans (3-1, LW 16). Zion Williamson is back and a force of nature inside, but the most impressive thing New Orleans did this week was beat Luka Doncic and the Mavericks on a night Zion, Brandon Ingram, and Herbert Jones (who would have drawn the Luka assignment) were all out injured. (Zion’s bruised butt, basically, does not appear to be serious or something that will keep him out long.) This is a confident New Orleans team and CJ McCollum deserves a lot of credit for that and his leadership. Tough tests are ahead as New Orleans heads out on the road to face Phoenix, the two Los Angeles teams, and then they come home to the Warriors.
7. Cavaliers (2-1, LW 12). Donovan Mitchell is a walking bucket, so it’s no surprise that with Darius Garland missing a little time (the rare eyelid laceration injury) Mitchell has stepped up his game — 33.3 points and 7 assists a game through the first three games of the season, and he’s hitting 42.3% from beyond the arc. The Cavaliers have the second-highest net rating in the league through three games, although there is a lot of noise in that. We will get a better sense of this team over the weekend against the Celtics and Knicks (Garland could return for those).
8. Jazz (3-1, LW 28). Those weren’t just three simple wins to open the season, they were impressive wins over quality opponents. Lauri Markkanen is healthy and reminding everyone he can create with the ball in his hands. Jordan Clarkson is trying on defense (just ask Zion). Jarred Vanderbilt plays hard every time out. Not sure if this is sustainable (opponents have been missing 3s) and Danny Ainge isn’t done dealing, but what a fun start to the season for a Jazz team that has solid NBA players and — at least in their locker room — is not looking to tank.
9. Warriors (2-2, last week No.1). Stephen Curry is starting the season like an MVP candidate, averaging 30.3 points a game, with more than five rebounds and assists per night, and shooting 44.4% from 3. But the Warriors have lost a couple of games out of the gate because their early season defense is not near championship level — their 114.8 defensive rating so far is 22nd in the league. Klay Thompson is still finding his footing out of the gate, averaging just 11 points a game, and is shooting 28.6% from 3 — plus he got ejected for the first time in his career.
10. Wizards (3-1, LW 21). There’s a lot to like in the early wins for Washington — Bradley Beal is mostly healthy and averaging 20.5 points per game, Kristaps Porzingis has been solid (16.8 points and 7.8 rebounds a game) and the Wizards have a top-10 defense so far. I’m not all in on the Wizards yet, their three wins have come against the Pacers, Bulls, and Pistons. Things get tougher this week with the Celtics, and two games against Joel Embiid and the 76ers, on the schedule. Those games will give us a better sense of this team.
11. Timberwolves (2-2, LW 11). Minnesota feels like a new team trying to figure everything out, which is to be expected, but the blown 17-point lead against the Jazz and a 16-point one against the Thunder are concerning. So is the fact this team’s defense is not in the top 10 in the league. The Timberwolves have one of the softest schedules in the NBA to start the season (although someone forgot to tell the Jazz and Spurs that), and that continues this week with games against San Antonio and the Los Angeles Lakers. The Timberwolves need to stockpile wins now as a cushion for when the schedule toughens up.
12. Raptors (2-2, LW 14). One of the bright spots early for Toronto is the play of Precious Achiuwa — especially against his former team in Miami — and he looks like a great fit as another long, athletic player to mesh with the plethora of those players the Raptors already have. Toronto hasn’t been bad by any means, they were in their two losses, but neither the offense nor defense are coming together the way Nick Nurse wants yet (both middle of the pack). A couple of games against the 76ers this week should be a good test.
13. Knicks (2-1, LW 19). Jalen Brunson has put up numbers for the Knicks — 17.7 points and 7 assists a game — but the bigger impact has been his steady hand running the offense in clutch minutes. New York is just organized better on the offensive end. The Knicks’ advanced stats look great so far (in the top 10 in both offensive and defensive rating) but their wins have come against teams they are expected to beat, the Pistons and Magic. Starting Friday is a real test with the Bucks on the road, followed by the Cavaliers. We’ll see if them pushing the Grizzlies to overtime was a fluke or if this team is that good.
14. Hornets (2-1, LW 25). Steve Clifford was brought in to shore up the defense (so far so good), but how he got the offense clicking with LaMelo Ball still out of the lineup is the bigger story. Terry Rozier has had the ball in his hands and has played well, averaging 23.5 points, 8.5 assists and 7 rebounds a game. Rozier has played well enough to end up in the Lakers’ trade rumors. Dennis Smith Jr. also has picked up some of that offensive slack. Charlotte got above .500 by beating the Hawks, but tougher tests come this week with the Knicks and Warriors. No exact date on LaMelo’s return (he’s out vs. the Knicks Wednesday), but it shouldn’t be much longer.
15. Hawks (2-1, LW 15). Another team that’s been a little hard to get a read on because of a soft early schedule (including two games in Detroit this week), but that will change Saturday in Milwaukee, followed by games in Toronto and New York. Trae Young remains a juggernaut averaging 23.5 points and 11.7 assists per game so far, while Dejounte Murray is putting up 19.7/7.3/8.3 numbers every night, but despite that the Atlanta offense is still ranked 23rd. The defense is saving them, but look for the offense to mesh better over time.
16. Spurs (3-1, LW 30). Maybe the biggest surprise in the league so far, the Spurs have played hard for Gregg Popovich and gotten big games from Devin Vassell (19.8 points per game), Keldon Johnson (20.5), and Jakob Poeltl has been outworking everyone on the glass. We’re a bit skeptical this is sustainable, the Spurs have a -0.9 net rating, and if you remove garbage time that falls to -3.5 (stat via Cleaning the Glass). Still, they beat the 76ers (and got P.J. Tucker yelling at his teammates) and the Timberwolves, and Minnesota is on the schedule two more times this week (along with one against the Bulls).
17. Bulls (2-2, LW 17). DeMar DeRozan looked like his peak self from last season on opening night, putting up 37 on the Heat in what was a quality win for Chicago. Then the Bulls’ second win came against the Celtics — Chicago struggled against the top teams in the East last season, this is a good early sign. DeRozan is averaging 28.6 per game, and Zach LaVine is at 21 a game in the two he played (knee maintenance rest to start the season is a concern, however). Despite having those two, the Bulls’ offense has not clicked the first few games of the season (bottom 10 in the league), largely because the team is shooting 32.7% from 3. Both the 76ers and Nets are on the schedule this week.
18. Clippers (2-2, LW 4). There is a strong “the season is a marathon” vibe around the Clippers, and they are willing to drop a game in Oklahoma City (as they did Tuesday sitting Kawhi Leonard and Paul George) with the belief they will win enough to make the playoffs because of their depth. What matters to the Clippers is having Leonard and George healthy for the postseason, and Tyronne Lue has talked about looking for a balance of how much to play them and how to preserve them for the second season. Leonard is on a minutes restriction, but the time he is on the court is a reminder of what a disruptive defender and physical offensive player he is — there is nobody like him in the league.
19. Mavericks (1-2, LW 13). How long before Jason Kidd has to move Christian Wood into the starting lineup? He is averaging 24.3 points and 8.7 rebounds a game off the bench while knocking down 61% of his 3-pointers (4.3 attempts a game). He and Luka Doncic have some real chemistry. The bigger problem for the Mavericks to start the season is their defense, something Jason Kidd made a calling card last year but there were a lot of blown rotations and questionable efforts in the loss to the Pelicans.
20. 76ers (1-3, LW 5). There’s reason to be concerned about the Philly offense — not enough ball movement at times, Tyrese Maxey still finding his shot — but it feels like that side of the ball will work out. The bigger long-term concern is the defense, which has been step slow — and the transition defense has been the worst in the league (via Cleaning the Glass). With a backcourt of Maxey and Harden the Sixers were going to need peak Joel Embiid rim protector and he has not been that guy to start the season (Doc Rivers blamed that on summer plantar fasciitis). Maybe it’s time for more Mattise Thybulle, but something has to improve on that end if the Sixers want to compete with the big boys in the East.
21. Nuggets (2-2, LW 8). Maybe the team on the top of my “I have no feel for them yet” list, and with that this ranking may be way too low. Or not, they have a -7.7 net rating so far this season that is 27th in the league and behind even teams like the Lakers. Then again, these Nuggets beat the Warriors. The big problem early is a defense that is bottom 3 in the league. Nikola Jokic’s offensive counting stats are off a little bit this season, as to be expected with Jamal Murray and Michael Porter Jr. back and getting some of his shots. If the Nuggets want to get healthy, this is the stretch of the schedule to do it, including two games against the Lakers this week (and one against the Jazz, who beat them opening night).
22. Heat (1-3, LW 9). When Bam Adebayo has been on the court, the Heat’s defensive rating has been top three in the NBA, but when he sits their defensive rating jumps by almost 30 points to 133 (small sample size, but it illustrates just how vital he is to the team — and how they need depth up front). Jimmy Butler has played well, but still the offense lags and is bottom three in the league. The Heat have a tough first couple of weeks (including facing Portland Wednesday and the Warriors two nights later), which is why the opening night loss to a shorthanded Bulls team (no Lonzo Ball or Zach LaVine) really stung. The first week this didn’t feel like the Heat teams we’ve come to expect.
23. Nets (1-2, LW 10). Kevin Durant is nothing short of brilliant, but not even he can cover up for what has been a horrific Brooklyn defense to start the season. Memphis all but toyed with the Nets on Monday night. Their win against Toronto was a reminder this team can win by just outscoring an opponent, but that’s no path to sustained success. The Nets may need more time to fit the puzzle pieces together, and for Ben Simmons to figure out how to stop fouling (he’s fouled out twice this season already), it’s too early to draw sweeping conclusions. Other than that the defense has to improve. Measuring stick game against the Bucks this week, as well as an interesting matchup against Luka Doncic and the Mavericks.
24. Pistons (1-3, LW 23). There are things to like individually. Jaden Ivey is impressive on the offensive end and has a good synergy so far with Cade Cunningham. Jalen Duran has continued to make his case for “steal of the draft.” Bojan Bogdanovic leads the team in scoring with an efficient 20.8 a game, but it’s fair to wonder if that is an audition for a team that could trade for him at the deadline. It was a little bit of a disappointing start to the season for the Pistons, and things don’t get easier with two games against the Hawks, then a brutal back-to-back of the Warriors and Bucks.
25. Pacers (1-3, LW 24). Bennedict Mathurin continues to impress, averaging 22.3 points per game, second highest in the NBA among rookies — he may not be coming off the bench for long. Tyrese Haliburton has been everything the Pacers hoped when they turned the keys to the offense over to him, averaging 24 points and 9.8 assists a game. A lot of buzz around the Pacers and when they might trade Myles Turner (out with a sprained ankle but expected to return soon) and Buddy Hield, but there’s no reason for the Pacers to rush the process. Let the tension and desperation build in Los Angeles (or other cities) and wait for the market to meet your price.
26. Thunder (1-3, LW 29). That was an impressive way to pick up their first win of the season, with a 21-0 third-quarter run, and Shai Gilgeous-Alexander going off for 33 points. Josh Giddey has shown flashes with the ball in his hands. Jalen Williams is still out following surgery for an orbital bone fracture, but he could return (in a mask?) in the next couple of weeks. The Thunder play a (likely not resting everyone) Clippers team again Thursday, then get Luka Doncic and the Mavericks on Saturday.
27. Kings (0-3, LW 20). Rough start for the Kings but De’Aaron Fox has been spectacular, averaging 31.7 points and 7 assists a game so far. His efforts have lifted the Kings to a pretty average offense (17th in the league) but Mike Brown was brought in as coach to lift up the defense and that has not gone well (20th in the league). The bright spot is rookie Keegan Murray, who is averaging 17.5 points a game so far. Sacramento needs a win and hosts Memphis and Miami this week, not easy places to get it.
28. Lakers 0-3, LW 18). Darvin Ham came in preaching defense and, give the man credit, the Lakers are playing hard and executing on that end of the court, a 103.4 defensive rating, second best in the league. The quality defense is also letting Los Angeles get out and run more, they have the second-highest percentage of their offense started in transition. But all that doesn’t matter because they can’t shoot — a 49.8 true shooting percentage as a team. Russell Westbrook is already a distraction and the focal point of issues that are bigger than just him. Think the Lakers regret not going in on that John Wall for Westbrook trade now?
29. Rockets (1-3, LW 26). What you have seen in the first week is what you will see all season from the Rockets — a heavy dose of their young players, some entertaining play, and a lot of losses. Houston got its first win doing what nobody else in the league had been able to do — beat the Utah Jazz. They did it with their athletic guards stepping up, Jalen Green had 25, Kevin Porter Jr. 26. Tari Eason has looked good off the bench for Houston.
30. Magic 0-4, LW 27). The winless record is a little unfair, the Magic have been in games, not getting blown out, just have not been able to close out victories. Welcome to the learning curve for a young team. Paolo Banchero has lived up to the hype early and placed himself in some legendary company with an opening night line of 27 points, nine rebounds and five assists.