Believe it or not, some teams are almost already a tenth of the way through their season. It seems like just a few weeks ago we were tipping off in Miami, with the nation standing at attention for the return of Derrick Rose.
Oh, you mean we were? Exactly three weeks from today? Well then.
Two full weeks down in the 2013-14 NBA season, and it's hard to say things haven't been eventful. Championship contenders are scuffling, expected Riggin' for Wiggins competitors are playing beyond their talent level and the Indiana Pacers are on their way to an 82-0 season.
It's been a puzzling start to the season to say the least.
Because you've come to expect it in this space, and it's 100 percent true, we all must remember to heed to the sample-size gods and acknowledge that very little of what we've seen in November is guaranteed to translate to April. This is the NBA we're talking about; talent wins out. Once we have a more substantial sample of games—I usually wait until around the quarter-season mark—then preseason assumptions can be tossed in the wastebasket.
Until then, we're in the murky middle. Power ranking teams becomes a science of what has been on the floor already and what we know will be coming down the pike. With that in mind, let's check in around the Association and take a look at how 30 teams shake out.
Note: All stats are via NBA.com unless otherwise attributed.
1. Indiana Pacers (8-0)
We are all witnesses...to what could become the best defensive team in the modern era. The Pacers, buoyed by the best perimeter tandem in the league and a world-beater in Roy Hibbert manning the middle, have allowed opponents 90.2 points per 100 possessions over their 8-0 start.
That's three points better than any other team. Hibbert has been an understandable darling of the NBA's new SportsVU stats, swatting shots at a career-high rate and allowing opponents to make just a third of their shots at the rim.
The question with the Pacers is the same as it always has been: Can they score enough to win in May and June? Even with Paul George taking another leap forward as an offensive player, Indiana ranks 14th in offensive efficiency. Danny Granger will eventually return to the lineup, but no one knows for how long or what the cost-benefit analysis will be to having him on the floor offensively.
This is a better Pacers team than we saw a year ago. It's been by far the best team in the NBA thus far.
2. San Antonio Spurs (7-1)
And you all wondered why David Stern was leaving in February rather than after the Finals. In his all-knowingness, it must have been that he knew a ratings Chernobyl of Spurs-Pacers was coming in June, right? You won't convince me otherwise.
The first couple weeks of this regular season have been much like the others in San Antonio. Tony Parker is running opposing point guards ragged on constant pick-and-rolls. The role players who so many thought were turning into superstars last postseason have—gasp—continued playing their roles. There is Gregg Popovich, giving absolutely no damns about the regular season and throwing around some "DNP—OLDs."
There's not much in the way of new takeaways, other than Patty Mills settling in nicely as Parker's primary backup. And that's exactly the way everyone wants it.
3. Miami Heat (4-3)
Say what you will about Miami's inexplicable losses to Boston and Philadelphia, but the defending champs are fourth in possession-based point differential. They're going to be just fine despite what the squawking narrative buzzards want you to think.
I mean...you all realize that LeBron James is shooting 58 percent from the field and nearly 48 percent from beyond the arc, right? No, really. That's not a misprint. The league's most freakishly efficient player is back and (at least in our limited sample) has been more freakishly efficient than ever. Dwyane Wade has been pretty good despite some nagging injuries, and Chris Bosh has been wholly Boshian.
No team is scoring at a more efficient rate.
But if you're spending your night worrying about Miami's defensive effort, well, so are a lot of people. The Heat are giving up 106 points per 100 possessions, the third-worst rate in basketball. Everything comes with a mason jar of salt at this point, but teams do not win championships with below-average defenses; it never, ever happens.
So while I'm staying optimistic here, Miami fans should keep note of the NBA's defensive rankings page.
4. Oklahoma City Thunder (5-1)
Things are going better than anyone expected thus far for the Thunder—and I'm the enterprising chap who picked this team to win the title. Russell Westbrook is back and shooting his way through the rust, much in the way Derrick Rose is in Chicago. Kevin Durant has come out more aggressively on both ends than I've ever seen him; he's averaging more than 13 free-throw attempts per game.
With Steven Adams slowly encroaching on the decomposing Kendrick Perkins and Jeremy Lamb performing well enough, things are kinda-sorta looking up in Oklahoma City.
We'll find out just how cohesive this team is this week. The Thunder hit the road Wednesday and Thursday for a back-to-back against the Warriors and Clippers this week. Lose both of those games, and cue the return of Prestigate. Win both, and folks will wonder why we ever doubted this team.
5. Los Angeles Clippers (5-3)
If you believe in the narrative and betting is your kind of thing, getting in on the Chris Paul MVP action while it's still reasonably priced might be a good idea. Paul is on pace to have his magnum opus point guard season. He's averaging 21.3 points and 12.4 assists per game thus far, which could put him in line to join Isiah Thomas, Magic Johnson and Kevin Johnson for the only 20-12 seasons in NBA history.
Should Paul keep up his torrid pace and the Heat shrug their way through the regular season, the award will very likely come down to him and Kevin Durant. But we're getting way ahead of ourselves.
For now, let's instead talk about what may wind up keeping this team out of NBA Finals contention: its two glaring problems in the middle.
The Clippers currently rank 29th in defensive efficiency, as opposing squads have had no trouble getting to and finishing at the rim. Only the Wizards allow teams to shoot a higher percentage in the restricted area, and considering Los Angeles allows teams to get there at one of the highest frequency rates, that's not a workable problem.
Neither is the fact that neither Blake Griffin nor DeAndre Jordan can shoot free throws. There's a ton to like about this team—particularly, like, watching it—but a move needs to be made here for a more reliable close-out big. And that's sure as hell not Byron Mullens.
6. Minnesota Timberwolves (5-3)
That sound you hear is every Timberwolves fan in America playing the hand drums on the nearest piece of wood. This the Timberwolves team some expected and those in Minneapolis hoped for in 2012-13, before Kevin Love's ravaged hand and unending bad luck sent them back to the lottery.
What's been interesting is that the Timberwolves have relied more on their surprisingly strong defense than their expected offensive prowess. They rank sixth-best in the league this season in defensive efficiency and are only about league-average on offense.
If Rick Adelman could even coax 40 percent shooting out of Ricky Rubio every night or coach up Nikola Pekovic's struggling post game, these Timberwolves might emerge into this year's Golden State.
7. Golden State Warriors (4-3)
This just in: The Warriors' starting unit is very, very good. In 111 minutes, the starting unit has averaged 119.6 points per 100 possessions while allowing just 97.8—the equivalent of literally getting an aluminum Little League bat out of the shed and beating your opponent to death.
Klay Thompson, Stephen Curry, David Lee and Andre Iguodala are each averaging 15 or more points per game. Thompson and Curry have continued their Rain Men techniques, while Iguodala's always-underrated ability to hit set shots has blossomed in his new city.
But we knew Golden State could score. What's been impressive this season is that the Warriors haven't missed a beat since lead assistant and defensive guru Mike Malone left for Sacramento. They are fourth in the league in defensive efficiency through Monday night. While it's unlikely that keeps up, Golden State will be awfully dangerous if it can hang on the fringes of the top 10 all season long.
And stay healthy. Always stay healthy.
8. Chicago Bulls (3-3)
We'll need to see just how "minor" Derrick Rose's hamstring injury—cue 4,124 unfunny jokes—but I'm not overly concerned about the Bulls' slow start. Rose has been dreadful. Joakim Noah has been abysmal on the offensive end. Mike Dunleavy is making me look stupid for liking that signing.
Still, the Bulls are 3-3 and have won their last two games by a combined 39 points. Utah and Cleveland aren't banner victories, but that's exactly what this team needs at this point: Cupcakes. Everyone is obviously adjusting to Rose being back on the floor and handling primary duties, and there's no better workshop than a game you're likely to win regardless.
We're probably not going to see this Bulls team be the regular-season juggernaut that some (OK, fine, it was me) expected. If the first quarter of the season helps them work out the kinks, they may finally peak at the right time.
9. Houston Rockets (5-3)
Someone might want to tell James Harden he's on notice. The Rockets guard was able to get away with his less-than-stellar (read: terrible) defense last season, when Houston was just a plucky, surprising team that made a playoff run years earlier than most expected.
Houston and, thus, Harden, are in different places now. Daryl Morey brought Dwight Howard in with the expectation of winning championships, with Harden looked at as nothing short of a copilot. Standing upright, missing cuts, ball-watching and every other preventable, nonsensical mistake Harden makes on defense is highlighted now.
Superstars aren't terrible defenders anymore; we have too much data and people actually paying attention to allow that to happen. This isn't to make an argument on the arcane definition of "superstar" as it relates Harden, but merely point out that the Rockets' perimeter defense is a problem that needs fixing.
Or, if not fixing, at least some damn effort.
10. Brooklyn Nets (2-4)
Patience, young $180 million wallflower. Mikhail Prokhorov's 12-man middle finger at the NBA's luxury tax system is 2-4 through its first six games together and looking, you guessed it, pretty darned old. Kevin Garnett is averaging six points per game and hitting 32.1 percent of his shots.
Take a look at his shot chart:
That is not a Kevin Garnett shot chart. KG's prowess from mid-range has all but eroded, and he's finished at an above-average rate at only one spot on the floor. Couple that with Deron Williams again battling through an early-season injury that's sapped his effectiveness, and arguably the two most vital cogs on this Brooklyn squad are actively hurting the others.
And, in a weird way, that's why I'm not concerned. Williams isn't going to go through an entire season averaging 10 points per game, just as Garnett didn't suddenly switch eyes with Rudy Gay overnight. It might not be overnight, but this team will get better; there's just too much talent for it not to.
11. Dallas Mavericks (4-3)
These Mavericks are who we thought they would be. They're playing with the league's fifth-highest pace, running a series of high pick-and-pops with Dirk Nowitzki and a guard and moving the ball around the perimeter well once the initial play breaks down. Dallas is the fourth-most efficient offense in basketball and one of its 10 worst defenses.
Everything is going as planned. Except one thing: Monta Ellis has been surprisingly good.
The oft-criticized guard is averaging a team-high 23 points per game thus far and has been great running high screens with Nowitzki. Rick Carlisle has even run a few sets where Ellis serves as the screener, and it's worked quite well.
There will be moments of Bad Monta coming; Carlisle is a great coach, not a miracle worker. For now, though, it's easy to look at this team and see what Mark Cuban envisioned when putting it together.
12. Portland Trail Blazers (5-2)
The Blazers' biggest problem last season was their historically abysmal bench. Despite some major upgrades on paper, the Blazers' biggest problem this season is their...mostly abysmal bench.
Portland is averaging fewer bench minutes than any other team in the league for the second straight season, sits comfortably in 28th in production and sees its efficiency fall through the floor when the starters leave, per Hoops Stats.
The Blazers mirror last year's bunch in many ways, actually. They're still a below-average defensive team, propped up by the consistently solid play of their core four guys. I highly doubt that changes any time soon.
But it's easy to forget that Portland chilled around the fringes of the postseason hunt last year before falling flat on its face down the stretch. A year of seasoning under the starting unit's belts, and I'm bullish that they can stick around the .500 mark for much of the season.
13. Memphis Grizzlies (3-4)
I've never met David Joerger. I'm sure he's a nice man. He's definitely a respected coach around the league and was a solid enough choice to replace Lionel Hollins after his relationship with management got too toxic to repair.
That said, someone should throw a shoe at his head every time Tony Allen and Tayshaun Prince share the floor. Prince has been an active negative on offense whenever he's on the floor, but the spacing issues Memphis has with that wing duo are jarring.
When Prince and Allen share the floor, the Grizzlies are averaging 92.3 points per 100 possessions, down from their already pedestrian 99.5. And the supposed benefit of having them both—solid perimeter defense—is also debunked by the numbers. Memphis is a markedly worse defensive unit with the Allen-Prince combo.
The Grizzlies are short on other options, but Joerger needs to explore them, and quick.
14. Phoenix Suns (5-2)
Let's just enjoy it while it lasts, folks. The Suns, one of the supposed leaders of Tankapalooza 2014, have ripped off five wins in their first seven games and beaten the likes of Portland and New Orleans to pull it off. They even came within three points of taking down San Antonio on the road while on the second night of a back-to-back.
Jeff Hornacek can coach a little bit, apparently. Running at one of the league's quickest paces, the Suns have found a semi-star in Eric Bledsoe, a real asset in Markieff Morris and a center perfect for an uptempo system in Miles Plumlee.
The lottery will come beckoning eventually, and with it Phoenix will bounce outside the top half of the league. For now, we'll just keep watching an exceedingly fun team frustrate the masses.
15. New York Knicks (2-4)
Just in case you were counting, yes, that's 10 Western Conference teams before we get to a fifth from the East—and I'm probably being a little too bullish on Brooklyn. If there are any long-term takeaways from these opening weeks, it's that the chasm between the two conferences may have reached mid-2000s level.
Hence, the Knicks—the downtrodden, inefficient, scuffling, team-dancer banning Knicks—are still probably the fifth-best team in this conference. New York is tied with its borough rivals and a couple others at the bottom of the East, and things are probably going to get worse before they get better with Tyson Chandler out of the lineup.
There is still enough talent in the coffers for something like 45 wins. Carmelo Anthony isn't going to shoot 41 percent or cut his three-point rate in half from a season ago for long. J.R. Smith's return brings endless unintentional comedy, but he'll help out an offense hemorrhaging points at a time where offensive efficiency is at its most important.
With two against Atlanta and one with Houston on tap, we'll get a good idea of the post-Chandler Knicks this week. It'll be interesting to see how they fare.
16. Atlanta Hawks (4-3)
This franchise should just change its name to the Perpetually Mediocre and Quizzically Underrated Atlanta Hawks. Every season, no matter the changes in the roster and style, it seems like the Hawks turn in the same campaign. They'll win somewhere between 44-47 games, sit somewhere between No. 4 and No. 6 in the East and make it no farther than the second round.
Wash, rinse, repeat.
Atlanta of 2013, though, switches up the formula by actually being...pretty interesting to watch. Mike Budenholzer is realizing his vision of Jeff Teague being Tony Parker Lite, with only Chris Paul racking up more assists per night. If Paul Millsap continues playing this well, his agent might want to start scaling down the expenses. Al Horford and Kyle Korver are playing like Al Horford and Kyle Korver.
This is a fun little team that might trip, fall and land itself with a No. 4 seed if the two New York teams can't get their acts together.
17. New Orleans Pelicans (3-4)
Not everything is going swimmingly in New Orleans. Tyreke Evans has been a two-way train wreck, Austin Rivers is still a two-way train wreck and the process of watching Al Farouq-Aminu catch a ball without anyone near him, consider shooting for a second before taking one awkward dribble and passing is pretty sad.
But none of that matters. Because Anthony Davis is a freak of nature.
The second-year forward's brilliant preseason has looked like anything but a fluke, as he's averaging nearly a 22-12 nightly with just under four blocks and just more than two steals per night. Davis is still in his embryonic stage of superstardom, but I'd be shocked if we weren't talking about him as one of the five to seven best players in the league by next season.
In the meantime, let us all go back to worrying about New Orleans' collective liver when Evans and Jrue Holiday share the floor.
18. Boston Celtics (4-4)
One week, the Celtics look like the worst team in basketball. The next, they're reeling off four straight wins, one of which came against the defending champs, and you're remembering that there are a lot of professional basketball players on this roster.
Unlike many of their "tanking" brethren, the Celtics go seven or eight deep with players who could get run in a regular NBA rotation. Avery Bradley is one of the league's best perimeter defenders, Jeff Green has done OK in his primary scorer's role and Jordan Crawford has shockingly been there for more than the LOLz thus far. Brad Stevens isn't even playing Kris Humphries, who most assumed would be the best real-life basketball option from the Brooklyn deal.
Nonetheless, there's still some tanking hope left. Gerald Wallace is often the opposing team's most effective player, no one can create their own shot consistently and Kelly Olynyk, it seems, is indeed there just for the LOLz.
19. Denver Nuggets (2-4)
We're merely working with the assumption that Denver can't be this bad forever. I'm totally comfortable with writing the Nuggets off as a playoff contender already, but 57-win teams just don't go barreling toward the bottom of the standings without losing a Michael Jordan-level player.
Andre Iguodala isn't Michael Jordan. Ty Lawson has been great, and there's talent here. It's just been eye-opening to say the least watching Brian Shaw coach it.
20. Washington Wizards (2-4)
Don't look now, but the Wiz kids might wind up testing the bounds of three-point theory.
They're averaging more three-point attempts per 100 possessions than anyone, but eliminate themselves from advanced darling status with their inability to find quality shots at the rim. Bradley Beal and Trevor Ariza are averaging more than six three-point attempts per game, and for once that's mostly encourageable behavior.
Even though John Wall hasn't gotten off to a hot start, the Wizards are still among the league's most efficient offenses. Things should only get better on that front once Wall gets going.
The problem is that there is no sign of life defensively. Marcin Gortat has been a solid enough pickup, but Washington misses Emeka Okafor's presence in the middle. Nene is already hurt, and while Trevor Booker is a fine NBA player, you can't expect him to be a defensive stopper in the middle.
There aren't any real fixes here other than natural regression or, you know, Randy Wittman stopping being an empty suit.
21. Toronto Raptors (3-5)
Let me tell you a story about a man. A man who had so much belief in his basketball ability that he shot 37 times in one game. Why shot and shot and shot, he did, only stopping when the league's limit of six fouls per game sent him to the bench.
In those 37 shots, Rudy Gay managed 29 points. Is there a way to reverse Lasik eye surgery?
Now let me tell you a story about another man. In the same game his friend shot and shot and shot, this player tried his best to keep up. He had so much belief in his basketball ability that wound up taking 25 shots.
DeMar DeRozan made six of them. Between DeRozan and Gay, 62 of the Raptors' 114 shots against Houston on Monday night were accounted for. And, somehow, it becomes clear how a team that got 30 more shot attempts managed to lose a game.
And thus ends the story of the 2013-14 Toronto Raptors, a thoroughly not horrible team undone by the willpower of two gunners without anything in their holsters.
22. Detroit Pistons (2-4)
Let me tell you a story. Josh Smith is taking 6.3 three-pointers per game. That is the story. Bye.
23. Orlando Magic (3-5)
The Magic are our last remaining team with a positive point differential. Their run of three straight wins against New Orleans, Brooklyn and the Clippers is definitely more impressive than most others in the gooey middle around them, so it'd be fair to question this ranking—right until Orlando's run of three straight losses, twice to Boston and once to Atlanta.
Rob Hennigan, the league's youngest general manager, has done a fantastic job of compiling assets. Nikola Vucevic might wind up being the best center in the Dwight Howard trade, Victor Oladipo already has a couple #LeaguePassAlert moments under his belt and Arron Afflalo is playing himself right into a midseason trade.
There's enough here to be plenty optimistic about the future, just not quite the present yet.
24. Philadelphia 76ers (4-4)
(See: Suns, Phoenix). Only with a worse record and higher propensity for getting waxed. For a terrible team, fans in Philly should get to watch a fun brand of basketball. It's still a terrible team that's bound to regress to mere feel-good early story territory in the interim.
25. Cleveland Cavaliers (3-5)
No, Cavs fans, you are unfortunately not having PTSD-related flashbacks. This is another Mike Brown-helmed team in your beloved city without any semblance of an offensive game plan. Only this time, he's making $20 million over the next five years.
Cleveland currently sits 29th in offensive efficiency. Kyrie Irving and Dion Waiters are both off to frustrating starts, with no real explanation that makes much sense. Brown has been fiddling around with the best way to integrate Andrew Bynum, even starting him in Monday's loss to the Bulls.
Nothing has worked.
But if you're looking for positives, Cleveland's a top-10 defensive unit a year after ranking sixth-worst in the league. In other words: My longstanding theory of Mike Brown needing an offensive coordinator—one who literally handles everything on offense—stands.
26. Milwaukee Bucks (2-3)
The Bucks' quest for perpetual mediocrity took a huge hit this week, as the team announced center Larry Sanders would miss at least the next six weeks after undergoing thumb surgery. That he may or may not have suffered while getting into a fight at a nightclub.
Back on the court, Milwaukee's product hasn't inspired much optimism, either. Point guard Brandon Knight has been dealing with his own injury issues, thrusting Nate Wolters into a role for which he's not quite ready. Ersan Ilyasova has apparently decided to take the American winter months off again. While O.J. Mayo, Zaza Pachulia and John Henson have played well individually and together, that trio isn't regularly winning games.
No, not even in the decrepit Eastern Conference.
27. Los Angeles Lakers (3-5)
Poor Steve Nash. This isn't the way anyone wanted one of the most likable, thoughtful and intelligent players of this generation to go out. The more we hear Nash talk about his nagging injuries, mounting like a well-placed stack of cards, the more it feels his career is crumbling down.
The Lakers announced Monday that Nash will miss at least the next two weeks while dealing with a nerve root irritation. No one would be shocked if it's more. With Pau Gasol somehow starting his 2013-14 season more miserably than the last on offense, Mike D'Antoni's leading scorer on this team is Jodie freaking Meeks.
Don't let the Lakers fans or the victories over the Clippers and Rockets warm your brain. The Lakers are bad this season, and things aren't suddenly going to get 100 percent when (or if) Kobe Bryant returns.
28. Charlotte Bobcats (3-4)
Remember last year, when the Bobcats started their season out OK and people got all uppity when folks refused to move them up in things like power rankings? Yeah, this is that. Only a year later and with Al Jefferson prominently involved.
Charlotte is not very good at basketball. Though this team is admittedly better than 12 months ago. So there's that.
29. Sacramento Kings (1-5)
DeMarcus Cousins is averaging 23.5 points, 9.7 rebounds, 2.2 steals and 1.2 blocks per game while inching toward 50 percent shooting—the Mendoza Line for centers. Isaiah Thomas is the league's highest-scoring sixth man at 18 points per game and continues making progress for the height-challenged everywhere.
Aaaaand then there's everyone else. Beyond Ben McLemore, who has been fine but forgettable, you'd be better off shielding your eyes than watching the other Kings.
Marcus Thornton's X button is broken on his mental Xbox controller. Greivis Vasquez has gotten some bad luck with his teammates' inability to hit shots, but hasn't been great shakes, either. Jason Thompson and Patrick Patterson have probably forced Kings fans to create calendars counting down the time frame for Carl Landry's return.
At least they have Wiggins vs. Parker I to look forward to on Tuesday.
30. Utah Jazz (0-8)
Holy tanking for Andrew Wiggins, Batman. At any rate, look forward to seeing Ty Corbin and his inconsistent defensive principles on a major network near you anytime now.
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