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NBA Power Rankings: Miami’s shut-down defense vaults them to top spot

An excerpt from Scottie Pippen's memoir was released and Michael Smith is wondering what more Scottie Pippen wants when he is already held in high regard while Michael Holley thinks Pippen just wants a little more love.

The Miami Heat have vaulted into the No. 1 spot in this week’s NBA Power Rankings on the strength of the best defense in the league and some balanced offense. The Jazz are right there with them, while the Warriors round out the top three.

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1. Heat (6-1, Last Week No. 2). Any discussion of Miami’s rise to the top of the East (and these NBA Power Rankings) has to start with its defense — they have a ridiculous 98.4 defensive rating this season. The Heat are 8.9 per 100 better than the league average defensively so far. They are smothering teams on that end. On offense, they are fourth in the NBA, and are doing it with transition, pushed by Kyle Lowry, and great play from Jimmy Butler (25.3 points per game). The offense will only improve because Lowry and Duncan Robinson have yet to find their groove. Interesting showdown with the Jazz Saturday before a five-game road trip out West.

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2. Jazz (6-1, LW 1). Of course Utah has a top 5 defense in the league to start the season (it would be a story if they didn’t), but the top 5 offense — despite some early struggles from Donovan Mitchell — is the surprise. Mitchell is struggling with his shot so far (32.9% from 3, down from 38.6% last season). The Jazz offense has been more isolation/pick-and-roll heavy this year, and the ball is not moving around like it does most seasons in the Utah blender system; we’ll see if that evolves as the season moves on. Either way, the Jazz just keep on winning, with an interesting test coming Saturday night against Miami.

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3. Warriors (5-1, LW 3). Things we did not expect: Golden State has the third-best defense in the NBA to start the season, surrendering less than a point per possession overall. The new defensive rule interpretations have been good for Draymond Green and the entire Warriors defense, allowing them to be more physical and hands-on. It has worked. James Wiseman has been cleared to practice 5-on-5 and said he hopes to return to the court soon. The Warriors could use his athleticism and the depth up front.

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4. Knicks (5-2, LW 6). RJ Barrett has stepped up in his third season and has filled the Knicks’ need for wing play, scoring 18.6 points a game (including 35 points against the Pelicans), shooting 42.9% on 3-pointers and getting 74% of his shots either at the rim or from 3. While Barrett helps, last week’s wins against Chicago and Philadelphia came because Kemba Walker provides pace and scoring the team needs, and the bench led by Derrick Rose won their minutes. The Knicks are 20th in the NBA in defense, you know Tom Thibodeau will not let that stand.

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5. 76ers (5-2, LW 9). Concerns about Joel Embiid’s knee felt legitimate, but he got a night off against Portland (meaning five days between games for him) and the 76ers won anyway — and did it without Tobias Harris, who will miss time after entering health and safety protocols. Doc Rivers was leaning heavily on his starting five (Tyrese Maxey, Seth Curry, Danny Green, Harris, Embiid) and with good reason, they have a +17.3 net rating, but he’ll have to adjust the next week with some tough games ahead, two against the Bulls plus a Knicks and Bucks back-to-back.

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6. Bulls (6-1, LW 8). The tests have started and wins over Utah and Boston — including an impressive comeback against the Celtics — have Chicago passing the early rounds. It doesn’t get easier this week with the 76ers twice then the Nets. Patrick Williams being out for the season with a wrist injury is a blow both to his development and what had been an impressive starting five (Lonzo Ball, Zach LaVine, DeMar DeRozan, Williams, Nikola Vucevic) that had a +11 net rating. Sub Javonte Green in for Williams and that starting give drops to -18.5 (in very limited minutes).

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7. Hornets (5-3, LW 13). The Hornets have been the ultimate second-half team this season, outscoring opponents by +25 per 100 after the break, which has sparked some impressive comebacks. Miles Bridges is “down” to 23.1 points a game with a 58.9 true shooting percentage, he cooled off a little this week but remains the finisher LaMelo Ball and Gordon Hayward need. The Hornets player the Warriors Wednesday, so prepare yourself for another round of “just imagine what Golden State would look like if they took LaMelo instead of James Wiseman” stories.

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8. Raptors (5-3, LW 22). Pascal Siakam’s agent Todd Ramasar was on SiriusXM NBA Radio and said his client should return soon, “I guess we could say within the next two weeks he should be back on the floor.” Not the Raptors have needed him during their four-game win streak, which includes a win in Madison Square Garden Monday. Goran Dragic barely sees the floor for the Raptors (he has not played during the win streak), but there hasn’t been much trade chatter about him yet. Expect that to change after Dec. 15 (when players who signed this summer can be traded) and in the run-up to the February trade deadline.

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9. Nets (4-3, LW 7). James Harden has gotten his groove back the past couple of games, getting to the line 19 times against the Pacers then dropping a triple-double on the Pistons, and all of which has more to do with him feeling comfortable with his hamstring (which slowed his offseason work) than adapting to the new free throw rules. Kevin Durant admitted the Nets could use Kyrie Irving back, but if he stops getting ejected (or almost ejected for launching a ball into the stands) and Harden is himself again, this team won’t notice Irving’s absence as much. Friday the Nets head out for six straight on the road.

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10. Hawks (4-3 LW 5). After a slow start to the season the Hawks offense is back in the top-10 in the league, but Trae Young continues to struggle from 3 (27% this season) and his free throw attempts were down until he got 11 against the Wizards last week. However, Young’s complaining about foul calls he’s not getting seems to be up. Atlanta’s defense has been inconsistent and it will be put to the test this week going against the Nets, Jazz, Suns, and Warriors.

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11. Wizards (5-2, LW 17). The Lakers didn’t play to Montrezl Harrell’s strengths much last season (setting picks and rolling to the rim, for example), but the Wizards are and the result is Harrell putting up Sixth Man of the Year numbers again: 18.4 points and 9.9 rebounds a game, shooting 59.7% from the floor. Rui Hachimura remains out, and there is no timetable for his return, but when it happens it will add even more depth and versatility to a roster thriving because of those factors to start the season.

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12. Nuggets (4-3, LW 11). Nikola Jokic didn’t miss a game after banging knees with Rudy Gobert, which is a good thing because Denver is -23.6 per 100 possession when he is off the court (and they outscore opponents by 17 per 100 when he is on, a number that goes up when you eliminate garbage time). Of concern is Michael Porter Jr. scoring just 10.7 points a game (down from 19 last season) and shooting 34.5%. On the bright side, this Will Barton block saved a game and is one of the plays of the year so far.

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13. Lakers (5-3, LW 10). Fortunately for the Lakers, they have a soft and home-heavy start to the season as they work out the kinks in what is a roster that doesn’t fit together seamlessly. There’s plenty for Frank Vogel to work out: The Lakers are 15th in the league on defense, and lineups with LeBron James, Anthony Davis, Russell Westbrook, and DeAndre Jordan at center are -11.3 per 100. Westbrook leads the NBA in turnovers but is scoring 19.4 points a game (Frank Vogel is staggering Westbrook and LeBron more). It covers up a lot of flaws that LeBron can still do this in year 19.

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14. Grizzlies (4-3, LW 15). Ja Morant is still attacking, taking 33.6% of his shots at the rim and shooting better than 70% on them — he is one of the most dynamic players in the league. However, the losses recently, especially to Miami, were a reminder of how much this team misses Dillon Brooks on the defensive end (he remains out with a broken hand). The defensive issues that have the Grizzlies 29th in the league go well beyond just Brooks, however, if the Grizzlies have dreams beyond the play-in games they need to clean up that end of the court.

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15. Bucks (4-4, LW 4). Milwaukee keeping its head above water despite a lengthy injury report: Brook Lopez has missed seven games (back), Jrue Holiday five (ankle), Khris Middleton is now out in COVID protocols, and Donte DiVincenzo has yet to play this season (foot surgery). All that has dropped the Bucks defense to a pedestrian 13th in the league, and the offense is 15th. Not ideal, but there’s no reason for long-term concern, once the Bucks get healthy they look like contenders again.

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16. Cavaliers (4-4, LW 20). High praise for Evan Mobley continues to pour in: LeBron James said, “They got a good one,” and Anthony Davis compared him to a younger version of himself after Mobley dropped 23 and 6 on LA. What stands out about Mobley is his defensive versatility, protecting the rim and switching out on the perimeter — JB Bickerstaff even had him at the top of a 1-2-2 zone (ala Kevin Garnett). In his contract year, Collin Sexton has seen his usage rate drop and his points and scoring efficiency with it — is he destined to be a high-scoring sixth man (ala Lou Williams)? Cleveland went 3-2 on its road trip, not bad at all.

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17. Mavericks (4-3, LW 16). Kristaps Porzingis has missed the last four games due to back tightness, and Dallas has gone 2-2 without him. The Dallas offense has scored less than a point per possession when he is on the court. It’s not just Porzingis, the Dallas offense is 15.7 points per 100 possessions worse this season. The Mavs front court rotation just got tighter with Maxi Kleber out at least a week with an oblique strain). Dallas has been the luckiest team in the NBA this season (they should have a ?-? record), especially with Luka Doncic’s numbers off from last season, but those kinds of breaks tend to even out over the course of 82.

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18. Suns (3-3, LW 12). Phoenix’s slow start has flown under the radar, but they have been below average on both ends of the court and seem to be suffering a Finals hangover. There are flashes of the contender Suns — the 50-16 run against the Cavaliers to come back and get the win — but players across the board are not playing as well. Devin Booker is emblematic of this: He’s averaging 21.8 points a game (down from 25.6 last season), shooting 27.8% on 3-pointers (34% last season) and his true shooting percentage is down to an unimpressive 49.5 (he was above average at 58.7 last season). It feels like the Suns will shake out of this and return to the top of the West, and games against the Pelicans, Rockets, and Kings this week can help with that (the Hawks are in the mix this week, too).

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19. Timberwolves (3-3, LW 18). Still one of the hardest teams to figure out in the league, last week they beat the Bucks on the road but lost to the Magic at home. There’s plenty to like — the turnover-creating defense that is top-10 in the league, the play of Anthony Edwards — but consistency is not their friend this young season. Karl-Anthony Towns remains one of the best offensive big men in the game — 24.8 points a night, shooting 50% from 3 on 6.3 attempts a game, plus 9.2 rebounds a night and he is anchoring the impressive defense.

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20. Trail Blazers (3-4, LW 23). Damian Lillard isn’t forcing his way to Philadelphia despite the chants of Sixers fans, but he’s also still not hitting shots like we have come to expect — he shot 4-of-23 on 3-pointers his last two games. He may be struggling to adjust to the new Blazers’ offense under Chauncey Billups, which has more player and ball movement than in previous seasons. Still, does anybody question that Lillard will at some point soon find his rhythm. Another question: How long before Larry Nance Jr. starts?

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21. Kings (3-4, LW 25). De’Aaron Fox is lost in the wilderness to start this season with his offensive numbers down across the board: 17.7 points a game (down from 25.2), 36.4% shooting (47.7%), and he’s hitting 15.4% on 3-pointers (32.2%). It’s too early to panic with Fox, but it’s not too early to be concerned. Whatever mojo Fox has lost, Harrison Barnes has picked up — he has looked like an All-Star averaging 23.3 points and 9.7 rebounds a game, plus shooting 44.9% from 3. As good as Barnes has been, the Kings need Fox because when right he is their best closer.

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22. Pacers (2-6, LW 21). Caris LeVert is back and looking sharp out of the gate averaging 15.5 points per game in the two he has played, even on a minutes restriction. Having him should help the Pacers, who remain the least lucky team in the league to start the season (they have the net rating of a team that should be 4-4). There still seems to be an adjustment period as players try to adapt to what new coach Rick Carlisle is asking of them, but they need to figure it out fast to stay in touch with the playoff race in the East.

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23. Clippers (2-4, LW 19). Los Angeles has a top-10 defense, but despite Paul George going off seemingly every game they still have a bottom 10 offense (and PG13 can’t blame the new ball for all of it). George needs help: Reggie Jackson is second on the Clips in scoring at 14.2 a game but is shooting 31% for the season, Luke Kennard is up and down and pitching in 12.7 a night, and that’s it for guys in double-digits. This roster looks better than this on paper, and we saw better from it in the playoffs last season, but so far they look like a team without their star.

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24. Spurs (2-5, LW 24). The Spurs have been competitive this season with an offense that looks and feels very different from the last few years — a lot more player and ball movement, a lot fewer pull-up midrange jumpers (DeMar DeRozan took a lot of those with him to Chicago). There are young players to like on this team — Dejounte Murray, Keldon Johnson, Lonnie Walker IV — but are any of them ready to make the leap up closer to All-Star level? That’s what the Spurs ultimately need.

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25. Celtics (2-5, LW 13). The wheels came off Boston in the fourth quarter against Chicago when they got outscored 39-11 and came from ahead for an ugly loss at home. Marcus Smart called out Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown for not passing enough, and he’s not wrong, but the bigger issue is the Celtics’ 27th ranked defense to start the season. The bench has been an issue, with their preferred starting five (Smart, Brown, Tatum, Al Horford, Robert Williams III) has a +7.9 net rating and surrenders less than a point per possession, but that group has only been healthy enough to play 30 minutes together this season and when the bench gets involved the numbers fall apart.

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26. Magic (2-6, LW 28). The rebuilding in Orlando was never going to be a work of art this season, but not having Markelle Fultz or Jonathan Isaac in the rotation yet makes it harder to be competitive or judge where this team stands. Not having Isaac particularly hurts on the defensive end, where the Magic are ranked 30th in the league. On a positive note, did anyone have any idea Franz Wagner had a Dunk of the Year candidate in him?

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27. Rockets (1-6, LW 26). They are raw, but the athleticism and energy of the Rockets makes them worth watching, especially when they pushed the Lakers on Sunday night. Jalen Green is still figuring out how to take charge of a game when the defense starts to focus on him — he was 7-of-9 in the first half against the Lakers, but completely quiet in the second until the final minute, when he almost pulled off the upset with a couple of threes. Alperen Sengun got big brothered by Anthony Davis much of the night, but welcome to the NBA (Davis does that to a lot of guys).

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28. Pelicans (1-7, LW 27). In 2-3 weeks, the Pelicans will do another scan and hope then to be able to put a timeline on Zion Williamson’s return to the lineup, coach Willie Green said this week. On the low end, that’s another 10 games he will miss (it could be more, his conditioning doesn’t look great to the eye test), and the question becomes when he does return will New Orleans have dug too deep a hole to climb out of and make the postseason? There’s plenty of blame to go around. Zion set an unreasonable timeline to return (he said the start of the season), and he has to take control of his recovery and weight. The Pelicans also have done a terrible job communicating on the injury. Plus, even without Zion, this team has the talent on the roster to be better than 1-6.

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29. Pistons (1-6, LW 29). Cade Cunningham has looked like a guy who hadn’t played in a month when he got thrown back on the court last week after missing time with an ankle sprain (he shot 1-of-8 in his debut), but that was to be expected. He’s got to be out there to develop, but he’s got some rough lessons ahead with the 76ers and Nets next on the schedule (he likely sits out one of those on the back-to-back). Jerami Grant may be leading the team in scoring at 16.8 per game, but the Pistons need more efficiency than 39.3% shooting (same with Saddiq Bey and his 39.4% shooting).

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30. Thunder (1-6, LW 30). Break up the Thunder, who led the Warriors and forced them to comeback, then beat the Lakers (without LeBron, but still). The Thunder still have the worst net rating in the league, but now it’s not dramatically worse than everyone else, and there are some positives such as the play of Josh Giddey. Still, it’s going to be a long, long season in oKC.

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