'Round the NBA we go: Power Rankings!
This Newsletter Tuesday is a Power Rankings Tuesday.
The plan, in our Substack existence, is to convene The Committee (of One) for rankings on a monthly basis rather than weekly. We published a Training Camp Edition in the wake of all the league's offseason business on Sept. 7 and return here now with a new 1-to-30 ladder after a week's worth of real games.
Remember: Power Rankings, especially how we do them, will always factor in a team's big-picture outlook strongly in addition to weighing short-term results (along with a sprinkling of subjective whim).
The Chicago Bulls were the NBA's undeniable first Team of the Week for the 2021-22 season, but that doesn't mean they vault right to the top just because of a 4-0 launch.
The Bucks, for example, were so good on Opening Night that we've looked past the eyebrow-raising manner of the reigning champs' humbling 42-point loss at Miami, attributing some of that to Milwaukee’s injury issues. We've kept the Bucks in the top spot in a nod to that wide-angle perspective … and rewarded the Heat for that performance by bumping them up to a heady No. 2 ahead of a few teams (Nets, Lakers and Suns) ensnared in slow starts.
I hope to see lots of you commenting on the rankings below and I will certainly be responding there. Thanks again for following me to Substack, reading this newsletter and sharing in my journalistic endeavors like you do.
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1️⃣ Milwaukee Bucks
How often do we talk about a newly minted championship team struggling to play with juice on opening night after collecting its championship rings? Not a problem for the Bucks, who totally brought it in their season-opening victory over Brooklyn. The current concern for Milwaukee is health: Jrue Holiday (ankle) got hurt in the victory over the Nets and both Brook Lopez (back) and Bobby Portis (hamstring) were among five rotation players unavailable for the subsequent drubbing in Miami.
Last ranking (Sept. 7): 1
2️⃣ Miami Heat
If you didn’t like the Heat checking in at No. 5 in the first edition of the rankings, you are bound to take issue with them rising three spots. They simply capitalized on the unexpected struggles of various projected powerhouses and will have to cement themselves as the East's third-best team to stay in the upper crust, which means they'll need to keep seeing the Tyler Herro who scored an impressive 57 points off the bench in Miami's first two games. The No. 5 tout, for the record, was based largely on the strength of the Heat’s offseason, which league GMs cited as the NBA's best in their annual poll.
Last ranking (Sept. 7): 5
3️⃣ Brooklyn Nets
The impetus for know-it-alls like me to proclaim that the Nets could win it all without Kyrie Irving was dependent on James Harden playing like James Harden before his season-altering hamstring injury last season. Harden averaged less than 19 points on sub-40% shooting in Brooklyn's first three outings while earning just eight trips to the free-throw line in the team’s underwhelming 1-2 start. Some order was restored in Monday night's comfortable victory over Washington, but Harden (14 points and 1-for-8 shooting from deep) continued to look well shy of peak form.
Last ranking (Sept. 7): 2
4️⃣ Utah Jazz
The Committee didn't drop the Jazz all the way down to No. 7 in our preseason edition of the rankings because we thought they were going to finish as the league’s seventh-best regular-season team. It was a demotion meant to reflect the reality that Utah, after its humbling second-round exit to the Kawhi Leonard-less Clippers, can't really impress us until the playoffs anymore. That said: No one would be surprised if this team again posts the West's best regular-season record.
Last ranking (Sept. 7): 7
5️⃣ Golden State Warriors
It remains premature to consider the Warriors part of the league’s title mix until we get a good read on how long Klay Thompson will need to restore his full Klay-ness and how much James Wiseman can contribute in Year 2 when he's healthy. The early signs, though, were undoubtedly promising: Golden State is already 3-0 against the rest of The Golden State (Lakers, Clippers and Kings).
Last ranking (Sept. 7): 12
6️⃣ Atlanta Hawks
If you are going to go to Cleveland and lose on the road to an Eastern Conference straggler teeming with unproven youth, be sure to do so on the same night that the Braves reach the World Series for the first time since 1999 just like the Hawks did. The Committee was in the building for Thursday's impressive smothering of Dallas and (for now) gives more weight to that than the slip-up to the Cavs.
Last ranking (Sept. 7): 6
7️⃣ Chicago Bulls
It would be foolish, after an opening schedule that sandwiched a home game against the Pelicans in between two dates with the Pistons, to get too carried away with the Bulls' spotless start. But it wouldn't be any fun for Chicagoans to be pragmatic about it — so we’re repeating what we said when the DeMar DeRozan signing appeared to create serious fit questions about where DeRozan slots in alongside Zach LaVine and Lonzo Ball. After years of underachievement and/or inaction from their team, Bulls fans have a right to get carried away. Chicago is 4-0 for the first time since the midst of the second three-peat in 1996-97. Live it up!
Last ranking (Sept. 7): 15
8️⃣ Denver Nuggets
After the Nuggets' impressive come-from-behind victory in Phoenix to open the season, I was sure they'd be taking a 3-0 record to Utah on Tuesday night for their first showdown of the new campaign against a fellow championship aspirant from the Northwest Division. It couldn't be a more difficult back-to-back set now after Denver, despite such a roaring start to Nikola Jokić's MVP defense, couldn't cope Monday night with the visiting Cavaliers.
Last ranking (Sept. 7): 8
9️⃣ Charlotte Hornets
Miles Bridges, unlike Phoenix's Mikal Bridges, did not land a lucrative rookie-scale contract extension before the Oct. 18 deadline. Miles Bridges' response: He posted the first consecutive 30-point games of his career to help fuel Charlotte's first 3-0 start in franchise history and earned Eastern Conference Player of the Week honors. LaMelo Ball, meanwhile, immediately began mounting his All-Star campaign in the East by averaging 22.8 points, 6.8 assists and 5.5 rebounds.
Last ranking (Sept. 7): 19
🔟 Los Angeles Lakers
You wouldn't dare call the third game of the season a must-win for a team with championship expectations, but the Lakers really did need Sunday night's narrow victory over Memphis after an ugly 0-2 start was preceded by an 0-6 preseason. Of course, what they needed most of all was the welcome sight of LeBron James shaking off a first-half injury scare after the Grizzlies’ Desmond Bane crashed into him. It was all too reminiscent of the collision with Atlanta's Solomon Hill that knocked James out for 20 consecutive games last season in the longest injury absence of his career.
Last ranking (Sept. 7): 3
1️⃣1️⃣ Memphis Grizzlies
I came into the season pretty skeptical about Ja Morant's All-Star chances because, last I checked, Memphis still resides in the Western Conference. Morant promptly showed everyone what he thought of such pessimism by uncorking a near-flawless Week 1 until he missed his last free throw at Staples Center. Jaren Jackson Jr.'s dagger to beat the Clippers in the game before Memphis' heartbreaking loss to the Lakers was another welcome sign for the Grizz.
Last ranking (Sept. 7): 16
1️⃣2️⃣ LA Clippers
Paul George has been as dominant out of the gate as anticipated as the Clippers settle into life without the injured Kawhi Leonard. The latest example: George had eight steals in just 27 minutes in Monday's home rout of Portland. The consistency of the help George gets will linger as the big question mark for this team … as well as the Kawhi question that isn't going away: Does he have a secret plan to come back for the playoffs or will he sit out the entire season?
Last ranking (Sept. 7): 9
1️⃣3️⃣ Philadelphia 76ers
Seth Curry is a sizzling 13-for-17 from 3-point range, but these are the 76ers. When that number comes up in NBA conversation, chances are you're only going to hear about Ben Simmons' ongoing absence … or maybe some side chatter about how the NBA's 75th Anniversary Team ended up with 76 players on the list. The Simmons Saga will hang over this team until further notice, with Joel Embiid's right knee also demanding attention already.
Last ranking (Sept. 7): 10
1️⃣4️⃣ Phoenix Suns
If any team was bound to start the season in sunny fashion, it figured to be Phoenix, coming off its Cinderella ride to the NBA Finals and all the continuity Monty Williams' team brought into the new season. The Suns are instead trying to manage an unhappy Deandre Ayton after the sides' contentious talks on a contract extension failed to produce a deal before the Oct. 18 deadline as well as a potential looming scandal involving Suns owner Robert Sarver. A story that hasn't even run yet prompted Phoenix to issue four separate statements on Friday denouncing it.
Last ranking (Sept. 7): 4
1️⃣5️⃣ New York Knicks
I had a feeling New Yorkers would take to Evan Fournier, whose 32 points in that stirring double-overtime win over Boston on opening night made for a record-setting scoring splash in a Knicks debut, topping Keith Van Horn's 29 points in 2003. The euphoria, though, lasted only a few days thanks to a bad Sunday night home loss to Fournier's old friends from Orlando. I definitely did not anticipate a loss like that so soon, with a chance to move to a tidy 3-0, given that winning games against lesser teams was a hallmark of Tom Thibodeau's first season in New York.
Last ranking (Sept. 7): 11
1️⃣6️⃣ Boston Celtics
Say this much for the Celtics under first-year coach Ime Udoka: They have not been boring. Boston has already been to overtime twice in four games — not a single Western Conference team has played an OT game yet — and got booed at home when they lost their first game at TD Garden to Toronto. The Celts have also seen Jaylen Brown score 46 points in his first game after a lengthy COVID-19 quarantine and rode 41 points, seven rebounds and eight assists from Jayson Tatum in an OT win at Charlotte.
Last ranking (Sept. 7): 14
1️⃣7️⃣ Dallas Mavericks
It would be an overreaction to say that all the good vibes of an undefeated preseason that included a 68-point thrashing of Charlotte were wiped out in one night, because the Mavericks steeled themselves after a season-opening faceplant in Atlanta to score a come-from-behind win in Toronto. Yet there’s no denying that Dallas still has a long way to go to establish Kristaps Porzingis as a dependable sidekick to Luka Dončić, whose big second half in Canada enabled the Mavericks to salvage a split from the opening road trip. Give Porzingis this much, though: He’s been far more mobile defensively compared to last season.
Last ranking (Sept. 7): 13
1️⃣8️⃣ Cleveland Cavaliers
A home win over the Hawks is one thing. Cleveland going to Denver two nights later and pushing the Nuggets around, from the very first minute when Lauri Markkanen threw down a ridiculous dunk over Nikola Jokić, is a next-level statement entirely. Better yet for Cleveland: Somehow all of its big men have had their moments amid an apparent positional logjam, from Jarrett Allen to rookie Evan Mobley to the seemingly forgotten vet Kevin Love (22 points in 21 minutes in the victory over the Nuggets).
Last ranking (Sept. 7): 28
1️⃣9️⃣ Washington Wizards
Kyle Kuzma recently proclaimed his new team to be the winners of the Russell Westbrook trade because the Wizards essentially got "five good basketball players for one" when you highlight Spencer Dinwiddie's arrival in the complex five-team transaction in August along with Kuzma, Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, Montrezl Harrell and Aaron Holiday. Although it’s a little too early for conclusively grading the deal, Washington’s 2-1 start includes an overtime win over Indiana despite Bradley Beal’s injury absence.
Last ranking (Sept. 7): 21
2️⃣0️⃣ Indiana Pacers
Not sure which was more improbable: Myles Turner rumbling for a career-high 40 points in Indiana’s second game of the season … or the Pacers finding a way to drop the first two, both on the road in Washington and Charlotte, by a combined two points. Throw in an overtime victory over Miami, offensive promise from rookie Chris Duarte and some spotty team defense to start the season and it has been an eventful return to Indy already for Rick Carlisle.
Last ranking (Sept. 7): 17
2️⃣1️⃣ San Antonio Spurs
While I realize that I already ranted about the seemingly low regard Las Vegas oddsmakers have for the Spurs in my recent Eight (Almost) Fearless Predictions column, I wanted to bring it up here again for discussion. Who agrees with me that Gregg Popovich will wring 35 wins out of this group no matter what? Who thinks Vegas got it right by putting the Spurs’ over/under, as I saw from DraftKings to name one example, at 28.5?
Last ranking (Sept. 7): 24
2️⃣2️⃣ Minnesota Timberwolves
If Patrick Beverley is right with his assertion that the Timberwolves lost at home Monday night to New Orleans because they took the Pelicans too lightly in the second game of the season’s first baseball-style series, they should be furious with themselves. Minnesota’s 2-0 start was nice, sure, but how can the Wolves take anyone lightly after recording one trip to the playoffs in (gulp) 17 seasons?
Last ranking (Sept. 7): 25
2️⃣3️⃣ Toronto Raptors
After 600 days without a game in Canada, Toronto opened the season with three home dates among its first four games … and lost all three to Washington, Dallas and Chicago. They’ll get two more chances to snag that elusive home win this week (against Indiana and Orlando) before playing 11 of the next 14 games on the road. More tension: The Toronto Star published a blockbuster report Monday about some resistance within the team’s ownership group to the lucrative contract extension president of basketball operations Masai Ujiri received in August.
Last ranking (Sept. 7): 20
2️⃣4️⃣ Sacramento Kings
The Kings were dealt a difficult schedule right away and managed to hang on for a season-opening win in Portland despite squandering much of their double-digit lead. Losses to the Jazz and the Warriors followed despite good work from the scorching-hot Harrison Barnes (30.5 PPG and 12.0 RPG) and a strong first impression from rookie Davion Mitchell.
Last ranking (Sept. 7): 22
2️⃣5️⃣ Portland Trail Blazers
Damian Lillard was adamant in various interviews that no amount of adversity this season would lead him to push the Trail Blazers to trade him. “It’s an easy thing and a popular thing to say, but it’s not gonna happen,” Lillard insisted. A big reason for that, Lillard explained, is the connection he quickly formed with rookie coach Chauncey Billups, who can only hope that Lillard is as firm in his stance as it sounds. Billups’ indoctrination into NBA head coaching, apart from a blowout of the shaky Suns, has been on the rough side thanks to a home loss to Sacramento in the Blazers’ season opener, Lillard’s 2-for-24 shooting from 3-point range and a 30-point pounding Monday night in Los Angeles against the Clippers.
Last ranking (Sept. 7): 18
2️⃣6️⃣ Orlando Magic
There’s something about Madison Square Garden for new Magic coach Jamahl Mosley. He coached the Mavericks to a win there in April while filling in for an under-the-weather Rick Carlisle, then collected his first official victory as an NBA head coach on Sunday night when Orlando surprised the Knicks. Another surprise: Thanks to some quirky scheduling, Mosley won’t have to wait long to coach again in his lucky building, with the Magic due to visit New York for the last time this season on Nov. 17.
Last ranking (Sept. 7): 29
2️⃣7️⃣ New Orleans Pelicans
For the second time in his three pro campaigns, Zion Williamson is out indefinitely to start the season. Leave it to my pal Tom Ziller, who authors the consistently great Good Morning It’s Basketball newsletter, to tabulate the grim reminder that the Pelicans have been a competent NBA team when Williamson is in uniform (40-45) and pretty punchless without him (22-41) since they selected Zion with the No. 1 overall pick in the 2019 draft.
Last ranking (Sept. 7): 23
2️⃣8️⃣ Houston Rockets
This is probably unfair to Jalen Green, given how good he looked in ringing up 30 points against the Celtics, but Toronto’s Scottie Barnes already has me questioning my Rookie of the Year pick. Barnes’ own 25-point, 13-rebound game against Boston was only partly responsible for the second-guessing; knowing that the Rockets won’t be competitive this season is the larger worry for Green’s ROY campaign. My first in-person look at Green comes Tuesday night, so stay tuned. I reserve the right to pretend I never wrote this.
Last ranking (Sept. 7): 26
2️⃣9️⃣ Detroit Pistons
The wait for a Cade Cunningham sighting, as well as a Pistons victory, continues. The No. 1 pick in the 2021 NBA draft has yet to make his NBA debut thanks to an ankle injury and Detroit, not surprisingly, is off to an 0-3 launch. There’s a chance Cunningham will make his rookie bow Friday against visiting Orlando, but don’t forget that the injury sidelined the 20-year-old for the entire preseason.
Last ranking (Sept. 7): 27
3️⃣0️⃣ Oklahoma City Thunder
It seems safe to suggest, even at this embryonic juncture of the schedule, that the Thunder’s famously loud and loyal fans will have to sustain themselves on whatever Shai Gilgeous-Alexander and Lu Dort can muster while adopting an uncommonly strong interest in youth development. It’s going to be a l-o-n-g season judging by the way it started: Three consecutive double-digit losses that included a 33-point drilling in Houston inflicted by a squad that resides on the very short list of teams we can already write out of the playoffs.
Last ranking (Sept. 7): 30