NBA Power Rankings: Vintage LeBron James has Lakers back on top
Volatility is the buzzword in this week’s NBA Power Rankings. Just a couple weeks into the season, we see teams making leaps (Miami and Phoenix) and falls (Golden State), with questions all the way around about if teams can sustain, or turn around, these starts.
1. Lakers (6-1, Last week No. 6). Winners of six in a row, and while LeBron’s three-straight triple-doubles get the headlines the Lakers are winning with defense. It’s just seven games in, but they have a defensive rating of 97.9, second best in the NBA (behind Utah). A little of that is Jedi defense (otherwise known as luck), teams are shooting just 32.1% from three against them (that number will come up closer to the league average), but the Lakers have had the best half-court defense in the league. LeBron James, with real rim protectors behind him now, is back to being a disruptive defensive force, playing the free safety role he loves.
2. 76ers (5-1, LW 1). Philadelphia’s size causes opponents problems in a lot of ways, but one worth watching: offensive rebounds. So far this season, Philadelphia has grabbed the offensive board on 31% of their missed shots, the league’s best, and the team is getting 15.1 second chance points a game. That’s extra points that are hard to overcome against the Sixers stingy defense. Philly went 1-1 without Joel Embiid, who was suspended by the league for two games after he pushed KAT to the breaking point then taunting him on social media.
3. Clippers (5-2, LW 2). This ranking is more about the eye test than the numbers — watch the Clippers play and they look like the best team in the NBA. At least when everyone is on the court (their loss to Utah was with Kawhi Leonard resting, and he will be out against the Bucks Wednesday). This also takes into account that their defense is still coming together. And, of course, no PG13 yet. Doc Rivers is not about to put a timeline on Paul George’s return but did say he will do 5-of-5 work this week. Which is another step closer to the Clippers getting that much better.
4. Bucks (5-2, LW 3). Last season, the Bucks got to the rim almost at will — 40.6% of their shot attempts came in the restricted area (via Cleaning the Glass, so no garbage time included) — and 79% of their shots were at the rim or in the restricted area. This season 76.9% of their shots come from those two zones, but they are getting to the rim far less, just 32.5% of their shots (bottom 10 in the league). That puts the Bucks at the whim of their threes falling and they are a pretty average team from deep (34.8% shooting from three this season, pretty much the same as last season). The Bucks need to attack again.
5. Suns (5-2, LW 14). Aron Baynes has been saving Phoenix’s bacon. With Deandre Ayton out for failing a PED test, Baynes has stepped in scoring 15 points a game, grabbing 5.9 rebounds, but most importantly shooting 48.4% from three, opening up the floor for drives and cuts to the rim. The Suns have signature wins against the Clippers and Sixers, but this is a tough homestand they are in the midst of — the Heat, Nets, and Lakers are their next three, with the Celtics looming not long after that. The Suns are for real, but they are going to come back to earth a little, too.
6. Celtics (5-1, LW 9). Gordon Hayward looks is looking a lot more like the All-Star version of himself from Utah, including dropping 39 on the Cavaliers. He’s playing 34 minutes a night, scoring 20.3 points, with an amazing True Shooting Percentage (65.6) because he is knocking down half his threes. Also, he may be the best playmaker for others on the Celtics. He’s not all the way back yet, but he’s closer. This week the Celtics started a stretch of 8-of-10 on the road.
7. Heat (5-2, LW 8). Miami keeps on winning with a combination of impressive defense (fourth best in the NBA, allowing less than a point per possession) and a lot of Jimmy Butler and rookie Kendrick Nunn. Miami is +14 points per 100 possessions when Butler is on the court this season. Dunn, through his first five games, scored 112 points — more than any No. 1 pick scored his his first five games in 26 years. The only active guy a head of him was Kevin Durant back in 2007 (213).
8. Raptors (4-2, LW 12). Nick Nurse has gotten the Raptors off to a fast start but he has leaned heavily on his starters to do it — Kyle Lowry leads the league in minutes played per game, and Fred Van Vleet is second. Both are at more than 37 minutes a night. Toronto is not a deep team so Nurse has to find a balance between winning and running his guys into the ground. He needs to get them some rest in games against the (fairly large) soft underbelly of the East.
9. Jazz (4-3, LW 5). They have the best defense in the NBA — and Rudy Gobert, asked to do more on that defense this season, has been up to the task — but the offense remains clunky. The biggest issue is Mike Conley is just not comfortable yet, shooting 31.8% overall and 28.2% from three — he is supposed to be the second shot creator next to Donovan Mitchell and he’s not filling that role. The Jazz are convinced it will turn around soon, but with their next two games against the Sixers and the Bucks it will be tough. Tony Bradley is going to get his shot at backup center with Ed Davis out for a month due to a fractured left fibula.
10. Mavericks (4-2, LW 10). Dallas has the best offense in the NBA so far this season, and Luka Doncic — who is racking up triple-doubles at an impressive rate for a guy not even able to legally drink until next February — and Kristaps Porzingis at the heart of the attack. However, the Mavs are -5 points per 100 possessions when they are on the court together, it’s the Dallas reserves that have boosted this team up. It’s early, but Dallas looks like a playoff team, the question is only can the bench (and those two stars) can sustain this level play.
11. Nuggets (5-2, LW 11). Nikola Jokic is playing well this season as the anchor of one of the West’s better teams, but he’s also a little down from last season. His points per game are down, he’s shooting percentages (including from three) are off, and he’s dishing out fewer assists. None of it dramatic, he’s still an elite player, but it makes one wonder if his playing for the Serbian national team this summer at the World Cup took a toll.
12. Spurs (4-3, LW 7). So far this season, the Spurs have done what they have always done — take care of business against the lesser teams, not beat themselves, and take their chances against the better teams. Three of the Spurs four wins came against New York, Washington, and Golden State — three teams with dreadful defenses. (The win against Portland was quality.) The schedule starts to toughen up in the next weeks, we’ll see how the Spurs handle that.
13. Timberwolves (4-2, LW 4). Minnesota is jacking up threes this season — 39.2% of their shots are from beyond the arc, way up from 28.4% last season (one of the bottom five in the league; stats via Cleaning the Glass). That sounds like a good idea, but they are hitting just 33.6% of them (bottom 10 in the league) and their offense remains a little below average. Karl-Anthony Towns was suspended for a couple of games for putting Joel Embiid in a headlock (and Towns got off light) and in those games they went 1-1.
14. Rockets (4-3, LW 13). James Harden is hitting just 25.3% of his shots from three this season (it was 36.8% last season, for comparison). Eric Gordon is hitting 23.3% of his shots from beyond the arc so far. Those numbers are going to improve, this is just a little slump to start the season, and in spite of that the Rockets still have the sixth best offense in the league. Russell Westbrook also has opened up the offense, the Rockets are playing at the second fastest pace in the league so far this season.
15. Thunder (3-4, LW 17). It feels like last season’s tough playoff loss to Portland has carried over to this season — in all four of OKC’s losses they were within two points in the final five minutes but could not close the game out. Sure, they miss Russell Westbrook, but the defense has also stumbled down the stretch. On paper this is better than a below .500 team, but until their identity solidifies it’s hard to trust this team late in games.
16. Hawks (3-3, LW 15). No John Collins for 25 games is a blow to this team. (He’s going to appeal the suspension on the grounds he didn’t know what he ingested, it was a tainted supplement with a banned growth hormone… good luck with that.) Collins was averaging 17 points and 8.8 rebounds a game, plus playing 31% of his minutes at center, where the Hawks are thin. Now, a lot more falls on Jabari Parker. Trae Young returned from his sprained ankle and snapped a three-game losing streak when he dropped 29 and 13 on the Spurs in Atlanta.
17. Nets (3-4, LW 19). Are the Nets the team that outdueled Harden and Westbrook and beat the Rockets last Friday? Or are they the team who on Saturday lost to a Pistons team sitting any player you can probably name on that roster? A lot of confusing things on this roster, such as why Jarrett Allen has not taken another step forward — he’s playing a little worse than last season so far, and with that has lost his starting center spot to DeAndre Jordan. This should be a breakout third season for him but… just a lot of confusing things in Brooklyn.
18. Pacers (3-4, LW 27). Last summer the Pacers made an $85 million bet that Malcolm Brogdon — and so far it has paid off. Brogdon is averaging 23.7 points per game, dishing out 9.4 assists per night, he’s playing at an All-Star level and propping up the Indy offense as best he can. Both Domantas Sabonis (calf) and Myles Turner (ankle) have been out, which has forced Goga Bitadze into the starting lineup, and he has held his own.
19. Trail Blazers (3-4, LW 16). Injuries have ravaged the Blazer front court — Jusuf Nurkic, Pau Gasol, Zach Collins (out four months following shoulder surgery) and Hassan Whiteside (bone bruise in his left knee) are out, leaving Anthony Tolliver to play some center. Seal Labissiere is getting key minutes. That has sparked early trade rumors around this team, and even when guys get healthy a player like Danilo Gallinari makes a lot of sense for them, adding much-needed shooting. This is a win-now season in Portland, one off to a slow start, and they may need to push their chips into the middle of the table soon.
20. Hornets (4-3, LW 20). Charlotte is above .500 in record but they are being outscored by 5.9 points per 100 possessions so far this season — that suggests they should be 2-5, but they’ve been lucky so far. The Hornets are catching teams at the right time: Sacramento is slumping, the Warriors are very banged up, and the Pacers were without their starting front line, but credit the Hornets for taking advantage. Things get tougher with Boston and Philadelphia on the docket this week.
21. Wizards (2-4, LW 18). The Wizards have the fourth-best offense in the NBA this season, and while that is a bit skewed by the 158-point OT loss to the Rockets, this is still a team that is surprisingly good on offense. As expected Bradley Beal is playing at an All-Star level, but rookie Rui Hachimura is giving them 14.7 points a night, Isaiah Thomas is in the starting lineup and scoring 14.5 a night, and beyond that they have a balanced lineup of scorers. As good as Washington’s offense is, its defense is a little worse than that. Meaning the Wizards are an entertaining game to watch, and you should bet the over.
22. Pistons (3-5, LW 20). Detroit is without their three top point guards — Reggie Jackson (out at least a month with a stress reaction in his lower back), Derrick Rose (right hamstring) and Tim Frazier (shoulder) — which leaves Bruce Brown trying to run the point. Blake Griffin remains out, and while he is closer to a return to the court he has yet to do a 5-on-5 full-contact workout. The fact they beat the Nets despite the injuries is fairly amazing.
23. Magic (2-6, LW 22). It’s really hard to overstate how bad Orlando’s offense is. They have the worst offensive rating in the league (scoring well below a point per possession), they are shooting 26.8% from three as a team (second worst in the league), they aren’t finishing well at the rim, and they aren’t drawing fouls and getting to the free throw line. But aside that how did you like the play, Mrs. Lincoln? The fifth-ranked defense in the league is keeping them this high in the rankings.
24. Bulls (2-6, LW 21). That was a punch-to-the-gut loss to the Lakers Tuesday, one where the Bulls led by as many as 19 at home and 13 heading into the fourth quarter. The game turned with a 16-0 Laker run to start the fourth against an all-bench Bulls lineup where weaknesses were exposed. For example, Coby White has had flashes and put up 16 in the first half of this game, but in this stretch took an ill-advised step-back three, and tried to drive at Dwight Howard and got his shot swatted back. A lot of questions in Chicago about why coach Jim Boylen stuck with this unit so long — he said postgame because he has to develop guys and they need to figure it out. Okay, sure. Let’s just say there are a lot of people around the league who question if Boylen is head coach material.
25. Cavaliers (2-5, LW 23). Tristan Thompson is having a standout season: career highs in points (16.9) and rebounds (11.6) per game, all while shooting 53.6% from the floor. That means don’t be surprised if another team having trouble in the front court this season calls up looking for a trade. Of course, Kevin Love’s name will come up in rumors, too, but with him in the first year of a four-year, $120 million contract, trading him is much more complicated.
26. Warriors (2-5, LW 24). With all the injuries ravaging the Warriors, there have been suggestions they go out and sign a free agent (Carmelo Anthony’s name comes up). Golden State can’t sign any free agent right now — they are hard-capped because of the D’Angelo Russell trade and are about $300,000 away from that line. They don’t have the money to pull up a guy out of the G-League right now, let alone sign a veteran player (even one willing to take the minimum). What you see is what you get from the Warriors for now. Expect them to make moves at the trade deadline, but ones looking more at next season than trying to salvage this one. This one is lost.
27. Kings (2-5, LW 30). Two wins in a row — a gritty one against the Jazz, then looking like last season’s uptempo team running past the Knicks — provide a little optimism after a dreadful start. There are no stats to back this up, but plenty of people around the league are looking at the starts of Sacramento and Indiana and thinking the travel to India for a preseason game is part of the problem. Getting to Mumbai is a longer flight than the ones to China that many teams already try to avoid due to concerns about fatigue and starting the season slowly.
28. Pelicans (1-6, LW 26). The injuries just keep coming. In addition to tZion Williamson being out until around Christmas (if not later), three starters — Jrue Holiday, Derrick Favors and Brandon Ingram — have had to miss at least part of a game due to being banged up. Ingram continues to look more fluid, he’s being aggressive, and playing well averaging 25.9 points and 7.1 rebounds a game this season. He may be the best free agent on the market next summer (he’s restricted, the Pelicans can match).5
29. Grizzlies (1-5, LW 28). The Grizzlies have decided to go slow with their star rookie Ja Morant and not burn him out. Moran is playing 28 minutes a night, and has been on the court more than 30 just once in six games. He is starting, and he’s being given the key to the team — he is averaging 19.5 points and 5.5 assists per game, shooting 50 percent from three (on two attempts per game), all with a PER of 20.3. Those are numbers that get you considered for Rookie of the Year. But the Grizzlies are not going to up his minutes, with coach Tyler Jenkins saying he wants to “put some money in the bank moving forward with him” in terms of minutes played.
30. Knicks (1-6, LW 25). Unlike the Grizzlies, the Knicks are going old-school and playing their star rookie RJ Barrett all the minutes he can handle. Including playing him extra minutes deep into decided games. “We gotta get off this load management crap… This kid’s 19 years old. Drop it,” Knicks coach David Fizdale said. Barrett is averaging 37.1 minutes a game and is putting up numbers — 18.3 points per game, 6.1 rebounds, shooting 35.7 percent from three.