'Round the NBA we go: Power Rankings!
Impeccable timing: No. 2 Phoenix plays host to No. 1 Golden State tonight to promptly put our latest 1-to-30 ladder to the test.
This Newsletter Tuesday is a Power Rankings Tuesday.
A special one, too.
I'm sure the schedule has played out this perfectly before, but of course I'm too old now to remember the last time this happened: No. 1 vs. No. 2 in the NBA Power Rankings squaring off mere hours after The Committee (of One) posts a fresh batch of rankings.
It happens tonight in Phoenix when 18-2 Golden State visits the 17-3 Suns. As explained in October, we will be convening The Committee for rankings on a monthly rather than weekly basis in our Substack existence ... and our latest 1-to-30 ladder just happens to fall on the same day that the two teams which have dominated the opening quarter of the season are poised to duel. Serendipity!
Which reminds me: I've been doing this for a long time — and I made this mistake more than once in my rankings youth — but I need to clarify something for the younger power-rankers out there. The NBA did not just reach the quarter pole by completing the opening fourth of the regular season. The quarter pole is a horse-racing marker that signals the last one-quarter of a mile until the finish line. (C'mon, Hojo Beck ... you're actually older than me.)
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). I hope to see lots of you commenting 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 Golden State Warriors
No. 2 in the league in offensive efficiency. No. 1 in the league in defensive efficiency. Tops in per-game point differential at a whopping +13.7. And Stephen Curry, at 33, has been the league's best and most watchable player of the season so far. The math is thus rather simple for the team that, without having Klay Thompson on the floor for a single second, has been the story of the league at the quarter mark. It would appear that we should have been paying much closer attention to the Warriors' 15-5 rush to close last season for hints of what was to come.
Last ranking (Oct. 26): 5
2️⃣ Phoenix Suns
Given how the Suns have mowed through 16 consecutive opponents, it's hard to believe that they opened the season with three losses in four games. That they upheld the streak despite Deandre Ayton missing five of those wins with a leg injury and also maintained it in the midst of a league investigation into alleged racist and misogynistic comments from owner Robert Sarver that provides a natural source of distraction makes the run even more impressive. Dare we say that the Suns, who last lost a game 34 days ago, have hushed any lingering "last season was a fluke" talk.
Last ranking (Oct. 26): 14
3️⃣ Milwaukee Bucks
Hints of the elite two-team stratosphere unto itself that the East was supposed to deliver are finally starting to coalesce now that the Bucks are closer to whole. They are 7-0 since Khris Middleton returned from a bout with COVID-19 and 9-0 when Giannis Antetokounmpo has both Middleton and Jrue Holiday at his side. Don't forget that the Bucks have had interior defensive anchor Brook Lopez in uniform for only one game — on opening night. Holiday also got off to a surprisingly slow start in the wake of his strong showings in the NBA Finals and the Tokyo Olympics, but let's face it: At least 25 teams (maybe more) would trade problems with Milwaukee.
Last ranking (Oct. 26): 1
4️⃣ Brooklyn Nets
The Nets do have the best record in the East and, without warning, their defense ranks sixth overall. It feels only fair to stress those points as a counter to all the chatter about how far James Harden remains from his peak, Blake Griffin's eyesore struggles as a shooter (9 for 56 on 3-pointers so far this season) and the daunting reality that Brooklyn will remain at a speed deficit — to go with its size and age concerns — until (unless?) Kyrie Irving rejoins them. Against the Bucks on Opening Night, and more recently against Golden State and Phoenix, Steve Nash's blunt assessment about his Nets not yet earning elite status sure rang true. They also just lost the sharpshooting Joe Harris to ankle surgery to clinch a drop below the Bucks here.
Last ranking (Oct. 26): 3
5️⃣ Miami Heat
If not quite as dominant lately as the Heat looked during a 6-1 start, Jimmy Butler and Co. have swiftly convinced numerous league observers that they are the foremost threat in the East to crash the expected Milwaukee/Brooklyn duopoly. It certainly helps that Tyler Herro (averaging 21.8 points per game on nearly 40% shooting from deep) has emerged as a serious Sixth Man Award candidate to supplement the four pillars of that impressive D: Butler, Bam Adebayo, Kyle Lowry and P.J. Tucker.
Last ranking (Oct. 26): 2
6️⃣ Utah Jazz
I wanted to drop the Jazz lower after recent home losses to the Pelicans and Grizzlies, and with their defense ranked an uncharacteristic No. 9, but their nightly average scoring margin (+9.7) remains too robust to punish them that harshly. I admit it: The Committee is grading this team hard (probably too hard) after noting on numerous occasions coming into the season that the Jazz can't really impress us until the playoffs.
Last ranking (Oct. 26): 4
7️⃣ Chicago Bulls
Chicago's players apparently read too many of those "Bulls are back" press clippings judging by last week's 1-3 mark after a 13-5 start. Yet there's still lots to like here given that the Zach LaVine-DeMar DeRozan-Lonzo Ball triumvirate was generating almost as much Team Bad Fit talk as the Lakers back in September and October. DeRozan's game, in particular, continues to age fantastically when it theoretically shouldn't given his limitations as a 3-point shooter.
Last ranking (Oct. 26): 7
8️⃣ LA Clippers
It can't be pleasant for the Lakers, given all of their problems, to scan the defensive charts and see the Kawhi Leonard-less Clippers in the same home building at No. 2 in the whole league, allowing just 103.6 points per 100 possessions. No wonder Ty Lue's team, with no clarity about when it will see Leonard again and asking Paul George to shoulder a massive load at both ends while faced with a variety of other absentees, continues to find itself ensconced in the West's top six even after Jonas Valanciunas shredded them Monday night with an array of 3s.
Last ranking (Oct. 26): 12
9️⃣ Boston Celtics
Team meetings generally lead to eyerolls leaguewide, but the Celtics' private huddle seems to have prevented them from descending into a full-blown crisis upon falling to 2-5 on Nov. 1 — with Marcus Smart levying what landed as harsh public criticism of Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown when he said they "don't want to pass the ball." Defense has keyed a 9-5 rebound since the meeting despite Brown missing eight of those games with a hamstring injury — with Smart playing much better since shining such a bright spotlight on his team.
Last ranking (Oct. 26): 16
🔟 Atlanta Hawks
The Hawks won two games in New York in last season's first-round series against the Knicks, three more in Philadelphia (including a Game 7 that likely ended Ben Simmons' Sixers career) in the second round and Game 1 in Milwaukee in the Eastern Conference finals. Starting this season 3-8 on the road, then, has to be classified as a step back. A recent seven-game winning streak nonetheless had the Hawks heading for a higher placement from The Committee, only for Bogdan Bogdanović (ankle) and Cam Reddish (wrist) to pick up fresh injuries.
Last ranking (Oct. 26): 6
1️⃣1️⃣ Washington Wizards
Maybe Kyle Kuzma was not premature with his October declaration that the Wizards have already won the Russell Westbrook trade. Although they have cooled some since a 10-3 launch and are in the midst of a challenging stretch that has Washington playing 14 out of 18 games on the road, Bradley Beal and his overhauled supporting cast continue to look far more dangerous than advertised, buoyed by the league's No. 12-ranked defense. One cautionary note: Every game decided by three points or less has gone the Wizards’ (5-0) way. That can’t continue.
Last ranking (Oct. 26): 19
1️⃣2️⃣ Philadelphia 76ers
This can be a funny old game sometimes. When the Sixers started 8-2, numerous league observers suggested that the strong burst out of the gate would only encourage president of basketball operations Daryl Morey to be even more patient in his search for a palatable Ben Simmons trade. Using that logic, Philadelphia's recent 2-8 nosedive — with Joel Embiid missing nine games after testing positive for COVID-19 — should have had the opposite effect and sent the panic meter skyrocketing. Yet Simmons, as a storyline, has lost some steam, while second-year Sixers guard Tyrese Maxey continues to assemble a compelling Most Improved Player case. Things are bound to pick up again, mind you, once Dec. 15 arrives.
Last ranking (Oct. 26): 13
1️⃣3️⃣ Cleveland Cavaliers
There is no shortage of surprise teams in the Eastern Conference, but Cleveland has been the most eye-catching to The Committee so far, even when accounting for what Chicago and Washington have done. The Cavs lost Collin Sexton to a season-ending knee injury, weathered an Evan Mobley elbow injury and have still managed to be a very tough out nightly with frequent supersized lineups when they were expected in some corners to land in the Detroit/Orlando zone at the bottom of the East. With Mobley in uniform, Cleveland is 11-6.
Last ranking (Oct. 26): 18
1️⃣4️⃣ Minnesota Timberwolves
Are the Wolves — gasp — actually favored now to win the "race" for the No. 10 spot in the Western Conference and a trip to the play-in round after just one playoff berth in the last (gulp) 17 seasons? Say this much for Minnesota after its recent five-game winning streak: This team ranks a stunning seventh in the NBA in defensive efficiency after placing 28th last season. The Wolves and their offensive-minded coach Chris Finch would undoubtedly be thrilled to stay in that range.
Last ranking (Oct. 26): 22
1️⃣5️⃣ New York Knicks
My pal Fred Katz of The Athletic spelled it out better than I could here with a tweet noting that the Knicks entered Monday's play with the league's best defense and its ninth-ranked offense whenever Kemba Walker was off the floor. With Kemba on the court: New York was 30th in defensive rating and 27th in offensive rating through Sunday's games. Knicks coach Tom Thibodeau, in other words, had no choice when he announced that he was bringing an abrupt halt to Walker's New York homecoming by dropping him from the rotation immediately. Now to see how the Knicks respond in an East that’s as tightly packed from 1 to 13 as advertised.
Last ranking (Oct. 26): 15
1️⃣6️⃣ Denver Nuggets
The Nuggets, just three weeks removed from the distressing Nikola Jokić/Markieff Morris altercation, made it through their Monday rematch with Miami in the shadows of South Beach largely without incident. The big news earlier in the day, though, was undeniably grim, with Michael Porter Jr.'s agent announcing that the fourth-year swingman will be out indefinitely to undergo his third back surgery. One of just four teams in the league with three fully fledged max players on its books alongside the Nets, Warriors and Lakers, Denver will have only one of them (Jokić) available for the foreseeable future well into 2022.
Last ranking (Oct. 26): 8
1️⃣7️⃣ Charlotte Hornets
Perhaps Le Committee is getting soft in its old age, because we didn't lose our minds when LaMelo Ball uncorked that embarrassing missed dunk last week. Ball (mostly) got a pass here because A) Charlotte overcame the gaffe to beat Orlando anyway and B) he continues to look like All-Star material with averages of 19.3 points, 8.2 assists and 7.8 rebounds. (The season's worst Shaqtin' A Fool moment, for the record, came from the courtside fan in Sacramento who vomited during the last game before the Kings fired Luke Walton.)
Last ranking (Oct. 26): 9
1️⃣8️⃣ Dallas Mavericks
The Mavericks do have some things to feel good about — most notably encouraging production from Kristaps Porzingis and the fact that Luka Dončić and Jalen Brunson came through recent injury scares that looked potentially grim about as well as they could have. Dallas, though, still has just two wins over teams that currently hold a winning record and will continue to have a limited ceiling unless Porzingis surpasses Brunson as the team's second-most consistent player. The Mavs need a lot more from Tim Hardaway Jr., too, with Hardaway shooting just 38% from the floor after signing a new four-year, $75 million deal.
Last ranking (Oct. 26): 17
1️⃣9️⃣ Portland Trail Blazers
While it's undeniably still early in the reign of rookie coach Chauncey Billups, there's no escaping the reality that the Trail Blazers awoke Tuesday ranked No. 29 in defensive efficiency, which is the area Billups was hired to shore up most. If not quite at the Suns' level, Portland has coped reasonably well with the potential off-court distraction of an ongoing investigation into allegations of a hostile workplace atmosphere fostered by president of basketball operations Neil Olshey, but this roster clearly still has some shortcomings — no matter who is coaching.
Last ranking (Oct. 26): 25
2️⃣0️⃣ Los Angeles Lakers
Just 14 months removed from coaching the Lakers to a championship, Frank Vogel is facing mounting pressure. Numerous injuries and the steady erosion of the best defenders on Vogel's roster should give the coach some insulation from blame, but the reality of the Lakers' current predicament is that they don't have the requisite trade assets or flexibility needed to spruce up that roster, which appears to have put Vogel under threat as the easiest variable to change. Also worrisome: The Lakers have had a very favorable schedule to this point; third-easiest in the league according to one prominent tracker.
Last ranking (Oct. 26): 10
2️⃣1️⃣ Indiana Pacers
The return of Rick Carlisle made familiarity a given with these Pacers. Consistency? That's another matter entirely. Monday's narrow loss to Minnesota dropped Indiana to a worst-in-the-league mark of 1-6 in games decided by three points or fewer. That record drops to 1-7 when a four-point loss is tacked on. Although the outcomes of close games are often viewed as random within the NBA analytics community, that gets harder and harder to accept for a team stacking up those narrow defeats (and a team clearly struggling with its offensive execution).
Last ranking (Oct. 26): 20
2️⃣2️⃣ Toronto Raptors
I will continue to say that the hypothetical Ben Simmons trade that most fascinates me is the prospect of Philadelphia offering Simmons to the Raptors for a package headlined by OG Anunoby (who was starting to develop a dangerous all-around game until a recent hip injury) and Goran Dragić (as a seen-it-all vet on an expiring contract who can bolster the Sixers' backcourt for the playoffs). We are forced, of course, to consider the possibility that the Raptors might not be willing to surrender Anunoby in a Simmons deal, given the way he's blossoming for a rebuilding Raptors team that is just 2-7 at home despite being back on Canadian soil after last season's emotionally draining detour to Tampa.
Last ranking (Oct. 26): 23
2️⃣3️⃣ Memphis Grizzlies
All the consternation about the Grizzlies' curious slide all the way down to No. 30 in defensive efficiency has been offset by the relief coursing through the organization now that the knee injury suffered last week by star guard Ja Morant should sideline him only weeks rather than months. Morant, of course, had started the season looking determined to move into an All-Star tier ... if not higher. Perhaps the return of Dillon Brooks from a long injury layoff will provide a defensive lift.
Last ranking (Oct. 26): 11
2️⃣4️⃣ Sacramento Kings
In the latest illustration that yet another coaching change alone won't repair years of team-building mistakes and meddlesome ownership, Sacramento followed a stirring triple-overtime victory over the Lakers' — Alvin Gentry's first road win as interim coach — by losing in Memphis by 27 points to the Ja Morant-less Grizzlies. I wrote much more about the Kings' organizational issues here and will fixate now on the minutes Marvin Bagley III is suddenly getting under Gentry. Bagley played in only one of the Kings' first 13 games ... against a Detroit team that, as we reported on Nov. 12, has been tracking him for a potential trade pursuit.
Last ranking (Oct. 26): 24
2️⃣5️⃣ New Orleans Pelicans
The Pelicans went 6-22 during Zion Williamson's rookie season while he recovered from knee surgery that delayed his NBA debut until January in Year 1. It’s unclear if Zion will make it back faster this time after undergoing offseason foot surgery, since he was just cleared for full-contact practicing, but the larger question persists: Can he make it matter? After a truly wretched 3-16 start, New Orleans has posted a few quality wins over Washington, Utah and the LA Clippers. The problem: The Pels still sit five games out of a play-in spot in the West as of Tuesday morning. Williamson's third NBA season might not be salvageable even if he recaptures his All-Star form immediately.
Last ranking (Oct. 26): 27
2️⃣6️⃣ San Antonio Spurs
The last time San Antonio started a season this poorly, Gregg Popovich fired the coach. While no one is expecting a repeat of the 1996-97 season, when Popovich ousted Bob Hill and took over himself with the Spurs mired at 3-15, their lack of a late-game closer and a lengthy absence for defensive anchor Jakob Poeltl have them mired on a pace that would narrowly land right on the 26 wins Pop needs to pass his pal Don Nelson as the NBA's all-time winningest coach. The Spurs surely won’t cut it that close — right?
Last ranking (Oct. 26): 21
2️⃣7️⃣ Houston Rockets
Remember how we all said coming into the season that the Rockets, no matter what, would be fun to watch with so much electric young talent on the roster? It certainly hasn't played out that way — not with shooting struggles (38.2%) and then a hamstring injury for Jalen Green, instant hot-seat chatter for coach Stephen Silas and some John Wall drama. The Rockets dropped 15 games in a row after a 1-1 start to threaten a repeat of last season's 20-game skid … then won three in a row starting with an upset of Chicago in which Green went down.
Last ranking (Oct. 26): 28
2️⃣8️⃣ Oklahoma City Thunder
I mentioned recently that I was toying with a column early in the season in which I planned to declare that the Thunder wouldn't win 10 games this season. I'm pretty glad I talked myself out of it, because the Thunder — for all of their considerable offensive shortcomings and a sudden six-game skid — are stubbornly plucky when Shai Gilgeous-Alexander is on the floor alongside Lu Dort. It doesn’t look like they can get all the way to 19-24, like last season's Thunder did before Gilgeous-Alexander was sidelined for the rest of the season by plantar fasciitis, but Oklahoma City suddenly appears to have two cornerstone players to go with its six wins already (and hordes of looming draft picks).
Last ranking (Oct. 26): 30
2️⃣9️⃣ Detroit Pistons
The Pistons have indeed nudged the team's composite shooting percentage out of the 30s ... but not by much. They're shooting an unsightly 40.6% from the field as a group, which is higher than it was during my visit to Motown in early November and yet still hard to fathom in the modern era. While Cade Cunningham likewise faces an uphill climb to cut into Evan Mobley's lead in the Rookie of the Year race, that's a far lesser concern as I've been saying for weeks, since Cunningham continues to settle in nicely as an NBA floor leader despite the obvious lack of shooters and scorers around him.
Last ranking (Oct. 26): 29
3️⃣0️⃣ Orlando Magic
Despite some flashes from Cole Anthony, Jalen Suggs and Franz Wagner, Orlando is rebuilding with a capital R and finding it rather unforgiving. There are only two teams in the league — New Orleans and Orlando — that sport a bottom-six offense and a bottom-six defense. There are also only two teams — Detroit and those same Magic — with no playoff hope in the East. And all of that was true before the Magic lost Suggs indefinitely Monday night to a thumb fracture.
Last ranking (Oct. 26): 26