Western Conference Shakeup: NBA Power Rankings – Week Five
Welcome back to another week of NBA Power Rankings. This week saw some big movers in the power rankings, particularly in the Western Conference. The Nuggets are finally showing why they got so much preseason hype. On the other hand, the Clippers are showing why there was so much concern. In other news, the East has secured half of the top 16 spots and a number of teams have continued to outperform expectations. Are they for real? Read on to find out all this and much more in our week five NBA Power Rankings.
- Golden State Warriors (11-3) (Last week’s ranking: 1) – The Warriors are not just winning, they are annihilating the competition. The Dubs have beaten six of their past seven opponents by 17 or more points, and they are not showing signs of slowing down anytime soon. Many people are beginning to forget about Kevin Durant’s decision to leave Oklahoma City for Golden State. He has fit in with this team seamlessly.
- Houston Rockets (11-3) (Last week’s ranking: 2) – Put away your MVP ballots, folks. James Harden is running away with this thing. The Rockets have been without Chris Paul since opening night, and they have not missed a beat. Harden has put the team on his back and they are looking like a legitimate threat to the Warriors in the West.
- Boston Celtics (12-2) (Last week’s ranking: 4) – The Celtics have the best record in the NBA. Before the season, that was a plausible possibility. For Boston to be here after Gordon Hayward’s catastrophic injury and injuries to two other starters in Kyrie Irving and Marcus Morris is incredible. Coach Brad Stevens and Al Horford deserve immense credit for keeping this team together. Stevens is undoubtedly the front-runner for coach of the year and it would be an outrage if Horford is not rewarded with an All-Star nod for his yeoman’s work to start the season.
- Washington Wizards (8-5) (Last week’s ranking: 5) – Washington has continued its ugly habit of playing up and down to its competition. They have beaten four likely playoff teams but all of their losses except one to Golden State have come against sub-.500 teams. Cellar dwellers like the Lakers, Suns, and Mavericks have notched wins against the Wizards. Washington should be primed to steal the second seed but that will not happen until the Wizards start playing consistent basketball regardless of opponent.
- San Antonio Spurs (8-5) (Last week’s ranking: 3) – I still don’t know how the Spurs are doing it. I’m not in love with their roster, but Gregg Popovich is such a good coach, he can make a can of tuna average a double-double. The Spurs will continue to make some noise in the West, but they don’t have enough firepower to pose much of a threat to Golden State or Houston.
- Denver Nuggets (8-6) (Last week’s ranking: 18) – Nikola Jokic erupted against the Brooklyn Nets last week, going for 41 points, 12 rebounds and five assists in the victory. After a slow start, the Nuggets appear to be back on track. They make this week’s largest leap.
- Minnesota Timberwolves (8-5) (Last week’s ranking: 7) – What a milestone for Karl-Anthony Towns. KAT became the second player in NBA history to total 3,000 points and 2,000 rebounds before his 22nd birthday. Andrew Wiggings is steadily improving. Jimmy Butler continues to play at an extremely high level, and the Timberwolves are slowly proving that they are for real. You also can’t credit the Wolves enough for the veteran additions of Jamal Crawford and Taj Gibson. They have been instrumental in the team’s early success.
- Memphis Grizzlies (7-6) (Last week’s ranking: 9) – The career renaissance of Tyreke Evans continues. He has now scored 20 or more points in six-straight games, but the Grizzlies struggle whenever Marc Gasol and Mike Conley don’t play well. Dillon Brooks has also played well so far this season, but they are not getting enough from the likes of Chandler Parsons and Mario Chalmers.
- Cleveland Cavaliers (7-7) (Last week’s ranking: 6) – The Cavaliers have been getting the benefit of the doubt in the rankings to start the season. However, as time goes on and more data flows in, it seems more and more likely that this might be the version of the Cavaliers to expect for this regular season. They play up and down to their competition and have a porous defense. Jae Crowder came to Cleveland to be a two-way player but his defense has been putrid since arriving. Subsequently, Coach Tyronn Lue has been left without palatable options. The Cavs lack a true defensive ace unless LeBron is locked in and that has not happened in a regular season for a number of seasons. Tristan Thompson could juice the defense when he returns but that will mean less spacing on the court. Tough decisions loom for Lue and the Cavaliers.
- Detroit Pistons (10-3) (Last week’s ranking: 10) – This ranking is too low for the Pistons as they continue to rack up quality wins against good opponents. They are fifth in point differential and their starters are playing efficient basketball. However, the underlying numbers tell a scary tale. The top six (!) five man units employed by Coach Stan Van Gundy have negative net ratings per NBA.com. Even by more traditional stats, the top four lineups have a negative plus/minus, including the starters who are at -2.9. Kudos to the Pistons for putting together a solid back end to their rotation. Unless the starters can improve their play, the Pistons will begin to regress towards the middle of the pack.
- Philadelphia 76ers (7-6) (Last week’s ranking: 15) – Philadelphia fans should be very excited. The Sixers seem like a team poised to post a significant improvement in wins this season. Unlike some of the other early surgers in the Eastern Conference, the 76ers are the most likely to maintain their level of play. Some of their shooting numbers may dip down but health-permitting, Philadelphia should be a playoff team this year. In other news, Ben Simmons has a stranglehold on the Rookie of the Year race and should continue to put up numbers as Coach Brett Brown lets him run the offense.
- Toronto Raptors (7-5) (Last week’s ranking: 12) – Toronto is hanging around the playoff race. They should start seeing results from their more democratic and spacing based offense as the season goes on. The team will continue to rely heavily on their two stars but it will be interesting to see how GM Masai Ujiri approaches the trade deadline. The Raptors were buyers last season and subsequently flamed out against the Cavaliers. Could they buy again this year or be surprise sellers? They could be a team to watch as the season goes along. The Raptors are at a pivot point without the young talent to fully commit to a rebuild nor the top end talent to truly compete for a title.
- Orlando Magic (8-6) (Last week’s ranking: 14) – The shooting numbers are holding steady for the Magic. Those numbers will have to regress a bit unless Orlando has magically transformed into Warriors southeast. Still, the Magic are showing that much of their improvement is not a fluke and Coach Frank Vogel is showing doubters who poured dirt all over him last season. Some reasons for concern continue though as the defense has been a work in progress. The Magic have been thriving on offense and much of that has been the increase in pace from last year. They were 13th a year ago and now rank sixth. If the defense can stay mediocre (currently 14th in the NBA) and the offense remains potent, count Orlando in as a playoff team.
- Oklahoma City Thunder (6-7) (Last week’s ranking: 8) – The Thunder continue to struggle with meshing the games of Russell Westbrook, Paul George and Carmelo Anthony. They continue to tread water in the loaded Western Conference, but if the playoffs began this week, the Thunder would be on the outside looking in. There are not enough shots to go around, so they will not start winning games consistently until both Anthony and George lower their nightly field goal attempts.
- Portland Trail Blazers (7-6) (Last week’s ranking: 13) – It’s been a rollercoaster of a season so far in Portland. They lost to the Nets at home on Friday night, but rebounded nicely with a win over the Nuggets Monday. Rookie Caleb Swanigan recorded his first career start and injected some much needed energy into the lineup. More importantly, his emergence has allowed both Damian Lillard and C.J. McCollum to rest on the bench for longer periods.
- New York Knicks (7-6) (Last week’s ranking: 23) – Basketball is back in the Garden! It is hard to contain excitement after years of bad basketball but the Knicks fans should be cautious. The future is bright but the recent success is unlikely to continue. Kristaps Porzingis can only carry the Knicks so far and as teams key in on him, the offense is going to sputter. Meanwhile, the defense is mostly smoke and mirrors at this point. The loss against Cleveland showcased some of the defensive issues they have and their reliance on Porzingis for offense. Kristaps is for real but the Knicks’ success this year probably is not.
- New Orleans Pelicans (8-6) (Last week’s ranking: 20) – Things are suddenly looking up in the Big Easy. Rajon Rondo made his season debut Monday night in a win over the Hawks. If he can return to full strength, the Pelicans should continue to rack up wins. Anthony Davis and DeMarcus Cousins have been taking turns dominating games. They have been an extremely fun team to watch.
- Milwaukee Bucks (7-6) (Last week’s ranking: 19) – The two games since Eric Bledsoe’s arrival have highlighted the impact of the trade on the Bucks beautifully. Right now, he helps the team a lot. He can offer a secondary ball handler who can effectively run the offense when Giannis Antetokounmpo rests. He can also offer some long armed defense and excel in transition. On the flip side, his lack of an outside shot makes him a poor fit alongside the Greek Freak. For now, he is a big help for a depth starved team and simply replacing the injured Greg Monroe with a healthy body pays huge dividends. Once Jabari Parker returns to the court, how will Bledsoe fit in?
- Utah Jazz (6-8) (Last week’s ranking: 16) – The Jazz lost Rudy Gobert for the next month to a knee bruise thanks to a collision with Miami’s Dion Waiters. The Jazz were already struggling offensively before Gobert’s injury, so now where will the points come from? Getting a win over the Nets over the weekend was a nice start, and rookie Donovan Mitchell looks like the real deal. You have to start somewhere, right?
- Miami Heat (6-7) (Last week’s ranking: 21) – Do not look now but the Heat are creeping back into the playoff hunt. Injuries and downright atrocious play from Dion Waiters have set them back to start the season. As Waiters acclimates, the team should turn around. That said, the early going may show the ceiling for this team. Miami is likely going to top out as a bottom three seed in the weak Eastern Conference, which could prompt some big time decisions since they do not have the dynamic young talent to ensure growth after this season. The Heat look poised to rebound but Pat Riley and the front office may face some tough decisions if this is as good as it gets for Miami.
- Los Angeles Clippers (5-8) (Last week’s ranking: 11) – The Clippers’ slide has reached six games. All the depth they spoke of during the preseason is now being called into question. If they keep losing, you’d have to wonder if they try and trade Blake Griffin or DeAndre Jordan. They are getting close to NBA purgatory, not a place franchises want to be. Who expected the Lakers to have a better record than the Clippers at this point in the season?
- Indiana Pacers (6-8) (Last week’s ranking: 24) – The Pacers continue to play tough against anyone on their schedule and Victor Oladipo continues to impress. Oladipo is 12th in scoring and looking exactly like the player many expected when he left Indiana the first time. Now that he is back and surrounded by some shooting, he has been thriving. He has even been getting into the act from beyond the arc where he is shooting over 44 percent, which is a career high by a mile. Even more importantly, he is getting to the line at a career high rate. If he can continue to tailor his offense towards the most efficient places on the court, Oladipo could end up as a star in Indiana.
- Charlotte Hornets (5-7) (Last week’s ranking: 17) – Kemba Walker has officially seized the mantle of most underrated NBA star. He is the Charlotte offense for most of the game. Late in games, the offense devolves to Walker isolations or pick and rolls as it did against Boston. Once Nicolas Batum returns, the offensive burden should lessen significantly but the Hornets remain as reliant on Walker as nearly any team in the NBA is on their star. The bright side has been the play of Jeremy Lamb. While Lamb will never be capable of being a primary ball handler, he has shown enough game to excite Charlotte fans. It will be interesting to see how small Coach Steve Clifford will be willing to go with his lineups once Batum gets back. A lineup with Walker, Batum, Lamb, Malik Monk, and one of the Dwight Howard/Cody Zeller two headed center would hemorrhage point defensively but could be nearly unguardable on the other end.
- Los Angeles Lakers (6-8) (Last week’s ranking: 22) – Lonzo Ball became the youngest player ever to record a triple-double, quite an impressive feat. He followed that up by being benched during the fourth quarter of a win over the Suns. He will experience plenty of growing pains, but there’s no question that he makes the Lakers a better team. The Lakers are also receiving quality minutes from both Corey Brewer and Jordan Clarkson, giving head coach Luke Walton plenty of depth in the backcourt.
- Brooklyn Nets (5-8) (Last week’s ranking: 25) – Reports out of Brooklyn indicate D’Angelo Russell is likely to miss several games. The Nets were already reeling from a laundry list of other injuries, particularly in the backcourt. Now they face another challenge in a season filled with them. The worst part is that Brooklyn will be without their star for one of the toughest stretches of the season. They face the top three teams in the NBA in their next seven games with a few more playoff teams including the Cavaliers sprinkled in there. The next few weeks could prove to be defining for the Nets’ season.
- Phoenix Suns (5-10) (Last week’s ranking: 26) – Devin Booker continues to light up the scoreboard night after night, but the Suns are a dumpster fire. They got rid of Eric Bledsoe, but that won’t improve their current situation by much. The most compelling storyline in Phoenix right now is whether or not they will be able to trade Greg Monroe. Rumor has it the Cavaliers are interested.
- Chicago Bulls (2-9) (Last week’s ranking: 27) – The Bulls may have their frontcourt of the future in Lauri Markkanen and Bobby Portis. Reports out of Chicago indicate that Nikola Mirotic initially preferred a trade to playing with Portis after their practice incident. All is quiet on that front as Mirotic works his way back to playing games. It is unlikely that all three can stay, particularly with Robin Lopez still under contract. The Bulls will need to make a decision soon or risk losing value on those players and causing chemistry issues.
- Sacramento Kings (3-10) (Last week’s ranking: 29) – I never saw this coming. The Kings were supposed to be a vastly improved team with the veteran additions of George Hill, Zach Randolph and Vince Carter. Sadly, things have gotten worse. The youngsters still have time to mature, particularly De’Aaron Fox and Buddy Hield, but things are certainly rough in Sacramento at the moment.
- Atlanta Hawks (2-12) (Last week’s ranking: 28) – Atlanta remains at the bottom of the Eastern Conference standings but there is some hope. Outside of Marco Bellinelli, all of their rotation players are on the right side of 30. Dennis Schroder is only 24 while John Collins is just 20. While none of them project to be superstars, Taurean Prince, Kent Bazemore, Dwayne Dedmon, and Deandre’ Bembry all could emerge as key role players. The biggest question for the Hawks will be if Coach Mike Budenholzer will stick along for the ride. Not many coaches have a 60-win season on their resumes but even fewer of those coaches would want to win 60 games and then endure a full rebuild. Coach Bud knew what he was getting when he came into this season. He already stepped down from his President of Basketball Operations role with the team. Will the team want to keep him around as they turn the rest of the roster over?
- Dallas Mavericks (2-12) (Last week’s ranking: 30) – The Mavericks are the worst team in the Western Conference by a wide margin. They do have Dennis Smith Jr., who has been one of the most exciting rookies to watch thus far. His play will make Knicks fans scratch their heads about the Frank Ntilikina selection for a long time, but the Mavericks are not going anywhere until they can surround Smith with some real talent.
Biggest Mover: Denver Nuggets (12)
Biggest Flop: Los Angeles Clippers (10)