Top teams finding their way. – NBA Power Rankings – Week Four
Finally, a return to (somewhat) normalcy. Jason Goldstein and Ben McDonald are back to break down week four of the NBA’s Power Rankings. The Warriors (8-3) remain on top, but many of the best teams in the league are at or near the top of this week’s charts. The Philadelphia 76ers moved up five spots from 20 to 15, while the Bucks fell nine spots from 10 to 19 and added Eric Bledsoe in a blockbuster trade with the Suns.
- Golden State Warriors (8-3) (Last week’s ranking: 1) – Only seven players in history have ever joined the 50-40-90 club and at this point Steph Curry is a rounding error away from rejoining the club and becoming only the third player in history to have two seasons matching those lofty standards. Meanwhile, Kevin Durant and Klay Thompson need to up their free throws in order to get there with both sitting at 83 percent as of Monday. Two players have never posted 50-40-90 seasons the same year, let alone teammates. This could be the next record the Warriors shatter.
- Houston Rockets (8-3) (Last week’s ranking: 2) – No Chris Paul? No problem for the Rockets whose success should not surprise anyone. They have the same core as last year and are having the same success while Eric Gordon looks like he is returning to the player who earned a max contract from the Pelicans. He is passing the eye test and his percentages could even stand to improve. If Gordon can become the player many projected him to be out of Indiana prior to the injuries, the Rockets could be a legitimate foe for the Warriors.
- San Antonio Spurs (6-4) (Last week’s ranking: 3) – Gregg Popovich would never say so but internally the Spurs must be thrilled. They are 6-4 without getting a minute of production from the preseason MVP favorite. If LaMarcus Aldridge and Rudy Gay can continue their hot starts, the Spurs could nudge themselves into the title race yet again while they await the return of their star.
- Boston Celtics (9-2) (Last week’s ranking: 8) – The Celtics are on fire. Winners of nine-straight, Brad Stevens is making an early case for Coach of the Year. They lost one of their best players in Gordon Hayward and are still finding ways to win every night. On Monday they became the first team in NBA history to win nine consecutive games after an 0-2 start.
- Washington Wizards (5-4) (Last week’s ranking: 5) – John Wall talked the talk, and could not back it up as his Wizards lost to the Cavaliers for the fourth time in their past five tries. The Wizards are slowly starting to slip from the ranks of the Eastern Conference elite, and it is up to Wall and Bradley Beal to keep them afloat during a long season.
- Cleveland Cavaliers (4-6) (Last week’s ranking: 4) – Things are not looking too great in Cleveland at the moment. A frustrating loss to the Hawks that saw Kevin Love go to the hospital and Dwayne Wade call out the starters could be the breaking point. They still have plenty of time to right the ship, especially once Isaiah Thomas is ready to return from an injured right hip.
- Minnesota Timberwolves (7-3) (Last week’s ranking: 11) – The Timberwolves remain a conundrum. They have reversed the bad luck of past seasons by dramatically outperforming underlying metrics and winning close games. They are 5-0 this season in games decided by five points or less. The defense has been terrible and those numbers will regress to the mean but those early wins still count. Those wins also have given Minnesota some cushion as their new pieces adapt to each other.
- Oklahoma City Thunder (4-5) (Last week’s ranking: 6) – The Thunder have been the inverse of the inverse of Minnesota. All of their losses have been by five points or less while most of their victories have been of the blowout variety. Their point differential puts them third in the NBA. They are second in defensive efficiency and twelfth in offensive efficiency. As the offense gels, the Thunder should be in good position to challenge the teams above them.
- Memphis Grizzlies (6-4) (Last week’s ranking: 7) – The Grizzlies are going the wrong direction after a hot start. A loss to the Lakers on Sunday brought them closer to .500. The Grizzlies rely on Marc Gasol and Mike Conley too much for offense and when one of them falters as Gasol did on Sunday, the Grizzlies struggle to find enough offense to win. The defense is still as stiff as ever (third in the NBA in defensive efficiency) but unless the offense improves, the Grizzlies are looking more and more like a lower seed Western Conference playoff team.
- Detroit Pistons (7-3) (Last week’s ranking: 14) – Raise your hand is you saw the Pistons playing this well to start off the season. Nobody? That’s exactly what I thought. The 7-3 record is Detroit’s best 10-game start since 2008-09. If they keep up this level of play, the playoffs will be in sight for the Pistons.
- Los Angeles Clippers (5-4) (Last week’s ranking: 9) – The Clippers hot start ground to a halt with losses in four of their last five games. The next nine games should give a better idea of who the Clippers are as they play eight of nine on the road. The first seven teams are potential playoff contenders whose combined record is just above .500. If they can escape this brutal road stretch with a positive record, they will be in good shape moving forward.
- Toronto Raptors (5-4) (Last week’s ranking: 12) – The Raps held their own on a six-game, West Coast swing. They lost to the Spurs and Warriors by a combined nine points. I still think they need frontcourt help, but the Raptors seem to be in regular season cruise control.
- Portland Trail Blazers (6-4) (Last week’s ranking: 13) – Take the Blazers’ record with a grain of salt. Sunday’s win over OKC was impressive even with Melo missing the end of the game with a questionable call. However, Portland has yet to beat a single team over .500 this season. They have feasted on the Lakers, Suns, Pacers, and Pelicans. Many of those teams are hovering around the .500 mark but none are true contenders. The Blazers have a brutal schedule from December onwards so they will need to bank some wins through a soft start of the season.
- Orlando Magic (6-4) (Last week’s ranking: 17) – Aaron Gordon is an early candidate for Most Improved Player after knocking down 3-pointers at an astounding rate. The Magic should face some market correction, but all signs point to them being a quality team this season.
- Philadelphia 76ers (5-4) (Last week’s ranking: 20) – Ben Simmons has two triple-doubles in his first nine career games. If Joel Embiid can stay on the court, the Sixers have two potential franchise cornerstones to build around. They are one of the most fun teams to watch in the NBA, and I don’t see them struggling for too much longer.
- Utah Jazz (5-5) (Last week’s ranking: 15) – The Jazz are one of the teams poised for a bounce back. They have faced one of the NBA’s toughest schedules so far but will a much easier schedule for the rest of November. That tough schedule creates a lot of noise in the numbers but their playoff hopes will rest on improving a 24th ranked offense. Ricky Rubio is a great player but he cannot be the leading scorer on a good playoff team. His three point percentage has already begun to drift back towards his career average and as he regresses, the Jazz will need someone else to step up on offense.
- Charlotte Hornets (5-5) (Last week’s ranking: 16) – Dwight Howard is a rebounding machine. Watching him match up against Kristaps Porzingis and Enes Kanter on Tuesday night should be fun. Buy low on the Hornets this season, as I believe they still have a lot of work to do before they can be taken seriously.
- Denver Nuggets (5-5) (Last week’s ranking: 18) – Going 4-2 in their last six has righted the ship. Nikola Jokic has finally returned to form and is slicing opposing defenses with his passes. That said, Denver needs more from their backcourt if they want to make the playoffs. Jamal Murray and Emmanuel Mudiay need to step up. Mudiay has been playing better but his three point shooting numbers are not sustainable. With excess depth and a major need at point guard, the Nuggets need to seriously look into trading for Eric Bledsoe.
- Milwaukee Bucks (4-5) (Last week’s ranking: 10) – The Bucks ended a rough week by acquiring Eric Bledsoe from the Suns for Greg Monroe and a first-round pick. That’s some haul for an erratic player who can’t shoot. Still, the Bucks could be a scary playoff team is Bledsoe plays well next to Giannis Antetokounmpo, Khris Middleton and Jabari Parker.
- New Orleans Pelicans (5-5) (Last week’s ranking: 19) – The Pelicans are off to an historic start with the play of DeMarcus Cousins and Anthony Davis. Unfortunately, they are not getting anything from the rest of their roster. Meanwhile their five wins have all come against sub .500 teams and their five losses have been to potential playoff teams. The Pelicans have the look of a mediocre team and Coach Alvin Gentry is running his three best players into the ground with Davis, Cousins, and Jrue Holiday all playing over 36 minutes a game. With the injury history of Holiday and Davis, this does not look likely to end well for New Orleans.
- Miami Heat (4-6) (Last week’s ranking: 21) – The Heat got Hassan Whiteside back just in time for a daunting six-game road trip that started off with a nice win over the Clippers. Miami was no match for the Warriors on Monday night, and are currently looking like one of the weaker teams in the East through the first 10 games of the young season.
- Los Angeles Lakers (5-5) (Last week’s ranking: 23) – Lakers fans have to be thrilled with the start of the season. Lonzo Ball has shown flashes while four of their young players have a PER above 15. Brandon Ingram looks like a different player than a year ago and Brook Lopez has provided an offensive spark. If Ingram and Ball continue to develop and their other young players can continue the success they have had so far, the Lakers will have a very bright future ahead of them.
- New York Knicks (5-4) (Last week’s ranking: 25) – Kristaps Porzingis is showing everyone what he is capable of doing on the court without Carmelo Anthony around gobbling up field goal attempts. He has led the Knicks to five wins in their six games following an 0-3 start, and all of the sudden they are looking like a competent basketball team again. Also, somebody show Enes Kanter some respect. He has been playing out of his mind since he got to new York.
- Indiana Pacers (5-5) (Last week’s ranking: 26) – How about those Pacers? Victor Oladipo is earning himself some serious All-Star consideration, and Lance Stephenson is giving the team quality minutes. Domantas Sabonis is a double-double machine, and the Pacers are a fun team to watch.
- Brooklyn Nets (4-6) (Last week’s ranking: 22) – The Nets snapped a four-game losing streak on Monday night, but they still have several issues that need correcting. Once Trevor Booker and Jarrett Allen get healthy, that should solve their rebounding woes. Still, it was fun to see D’Angelo Russell put the Nets on his back in Phoenix and lead them to a much-needed victory.
- Phoenix Suns (4-7) (Last week’s ranking: 27) – After a nice stretch of play following Earl Watson’s departure, the old Suns are back. Losses at the Spurs and Knicks highlighted the same two issues that have troubled them all season. The first is their defense where the Suns rank 26th and often do not demonstrate effort. The second is shooting. Troy Daniels stepped in on Sunday and helped space the floor but the Suns are starving for shooting outside of Devin Booker. They rank 20th in three point shooting percentage and 24th in attempts. Until the shooting and defense improve, the Suns are going nowhere.
- Chicago Bulls (2-6) (Last week’s ranking: 30) – The Bulls stink, but they have a nice young player on their roster in Lauri Markkanen, who is second among all rookies in points and rebounds per game. Only Ben Simmons is putting up better numbers than Markkanen, who is looking like the type of player the Bulls can build around.
- Atlanta Hawks (2-9) (Last week’s ranking: 29) – They had a nice victory over the Cavaliers on Sunday, one that sent Cleveland’s roster into a frenzy. Dennis Schroeder is having an All-Star-caliber season so far, averaging over 22 points and six assists per game. Those positives aside, the Hawks are a bad team in a bad conference. Moving on.
- Sacramento Kings (1-8) (Last week’s ranking: 24) – The Kings are going to be abjectly terrible this season. That much was clear before the season started. The Kings do not have the talent to compete in a stacked Western Conference. It is time for Coach Dave Joerger to turn the team over to the young guns. Willie Cauley-Stein, Bogdan Bogdanovic, and Skal Labissiere all have PERs above 15 while De’Aaron Fox and Buddy Hield continue to show flashes. A successful season in Sacramento revolves around the development of those young players.
- Dallas Mavericks (1-10) (Last week’s ranking: 28) – The Mavericks have officially fallen to the bottom of the league. Things are not pretty in Dallas but there are signs of hope. Dennis Smith Jr. is averaging over 13 points a game and nearly five assists. Harrison Barnes continues to thrive in Dallas and Nerlens Noel has played well in his role. The team is still waiting for Seth Curry to return but once he does, Dallas will have a nice young core. Moreover, they have picked a perfect year to bottom out with a strong draft class ahead. The biggest question facing the Mavericks is how they want to handle the Dirk Nowitzki situation. They can keep him on but he will likely retire before the rebuild is complete. Would Nowitzki rather play on a contender to finish his career or be a lifelong Maverick on a lottery bound team?
Biggest Mover: Philadelphia 76ers (5)
Biggest Flop: Milwaukee Bucks (9)