NBA Power Rankings; Warriors on Top

Posted: 11/11/2014 by levcohen in Basketball

Every NBA team has now played between six and eight games, which means we are about 9% of the way through the season. And in the early going, it seems like we’re in for a great season. Thanks to the Cavs’ growing pains, Chicago’s surprising defensive issues, and Oklahoma City’s injuries, this year’s NBA is more wide open than any in recent memory. Each of the five teams who were offseason favorites (the three mentioned above along with San Antonio and the Clippers) have struggled to varying degrees and are a combined 18-16. Meanwhile, teams on the supposed second or even third tier like Golden State, Houston, Toronto, Miami and Memphis have played the best basketball in the early going. All of this makes it much harder to rank the teams, but I’m going to try to make it a mix of how teams have played thus far and their potential improvement.

— Tier 1: Clicking —

1. Golden State Warriors (5-1): Besides ranking the bottom two teams, this was the easiest spot on the list. The Warriors are 5-1, but more impressive is that they are 5-1 despite averaging an insane 22.5 turnovers per game. And it’s not as if they have had an easy schedule; they’ve beaten Sacramento, Portland, and Houston on the road along with the Clippers at home. So this is a team that, despite playing sloppily and despite playing with a new coach (Steve Kerr), is still 5-1. They are really, really good. First, the obvious: the Splash Bros are incredible. The people who criticized the Warriors for not pulling the trigger on the Klay Thompson-Kevin Love trade (myself included) are looking silly right now, as Thompson looks to have taken the next step, averaging 24 points per game on 47% shooting while playing above-average defense. Other than James Harden, Thompson is the best shooting guard in the game. Then, of course, there’s the other Splash Bro: Stephen Curry. Curry has hoisted himself into the early season MVP discussion, joining Anthony Davis, Marc Gasol, James Harden, and DeMarcus Cousins. He’s averaging 28 points, six boards, seven assists, and 3.5 steals per game while shooting 50% from the field, 41% on his 8.2 three point attempts per game, and 97% from the line. His PER is 29.8, second in the NBA to Davis’s astronomical 35.8. So Curry and Thompson are leading this team offensively, and, because they are playing with stellar defenders like Andrew Bogut, Draymond Green, and Andre Iguodala, this team has turned into a powerhouse offensively and defensively. And David Lee, the nightly double-double, has played just seven minutes this season. By far the best team in basketball right now.

2. Chicago Bulls (6-2): This is probably a bit higher than you’ll see the Bulls elsewhere, because people are just looking at the two losses, more than three teams I have below them, and their point differential of “just” +4.3. But I’m higher on the Bulls than most, and here’s why: they aren’t playing amazingly yet, but it looks to me as if the Bulls have addressed their weaknesses. The biggest weakness, of course, was the simple fact that the Bulls have recently struggled to put the ball in the basket. Not so this year, as the offense has been efficient and effective, thanks to an improved Jimmy Butler, a healthy (ish) Derrick Rose, and free agent signing Pau Gasol. Surprisingly, rebounding and defense has been the issue for the Bulls thus far. I’m not concerned, because coach Tom Thibodeau has shown he can field top five defenses every year. Defensive anchor Joakim Noah is still not fully healthy, which means Gasol and Doug McDermott, not exactly defensive stalwarts, have been getting a ton of minutes. As Noah gets healthier, the Bulls’ defense will improve, and as long as Rose stays healthy, the Bulls are the clear favorite to win the top seed in the East.

3. Houston Rockets (6-1): The Rockets’ two superstars have really been clicking so far this season. James Harden is averaging 25-7-7 with, surprisingly, more than a steal (1.4) and block (1.1) per game while shooting 91% on his 11 trips to the line per game. The scary thing for opponents? He’s been cold, shooting slightly under 40% so far this season. That’s why I think he’ll lead the NBA in points per game with Kevin Durant sidelined. Meanwhile, Dwight Howard has scored at a rate he hasn’t sniffed since his Orlando days and defending almost as well. There are still worrying signs for the team now with the second best point differential, as Patrick Beverley, who is absolutely vital to this team, has been out with a hamstring injury, while the bench continues to look pretty shallow. Outside of Harden, Howard, Trevor Ariza, Beverley, and Terrence Jones, there isn’t anybody the Rockets can rely on. They’re giving Jason Terry 22 minutes per game, which says a lot.

4. Memphis Grizzlies (6-1): We say this every year, but Memphis’s defense is really, really good. They are always one of the two or three best defenses in basketball, but this year they’ve been by far the best, allowing just 87.6 points per game. They aren’t flashy, as 71-69 and 93-81 wins aren’t going to impress the average fan, but this is a team that’s built for an 82 game grind and the subsequent postseason. A key difference this year has been Marc Gasol’s offensive contribution. Gasol has always been a good offensive player, passing well for a big man and posting three straight seasons between 14 and 15 points per game, but he’s reached a whole new level this year: 19 points per game on career-best 51% shooting. He’s been more aggressive, getting to the line nearly seven times per game after reaching the charity stripe just 4.1 times per game last season. And he shoots extraordinarily well for a big man at the line, entering tonight’s game at 81%. As Memphis’s twin towers (Mr. Reliable Zach Randolph is the other) go, so do the Grizzlies, and the start of the season has been very promising.

— Tier 2: the talent is there —

5. San Antonio Spurs (3-3): The start of the season hasn’t been great, but this is Gregg Popovich and the Spurs we are talking about. Spurs fans know better than to panic, and fans of other teams know better than to write off the reigning champs. They might not win the top seed, but the Spurs will be a factor come playoff time. Right now, they just need to worry about getting Kawhi Leonard right, letting his star grow, and finding some more players who can be relied on to become role players. With Patty Mills out, Cory Joseph really hounded Chris Paul last night, and he could be a valuable weapon should the Spurs and Clippers meet in the playoffs.

6. Cleveland Cavaliers (3-3): It was never going to be a seamless transition. It takes a while to implement an offense (see: Heat, Miami), and it takes a while to teach a bunch of very skilled players who are used to being the option to differ to LeBron James. As long as they are rolling come playoff time, and I think they will be, it almost doesn’t matter how many bumps there are or how poorly the Cavs play early in the season. James is almost testing his teammates right now, trying to determine who he can win a championship with and who he can’t. And if any moves need to be made, LeBron, the star and GM of the Cavs, will make those moves. This team is just too talented not to end up great. It might not end in a championship, but I couldn’t drop the Cavs past sixth.

7. Toronto Raptors (6-1): I don’t know what to say. The Raptors, who have the best point differential in the NBA this year, have just looked really, really good. They have won four games by double digits, including a 32 point win over the 76ers that really wasn’t that close. The most encouraging thing? Nothing looks unsustainable. DeMar DeRozan, Kyle Lowry, and Jonas Valanciunas look exactly like they did last year, and there’s still a lot of room for improvement, especially for Valanciunas.

8. Portland Trailblazers (4-3): The Trailblazers look exactly like they did last year, with a few key differences: firstly, this is the second year in their new system, and they look better and more comfortable defensively than they did last year, when they were a poor defensive team and gave up 102.8 points per game. Secondly, their bench is better than it was last year, which allows the Blazers to rest their players more than they did last year. Last year, the starters- Damian Lillard, Wes Matthews, Nic Batum, LaMarcus Aldridge, and Robin Lopez- averaged about 35 minutes per game apiece. This year, they are at 33. It’s a noticeable defense, and Lopez in particular now has a competent backup in Chris Kaman, who’s pulling down 6.6 rebounds per game in just 19 minutes. The backups at other positions still need to improve, as Steve Blake and Co. haven’t exactly been impressive, but having a solid backup center is a good start.

9. Los Angeles Clippers (4-3): Not good. That’s the biggest thing I took away from the Clippers’ most recent loss to the Spurs, which should have been a blowout but ended as a close game because San Antonio missed open shot after open shot. Something the Clips are doing isn’t working, and there are a few specifics I can point to. First of all, DeAndre Jordan just isn’t improving. Yes, he’s shooting 70% from the field, but he’s a liability down the stretch because of his inability to shoot free throws and he is averaging just 8.6 points per game. He needs to become a dominant, 15-15-2 blocks per game player if the Clippers want to win it all. The three guard lineup of Chris Paul, Jamal Crawford, and J.J. Redick isn’t working, either, especially defensively. All three can score, but you are going to run into some trouble defensively if your starting wings are Jamal Crawford and J.J. Redick. They really need a “3 and D” small forward, and Matt Barnes was supposed to be that guy before he forgot how to shoot a basketball. A possible solution could be a trade of Crawford, Redick, or even Jordan (it would require a lot in return). First, let’s just see how this plays out over the next few months. Paul, Blake Griffin, Jordan, and the rest of them still have more talent than almost any other team, and talent usually wins out in the end. Would I pick them to win a game against the Blazers or Raptors, though? Not right now, which is why I have them ninth.

Those, to me, are the nine title contenders in the early going, so I’m going to write a lot less for the remaining teams.

— Tier 3: don’t count them out —

10. Miami Heat (5-2): The Heat have looked really good this year. And I mean really, really good. They’ve proven that LeBron hasn’t been everything for them; Chris Bosh, Dwyane Wade, and the system aren’t too shabby themselves. Bosh is back to averaging the 20 and 10 he consistently put up on Toronto, while Wade is playing more this season. The key, of course, is his health: if Wade gets hurt, this team might struggle to make the playoffs.

11. Dallas Mavericks (4-3): It hasn’t been great for the Mavericks so far, but I still believe in this team. The talent is clearly there, and the core of Monta Ellis, Chandler Parsons, Dirk Nowitzki, and Tyson Chandler rivals almost any group of four out there.

12. Phoenix Suns (4-3): The Suns haven’t been quite as good as they were last year, but they aren’t going to have the steep decline people are predicting they will. The key story is how the Suns sort out their backcourt rotation. Starters Eric Bledsoe and Goran Dragic have been worse than they were last year, partly because Isaiah Thomas, who leads the team in scoring, is taking their minutes. It’ll be interesting to see how the three, along with Gerald Green, share minutes, and whether they can eventually play effectively together.

13. Washington Wizards (5-2): The injury to Bradley Beal has clearly hurt the Wizards, which makes their 5-2 record more impressive. They aren’t playing great, but they will be a top-four team in the East if they just keep this up until Beal gets back. John Wall has powered this team, but it needs some secondary (or, when Beal gets back, tertiary) scoring.

14. New Orleans Pelicans (3-3): Anthony Davis. ANTHONY DAVIS. ANTHONY DAVIS. If the Pelicans make the playoffs, we’ll know why. That’s not to diss the rest of the team, because I think guys like Jrue Holiday, Ryan Anderson, Omer Asik, and Tyreke Evans are all solid players, but this team will go as Davis goes. And Davis is really going right now.

— Tier 4: On the playoff bubble —

15. Sacramento Kings (5-2): The Kings are playing well, but is it legit? My answer: not really. I don’t think this team makes the playoffs, but it’s better than I thought it was before the season. The biggest reason? The huge improvement made by DeMarcus Cousins, who is somehow playing even better than he played last season. The stats are similar to last year’s, but something is there this year that wasn’t last year.

16. Brooklyn Nets (4-2): Meh. The Nets are 4-2, but their wins have come against Detroit, OKC, the Knicks, and Orlando. They haven’t played a good team yet, and they have a stretch of three straight road games in Phoenix, Golden State, and Portland. They could easily be 4-5 come next week.

17. Oklahoma City Thunder (2-5): It’s all a matter of how far the Thunder fall before their two stars come back. They look terrible right now, but they need to win at least a few games if they want to have a chance at rallying to make the playoffs.

18. Atlanta Hawks (3-3): The Hawks will probably make the playoffs, but unless they make a move to get a star, they won’t get past the second round. They are a fun team to watch though, and look much better with Al Horford healthy and playing alongside the underrated Paul Millsap.

19. Charlotte Hornets (3-4): The Hornets have disappointed me thus far. They really haven’t looked comfortable, and I’m worried about them. they have the talent to be at the top of this tier, but instead they are near the bottom.

20. Boston Celtics (3-3): The Celtics have been a pleasant surprise. They have shocking wins over the Nets and Bulls, and have generally been a fun team to watch. The intrigue, of course, lies in Rajon Rondo and whether or not the Celtics decide to trade their point guard. If they continue to play well, they may instead decide to extend Rondo after the season. No matter how it turns out, the Rondo story will be an intriguing one.

— Tier 5: Exciting but not there yet —

21. Utah Jazz (3-5): The Jazz have played some good teams pretty close, and have a 27 point win over the Suns and a big win over LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers. They won’t make the playoffs, but the fact that they have been competitive is a good sign and a relief.

22. Minnesota Timberwolves (2-4): This team has lost to the Timberwolves by four, the Bulls by one, the Magic in overtime, and the Heat by 10. They’ve been fun to watch. The bad news? Ricky Rubio has a severely sprained ankle and will be out a couple of months. It’s a shame, because Rubio looked good on this new offense.

23. Milwaukee Bucks (3-4): After their horrid season last year, the Bucks have been surprisingly decent. Brandon Knight has a number of near triple doubles, Giannis Antetokounmpo has shown more flashes (10.4 points in 23.4 minutes per game), while Jabari Parker, while a work in progress, has shown an ability to rebound and score. His 11.6 points per game rank second on the Bucks.

— Tier 6: Terrible but not tanking? —

24. New York Knicks (2-6): Maybe it will work eventually, but the revamped Knicks look pretty bad right now. It’s pretty hard to be this bad when you have a player as good as Carmelo Anthony, but the Knicks have managed it.

25. Detroit Pistons (2-5): It’s the same team we saw last year. That’s not a good thing.

26. Denver Nuggets (1-5): The Nuggets’ depth movement has clearly not worked out. It’s time to blow it up and tank. Some pretty good players, from Danilo Gallinari to Wilson Chandler to Arron Afflalo should all become available in the coming months.

— Tier 7: TANK —

27. Indiana Pacers (2-6)

28. Orlando Magic (2-5)

29. Los Angeles Lakers (1-5)

— Tier 8: The Philadelphia 76ers —

30. Philadelphia 76ers (0-7)

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