One week in the books and we have seen some big moves in both directions for teams in the NBC Sports NBA Power Rankings. The Clippers are climbing fast — and just added James Harden — while the Grizzlies have been a mess and dropped.
1. Denver Nuggets (4-0, last week No. 1). Denver listened to everyone talk all summer about the Bucks' and Celtics' big moves, the Suns forming a big three, the Lakers getting better, and took it personally. The Nuggets have come out to start their title defense with a chip on their shoulder (no matter how nonchalant Nikola Jokic seems). We knew the starting five for Denver was elite but the bench led by Reggie Jackson, Christian Braun and Peyton Watson has been better than expected (and better than the Nuggets bench was during last regular season). Friday night Jokic and Luka Doncic meet, the two hottest players to start the season on one court.
2. Boston Celtics (3-0, LW 2). Boston has started faster than any other team in the East because of how well Kristaps Porzingis has meshed on both ends of the court. Boston's defense isn't top-10 this early season but the starting five has been strong on that end with Porzingis as a rim protector. Jayson Tatum is off to a good start for his MVP campaign averaging 29.7 points and 8.3 rebounds a game, numbers similar to a season ago, however he is getting to the free throw line far less than last year (.399 free throw rate a season ago is down to .154). Interesting tests coming up for the Celtics this week with the Pacers at home, then on the road, including a stop in Minnesota.
3. Golden State Warriors (3-1, LW 7). Stephen Curry is playing at a level that shouldn't be sustainable for a 35-year-old man, but here we are watching him drop 41 on New Orleans on the second night of a back-to-back. However, what's more scary for the league is Chris Paul lifting a revamped bench unit — the Warriors have the exact same offensive rating whether Curry is on the court or off. The Warriors are winning the non-Curry minutes, and playing like this they are a threat to make one more run for a ring. Finally, we've all seen the highlight before, but let's watch Curry cook and troll Dillon Brooks one more time because it's so much fun.
STEPH HAS LOST HIS MIND pic.twitter.com/1Y6XCxEGpD
— Warriors on NBCS (@NBCSWarriors) October 30, 2023
4. Philadelphia 76ers (2-1, LW 8). Philly needed to make the James Harden trade now for one key reason: Taking the ball out of Tyrese Maxey's hands right now would be a crime against basketball. Maxey won Player of the Week honors for good reason, averaging 30.3 points, 6.7 rebounds and 6.3 assists a game. The 76ers are a good team, but a second-tier good team in the East. The big question is will they use the picks/players they have to go after a star at the trade deadline and blow up their cap space for next summer, or do they run it out this season with Maxey as the No. 2 and then use the cap space to build around Maxey and Joel Embiid next summer? It may depend on who is available this summer.
5. Los Angeles Clippers (3-1, LW 14). Through four games, the Clippers have the best defense in the NBA, but that will take a hit next week when James Harden enters the lineup. For Los Angeles, trading for Harden makes short-term sense — they don't have a passer or playmaker as good as him, plus he can take on the offensive load when Kawhi Leonard and/or Paul George need a night off. The smart basketball play now would be to move Russell Westbrook to the bench, but politically that may not be the option. The other real question: After looking at this new lineup for a few months, will the Clippers want to re-sign Harden, extend Leonard and George, and run it back with this group? Or, is it time to restart in a new building?
6. Milwaukee Bucks (2-1, LW 3). After how they looked opening week, this ranking may be generously high for the Bucks, they are 17th in the league in raw net rating, and that loss to Atlanta was ugly. They stay afloat because of wins over good teams — Miami and Philadelphia — and they are clearly still figuring things out. Through three games, Giannis Antetokounmpo has set only 25 ball screens for Damian Lillard — that pick-and-roll seems like their go-to play but Milwaukee isn't leaning heavily into it yet (Brook Lopez has set more screens for Lillard so far). The Bucks should look better as Khris Middleton rounds into form and the defense improves. Interesting test Friday night against the Knicks.
7. Sacramento Kings (2-1, LW 12). De'Aaron Fox is off to a red-hot start this season, averaging 31.3 points and six assists a game shooting 37.5% from 3, which is why it's a huge blow that he is going to miss a week or more with a "moderate" ankle sprain. Davion Mitchell will get more run, but the Kings have been outscored by 11.9 points per 100 possessions with Fox off the court. The Kings have a tough matchup (with or without Fox) against the Warriors on Wednesday, but then have two in Houston. Zion Williamson and others got the headlines, but for my money the dunk of the week belonged to Malik Monk in the Kings' opener.
— Sacramento Kings (@SacramentoKings) October 26, 2023
8. Phoenix Suns (2-2, LW 4). We haven't seen the Kevin Durant/Devin Booker/Bradley Beal trio yet due to injury (Beal has yet to play due to back spasms and Booker injured his toe in the team's first game and missed the next three), yet the Suns have the eighth best net rating in the league. Concerns about depth beyond the big three are real so far. For example, when the Lakers loaded up on Durant last Thursday (with Beal and Booker out) the rest of the team shot 1-of-9 in the fourth quarter. On Tuesday night in a come-from-ahead loss to the Spurs, non-Durant Suns were shot 3-15 from the floor. The Suns need more and consistency from Eric Gordon, Jordan Goodwin, Grayson Allen and the rest of their role guys.
9. Dallas Mavericks (3-0, LW 15). Dallas is off to a 3-0 start largely because Luka Doncic is a walking cheat code. Nobody is playing better than Doncic to open the season, he is averaging 39 points 11.7 rebounds and 9.7 assists a game. Also impressing early on is rookie Dereck Lively, who has been bumped into the starting lineup because he provides size in the paint and is a fantastic roll man for Doncic off a pick.
— NBA (@NBA) October 28, 2023
10. Los Angeles Lakers (2-2, LW 6). The plan Darvin Ham and the Lakers cooked up to keep LeBron's minutes down around 30 a night lasted all of one game. By Game 2 he played 35 and the entire fourth quarter against Phoenix, and over the weekend played 39 in an overtime loss to Sacramento. He is now at an average of 34 a game but the problem is the Lakers have a -28.5 net rating so far when LeBron is off the court. Ham is trying to find a rotation that works and it appears he is leaning big with a lot of Anthony Davis, Jaxson Hayes, and Christian Wood at the expense of smaller players. We'll see how it works this week as the Lakers face the Clippers then head out on the road for four.
11. Oklahoma City Thunder (3-1, LW 20). Shai Gilgeous-Alexander has come out on another level this season, which is saying something for a guy who finished fifth in MVP voting last season. He is averaging 26 points, 7.3 rebounds and 6.3 assists a game, and leads the league in drives at 23.5 a game through four games, way ahead of De'Aaron Fox in second (18 a game). The Thunder defense has looked good early on this season, save for a thrashing at the hands of the Nuggets. Was that a one-off or is defense going to be an issue? We'll get a better sense this week with the Pelicans and Warriors on the schedule.
12. New Orleans Pelicans (2-1, LW 19). Zion Williamson is back and in the paint — of his 49 shot attempts this season, only one is from outside the key (a missed right-wing 3). Even with Zion and Brandon Ingram giving the Pelicans an efficient 22+ points a night each, New Orleans has one of the worst offenses in the NBA so far (28th overall, 30th if garbage time is removed from the equation). Their top-10 defense has carried them so far. The Pelicans lack shooting to space the floor for their drivers, which is glaringly obvious with Trey Murphy III out injured (he is recovering from knee surgery and will be out until the second half of December).
13. Indiana Pacers (2-1, LW 17). The Pacers have the second-best offense in the NBA this season, an offensive rating of 119.6, behind Tyrese Haliburton who is playing like an All-Star. Haliburton — who stood out this summer on Team USA with his playmaking — is averaging 20 points and 12.3 assists a game. What's holding the Pacers back so far is actually their starting five: Haliburton, Bennedict Mathurin, Bruce Brown, Obi Toppin and Myles Turner — have a -13.5 net rating so far, but the Pacers bench has been the best in the league. There is a good test at the Celtics on Wednesday, then a five-game homestead that includes a visit from Wembanyama.
14. New York Knicks (2-2, LW 10). Through four games, Julius Randle is averaging 15 points a night on 29.5% shooting overall (and a troubling 41.7 true shooting percentage). The Knicks are also the worst shooting team in the league inside five feet of the rim, shooting just 51% so far. New York's third-ranked defense is keeping them afloat so far, but the Knicks need to find some offense in the paint fast or things will start to crumble against a tough schedule this week of the Cavaliers, Bucks and Clippers.
15. Atlanta Hawks (2-2, LW 16). Winners of two straight beating quality teams (the Bucks and Timberwolves), it's still hard to get a read on Atlanta this young season: Are they the team that lost to Charlotte on opening night or the one that beat Milwaukee a few nights later. Jalen Johnson has stood out, stepping into John Collins' shoes and filling them well with 14.5 points and seven rebounds a night while shooting 40% from 3. In fact, the dunk of the NBA's opening week might belong to Johnson, who got two Knicks for the price of one with this poster.
— NBA (@NBA) October 28, 2023
16. Minnesota Timberwolves (1-2, LW 11). We didn't expect a team with Karl-Anthony Towns and Anthony Edwards to struggle this much on the offensive end, but the first week of the season has not been pretty on that end for the Timberwolves. Lineups with Edwards, Towns and Rudy Gobert have a -9.6 net rating through three games. The Timberwolves most used lineup of that trio plus Mike Conley and Nickeil Alexander-Walker has a -26.7 net rating. Jaden McDanels' return should help solidify things thanks to his defense (even if it didn't look like it in his return game). This team may just need more time to find its footing, but things don't get easier this week with the Nuggets and Celtics on the schedule.
17. Orlando Magic (2-2, LW 22). The Magic looked good beating up Houston and Portland to start the season but ran into reality when they lost to both Los Angeles teams. A bright spot is the starting five of Markelle Fultz, Jalen Suggs, Franz Wagner, Paolo Banchero and Wendell Carter Jr. have a +13 net rating so far. Plus, Cole Anthony averaging 15 a night off the bench has been a boost. Starting Saturday the Magic are home for four straight, although it won't be easy with the Lakers, Mavericks and Bucks among the teams coming to visit.
18. Cleveland Cavaliers (1-3, LW 5). This team desperately misses Darius Garland (he played in the opener, the only Cavs win, but has been out since due to a hamstring strain). They miss his shooting to space the floor and his overall skills as a floor general — without him the Cavaliers have the 20th-ranked offense in the league. Jarrett Allen also has been out for the Cavaliers. Part of the hope with Cleveland taking a step forward this year was an offensive leap from Evan Mobley in his third season, but there has been no evidence of that yet, his early numbers are down from last season. Things are not getting easier for the Cavaliers who have six of their next seven on the road — and the one home game is the Warriors.
19. Miami Heat (1-3, LW 9). "We've been dealing with a lot of stuff at the beginning of the season. You go through those types of things," was how Heat captain Bam Adebayo described the 1-3 start to the season. It also feels a little like Jimmy Butler is bringing himself along at his own pace this season — and him already getting a rest day is a sign he and the Heat know this is a marathon, not a sprint. The Nets and Wizards at home this week present a chance to right the ship (the Lakers next Monday provide a better measuring stick).
20. Toronto Raptors (1-3, LW 18). The Raptors have been all defense and no offense — fourth in the league in defensive rating but dead last in offensive rating. While the defense is strong under new coach Darko Rajaković it is not generating turnovers at the same rate — Toronto led the league in forcing turnovers the last three seasons but is 15th in the league so far this season — and a large chunk of their offense the past few years was transition buckets off those turnovers. The Raptors also are turning the ball over a lot more themselves, cutting their offense off at the knees. Things do not get easier this week as the Raptors face the Bucks Wednesday then head out on the road for four.
21. Chicago Bulls (2-2, LW 24). Chicago's record may be .500 but a team that needs a player's only meeting after the first game is not in a good place. It doesn't take a scout's eye to watch this team play and find them uninspiring — the 25th-ranked offense, a solid defense but with that a bottom 10 net rating. All this start has done is spark rumors that the Bulls may finally start to tear this version of the roster down at the deadline, but nobody knows for sure what the front office will do. Tough tests against Dallas and Denver coming up this week.
22. San Antonio Spurs (2-2, LW 27). Gregg Popovich on Devin Vassell and Keldon Johnson: "They've made big steps forward at both ends of the court. More on defense than anything I'd say for both of them, except for the fact that Devin is starting to figure out that I want him to be a bit selfish. I want him to score." It was Johnson who was a little more selfish in the upset of the Suns, scoring 27 points and coming up with the dramatic game-winner.
23. Brooklyn Nets (1-2, LW 23). Cam Thomas has been electric, averaging 33 points a game through the first three games and doing his damage all over the court — he is shooting 70.5% from two-point range and taking 77% of his shots inside the arc so far. Both of the Nets losses came in games where they held the lead in the final two minutes and couldn't hang on for the W. The challenge early is on the defensive end, where they are 28th in the league, and Nic Clayton being out injured (ankle) is not helping matters.
24. Memphis Grizzlies (0-4, LW 13). This has been an ugly start to the season in Memphis. The Grizzlies starting five — Marcus Smart, Desmond Bane, Ziaire Williams, Jaren Jackson Jr. and Xavier Tillman — has struggled but not been a disaster (-1.7 net rating) but the offense is predictable without the dynamic Ja Morant there to help out. The biggest issue has been up front with Steven Adams, Santi Aldama, and Brandon Clarke all out — the Grizzlies are expected to sign Bismack Biyombo after the fifth game (when they can move Morant to the suspended list), but that's a stopgap measure. While the Grizzlies are on the road this week, a game in Utah and two in Portland gives them a chance to pick up some wins.
25. Pistons (2-2, LW 29). Cade Cunningham has impressed to start the season averaging 21 points and 7.5 assists a game while shooting 40% from 3 and showing off incredible floor vision with his play and passing. This team lost to the Heat by one on opening night (a very winnable game) then won their next two against Chicago and Charlotte, before falling to an outstanding Thunder team. This ranking may be too low for a solid team that could get in the play-in mix in the East if they can sustain this level of play. Good test coming up Sunday and Monday with a home back-to-back against the Suns and Warriors.
26. Utah Jazz (1-3, LW 21). I did not see this coming: The Jazz have the worst defense in the NBA in the first week of the season. That's going to get better, but it's made it tough to get a read on this team — are they the ones who got smacked around by the Kings and Suns or the one who beat the Clippers? Lauri Markkanen has looked like an All-Star again scoring 25 a game and John Collins seems energized to be in a new home, but Jordan Clarkson is not the long-term answer at the point. There are some winnable games this week to help Utah turn things around: The Grizzlies, Magic, Timberwolves and Bulls.
27. Charlotte Hornets (1-2, LW 26). Steve Clifford needs to find a way to keep center Mark Williams on the court more than 25 minutes a game because his defense makes a difference — the Hornets are 15.3 points per 100 possessions better defensively with Williams on the court through three games. It's small sample size theater, but his defense passes the eye test. Brandon Miller showed why he was the No. 2 pick in his debut. It was not the 13 points in the Hornets' opener but how he got them: An impressive step-back 3 and a spinning reverse layup late in the game. Through three games he is averaging 17.3 points a game with an impressive 61.3 true shooting percentage.
28. Wizards (1-2, LW 28). As expected, Jordan Poole is not being shy about jacking up shots for Washington — 17.3 shot attempts a game — but he has struggled shooting 38.5% overall and 21.7% from 3. That has helped stall out the Wizards offense and made it middle of the pack, which means it's not covering up for a 29th-in-the-league defense. On the bright side, Kyle Kuzma has looked solid scoring 22.3 points a game with a respectable 55.9 true shooting percentage. Washington heads out on the road for six of their next seven, and this week that includes stops in Miami and Philadelphia.
29. Houston Rockets (0-3, LW 25). The Rockets offense was expected to be more dynamic than we have seen early on, but part of this is simply shooting — the team is hitting just 29.3% of the 3-pointers they have taken this season (33 attempts a game, about the middle of the pack). Alpren Sengun leads the Rockets in scoring at 19.3 points a game and he's also grabbing nine rebounds and dishing out 6.7 assists a night. Ime Udoka has a lot of work to do to build this roster up. Houston is home for its next six games, including two against the Kings.
30. Trail Blazers (0-3, LW 30). Losing Anfernee Simons for 4-6 weeks following a right thumb injury and surgery is disheartening. Maybe the biggest surprise statistically is Deandre Aston having the ninth-highest usage rate on the team (12.3), he was expected to be a much more prominent part of the offense than we have seen so far (with all due respect to Skylar Mars and Toumani Camara, they should not be getting more touches than Ayton). Scoot Henderson is still trying to find his way in the NBA, that's going to be a process. With the Piston then two at home against the Grizzlies on the schedule, maybe the Trail Blazers can pick up their first win this week.