NBA Power Rankings: Stephen Curry shoots Warriors into top spot
The red-hot Golden State Warriors, behind the hot shooting of Stephen Curry and an improved defense, have vaulted into the top spot in NBC Sports’ weekly NBA Power Rankings. After that, this early in the season, there are still some massive jumps up and down the board as things settle in but small sample sizes abound.
1. Warriors (9-1, Last Week No. 3). Winners of six in a row and with the best net rating in the NBA (via Cleaning the Glass), the Warriors don’t just look good; they look like themselves again. Are they contenders? Not sold on that, yet. The Warriors have had one of the two easiest schedules in the league so far, plus we need to see how Klay Thomson looks when he gets back on the court. Are the Warriors Stephen Curry for MVP good? Yes. It’s early, but Curry has to be near the top of the MVP conversation so far. Also, Gary Payton II is having a breakout season in the Bay Area — 14 points against the Hornets, 17 against the Pelicans — and he had this poster dunk.
2. Heat (7-3, LW 1). Miami doesn’t run a lot — 16% of their plays start in transition, about the league average — but when they do they score have an offensive rating of 127.5, fifth best in the league. The Heat have the fourth best offense in the league so far, and while that may come back to earth some with Kyle Lowry adding shot creation and Tyler Herro seemingly not missing a shot, it feels sustainable. Miami’s loss to the Nuggets Monday was the start of 9-of-11 on the road through Thanksgiving.
3. Jazz (8-3, LW 2). Utah has the second-best offense in the NBA so far this season and a big part of that is no team takes a higher percentage of their shots from 3 — 48.7% of their attempts. It’s also a sign the Jazz offense could get better because they are hitting just 32.4% of those 3s (25th in the league) and that number is likely to go up. Of the Jazz’s three losses, two of them came in games Mike Conley sat out to rest (no back-to-backs), a reminder of what they missed last postseason without him.
4. Nets (7-4, LW 9). The Nets core starting five — James Harden, Joe Harris, Bruce Brown, Kevin Durant, Blake Griffin — has a +6.9 net rating this season, but surprisingly most of that comes from a stingy defense giving up less than a point per possession. Brooklyn’s offense still hasn’t hit its stride (and people are piling on Harden for that), but the team is winning and the offense is looking a little better each game. The Nets had won five in a row against lesser teams to right the ship, but it’s still a concern that their last two losses came against Miami and Chicago. Harden gave us an early candidate for the worst play of the year.
5. Knicks (7-4, LW 4). This ranking feels high for the Knicks, but they do have the third-best net rating in the league once garbage time is removed (Cleaning the Glass), and they did beat the Bucks and 76ers in the past week (both of those teams are shorthanded, but a win is a win). The Knicks third-best offense in the league has had some shooting luck to get that high — Kemba Walker is not going to shoot 45% from 3 for the season, and Derrick rose at 43.2% is high — but the added depth around Randle this season means the Knicks are better on that end. If the offense slides some, it will be balanced out by the defense — Tom Thibodeau will not allow a 26th ranked defense to stand.
6. 76ers (8-4, LW 5). Philadelphia was off to a “Ben who? 8-2 start to the season with the top offense in the league (although their shooting numbers were not sustainable, a market correction is coming). Then COVID hit the team hard: Joel Embiid, Tobias Harris (who Doc Rivers said could return soon), Matisse Thybulle and Isaiah Joe are all missing time due to health and safety protocols. The Knicks took advantage on Monday night and the Bucks did the same on Tuesday, but we’re not dinging the Sixers too much here. Next up are the Raptors, and then a six-game road trip. As gritty as the 76ers have been, those are tough games without your two best players.
7. Bulls (7-3, LW 6). Chicago’s starting five — Lonzo Ball, Zach LaVine, Javonte Green, DeMar DeRozan, Nikola Vucevic — has improved after a rough first couple of games and now basically plays teams even (-0.6 net rating). However, the closing lineup — where Alex Caruso is in for Green — has a +17.5 net rating. Since the schedule got tough, Chicago is a respectable 3-3, although dropping both games to a shorthanded 76ers team was concerning. Starting Friday the Bulls are on a five-game West Coast road swing.
8. Raptors (6-5, LW 8). Pascal Siakam is back in the lineup and while he’s on a minute restriction he’s already made an impact, scoring 15 points in 25 minutes in his debut. It will be interesting to see how Siakam pairs with rookie Scottie Barnes, who is averaging 11 points and 8 rebounds a game plus playing great defense — it’s too early, but he is on the Rookie of the Year radar. Wednesday night in Boston starts 8-of-9 on the road for the Raptors (they are 4-0 away from home so far this season).
9. Wizards (7-3, LW 11). One of the surprises on the season is the Wizards’ top-10 defense so far, and the key to that is running opponents off the arc: 32.8% of Washington opponent shots are from 3, the lowest percentage of any team in the league. Opposing teams are also hitting only 29.2% of those 3s, although that number will go up over time. The Wizards are getting out of D.C. a lot in the coming weeks, with 8-of-11 on the road.
10. Nuggets (6-4, LW 12). It was clear something was bothering Michael Porter Jr. before he went out with back issues (a red flag because that’s what caused him to drop in the NBA Draft). Porter Jr. had a dreadful 41.6 true shooting percentage (down from a very good 66.3 last season). He wasn’t getting to the rim as often, but the big issue was his shots were not falling no matter where he took them. Now Porter Jr. is out with no timeline. That the Nuggets have this record despite Porter Jr.'s issues and no Jamal Murray (knee) speaks to just how MVP-worthy Nikola Jokic has been this season (they are -19.1 per 100 when he is off the floor, a bad sign for the game he misses due to his suspension).
11. Cavaliers (7-4, LW 16). Collin Sexton is out, possibly for the season, with a torn meniscus and that is a real blow for a player in a contract year (he and the Cavs talked extension coming into the season but could not reach a deal). Sexton led the Cavaliers in scoring, even though his numbers and efficiency were down as he tried to adapt to a new role in the offense. Evan Mobley continues to tear it up as a rookie, and of late he has paired much better with Jarrett Allen up front, creating a dynamic front line that is difficult for opponents to deal with.
12. Suns (6-3, LW 18). Winners of five in a row, taking advantage of a soft part of the schedule, but soft or not, the Suns have played much better defense during this stretch to spark the streak. As a team, they also have been able to tune out the controversy around the franchise owner Robert Sarver and not let it be a distraction on the court, which is a good thing because Sarver is fighting the allegations every step of the way, which means this could drag out.
13. Grizzlies (6-4, LW 14). Desmond Bane is the team’s second leading scorer at 16.3 points per game, which was unexpected on a team where Jaren Jackson Jr. got paid and was the guy everyone was watching (Jackson has struggled, shooting 36.1% on the season). Dillon Brooks will score plenty once he gets healthy and on the court, which could be very soon as he had a full practice with the Grizzlies’ G-League team this week. But to start the season it’s been Bane, and he has impressed next to Ja Morant.
14. Mavericks (7-3, LW 17). We’re 10 games into the season, the Mavericks have won 4-of-5, and yet does anyone know the answer to the question “how good is Dallas?” Jason Kidd has them playing decent defense (middle of the pack in the league) but the offense has struggled with spacing and flow. Kristaps Porzing is back in the rotation and that should help, but mostly what makes the offense work better is just more Luka Doncic.
15. Clippers (6-4, LW 23). Paul George is earning his tributes, playing at an All-NBA (maybe MVP conversation) level averaging 26.7 points and 8.3 rebounds a game while doing it all with the highest usage rate of his career. However, it is still the Clippers defense — second in the league in net rating once garbage time is removed — that is at the heart of this team’s five-game win streak. That defense will get tested in games this week against the Heat and Bulls, but both at home at Staples Center.
16. Bucks (5-6, LW 15). Thrust into a bigger role than expected due to injuries, Grayson Allen has played well in Milwaukee averaging 15.5 points a game and shooting 41.5% from 3. The Bucks have been +13.2 per 100 possessions better with Allen on the court this season. Milwaukee still feels like a team treading water until it gets healthy, or maybe just until the playoffs start (they look like a bored championship team right now).
17. Trail Blazers (5-6, LW 20). Damian Lillard is in one of the worst slumps of his career to start this season, shooting 25.5% on his 10 3-pointers a game. His shot selection is almost identical to previous years, the shots just are not going in this season (an no, it’s not some passive aggressive trade thing, he’s just slumping… or is the ab injury that slowed in in the Olympics not healed?). Portland is 0-4 on the road after a loss to the Clippers Tuesday, and have three games left in this road trip (Suns, Rockets and Nuggets).
18. Lakers (6-5, LW 13). Forget Olympic ‘Melo, Staples Center ‘Melo is a thing. Carmelo Anthony is 38-of-59 (64.4%) from three at Staples Center and 1-of-16 on the road this season. The Lakers are 2-3 in the games LeBron James has missed and have been outscored by 3.8 points per 100 possessions in the minutes he is off the court overall this season (they are +3.4 when he is on). James has missed three straight games with this ab strain and there are reports that could stretch into a couple of weeks, bad news for a Lakers team about to see the schedule get tougher.
19. Kings (5-6, LW 21). Richaun Holmes is perpetually the most underrated player in the NBA. He’s putting up good numbers at the five — 14.6 points and 10.5 rebounds a game — but the key is he does it incredibly efficiently shooting 65.7%, also he also provides much-needed rim protection. The Kings have a +2.6 net rating when he is on the court. The Kings offense has been pretty good (11th in the league) and that may be enough to get them in the play-in games.
20. Pacers (4-7, LW 22). After a rough start to the season the Pacers have have found some footing after a rough start to the season (but things don’t get easier with the next four games being the Nuggets, Jazz, 76ers, and Knicks). Malcolm Brogdon missed more time with an illness, but on the bright side there are reports T.J. Warren could return to the rotation around Christmas. This is still a team that is better than its record.
21. Celtics (4-6, LW 25). Because Jaylen Brown will miss a week (or more) with a hamstring strain, a bigger spotlight will be on Jayson Tatum’s shooting struggles to start the season. Tatum is shooting 32.1% on 3-pointers, down from 38.6% a year ago (on roughly the same number of attempts). He’s taking a few more midranges, and a little fewer at the rim, but he had been simply missing shots, at least until the Dallas game (we’ll see if that snaps him out of his slump). After a rough start to the season, the Celtics’ defense has looked better of late.
22. Hornets (5-7, LW 7). Charlotte was supposed to take a step forward this season, but that’s tough to do with the worst defense in the NBA. Charlotte is dead last in the league with a 114.2 defensive rating (remove garbage time and that “improves” to 28th worst). Last Friday, the Kings dropped 140 points on the Hornets, who have lost five in a row, four of those on the road. LaMelo Ball and the breakout season from Miles Bridges are great stories but have not been able to cover up the defensive flaws in the last week.
23. Hawks (4-8 LW 10). Kevin Huerter — he of the four year, $65 million contract extension last offseason — is off to a rough start: 6.9 points a game (down from 11 last season), and shooting 25.8% on 3-pointers (36.3% last season). He’s also taking fewer threes and more long-twos, which is not a good trade off. Blame the new ball or fans being back in the stands (that may be the bigger issue), but the Hawks need him to turn it around. Atlanta has lost five straight and is 1-7 on the road this season, they have one more game on this trip (Denver on Friday) before a five-game homestand.
24. Spurs (3-7, LW 24). Gregg Popovich has his young Spurs playing excellent defense — sixth-best in the NBA so far this season — but the wins aren’t coming as long as the offense continues to flounder. (The Spurs have also just been unlucky, they have the net rating of a .500 team.) Jakob Poeltl being out due to health and safety protocols is not ideal, but Thaddeus Young has stepped in and played fantastic defense while keeping the ball moving (5.4 assists a game). Young is helping the Spurs now, and playoff/contending teams will likely call around the trade deadline and ask about him.
25. Magic (3-8, LW 26). Cole Anthony has made a leap in his second season — 20.2 points a game with just a slightly higher usage rate than last campaign, and he dropped a career-high 33 on the Jazz. Anthony has become far more efficient this season (58.5 true shooting percentage) by taking more than half his shots from 3 and is hitting 41.4% of them. Anthony also had the best postgame interview of the season.
26. Thunder (3-6, LW 30). Winners of two in a row, with Shai Gilgeous-Alexander putting on a show and shooting from the logo against the Lakers and dishing out nine assists against the Spurs. This mini winning steak could extend with the Pelicans and Kings the next two teams on the schedule. There’s a long way to go with this team, but they are feisty and Shai is making it entertaining.
27. Timberwolves (3-6, LW 19). Five straight losses have taken this team from “maybe the Wolves are turning it around” to “same old Wolves.” Surprisingly for a team with Karl-Anthony Towns and Anthony Edwards, the offensive side of the ball is holding Minnesota back. Those struggles are why nobody bought the idea KAT was hacked when he liked a Tweet that had the #FreeKAT in it — he has never said he wants out, but know other teams are watching and waiting.
28. Rockets (1-9, LW 27). Jalen Green is putting up good numbers for a rookie — 13.6 points a game — but his shooting looks like a guy trying to adjust to the league. Green is shooting 28.6% on 3-pointers (which account for more than half his shots) and while he’s attacking the rim and taking nearly a quarter of his shots there, he’s hitting a decent but not great 59.4% of those. Kevin Porter Jr. also is struggling in clutch moments with his shot. All of this leads to flashes of what could be, but also a lot of losses. As expected this season in Houston.
29. Pelicans (1-10, LW 28). No Zion Williamson so far this season and Brandon Ingram has now missed five straight games with a hip injury, and not shockingly the Pelicans are spiraling. New Orleans is bottom six in both offense and defense. Pelicans fans can try to be optimistic and say “once we get healthy with Zion and Ingram” they will look like a playoff/play-in level team. The problem is the hole this franchise has dug to start the season (and keeps digging until its stars return) will be very difficult to climb out of.
30. Pistons (1-8, LW 29). No. 1 pick Cade Cunningham is having a dreadful start to the season shooting. Through four games he is shooing 23.1 overall and 14/4% from 3 (he missed his first 18 3-pointers). It’s a small sample size, and Cunningham missed most of training camp due to injury. Far, far too early to hit the panic button, but he has a lot of work to do. Behind the top pick, the Pistons have the worst offense in the NBA so far.
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