NBA Power Rankings: Kyrie Irving, Red-Hot Boston Celtics Continue to Rise

Grant HughesNational NBA Featured ColumnistNovember 10, 2017

NBA Power Rankings: Kyrie Irving, Red-Hot Boston Celtics Continue to Rise

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    A few early high-fliers returned to Earth this past week, which offered some welcome clarity in the latest edition of NBA power rankings.

    That is, it did until a handful of the league's more established elite clubs stumbled, re-jumbling what was tantalizingly close to an orderly picture. It was our fault for expecting predictability in this weekly acknowledgement of just how wild the NBA can get.

    At least we also saw two teams, one from each conference, distance themselves from the pack. If we know nothing else for certain, we can at least be sure there are locked-in leaders in the East and West—neither of which shows signs of slipping.

    As always, these rankings are meant to organize the league into a current hierarchy. In determining the best team right now, we'll look at overall performance, injuries and recent play. The samples are still small, but we're seeing some telling trends emerge, and...there we go again talking ourselves into certainty.

    Fool us once...

    Rankings are based on games played through Thursday, Nov. 9.

30. Chicago Bulls

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    The Chicago Bulls hammered the rapidly, predictably regressing Orlando Magic by 22 points on Sunday, earning their second win of the year and highlighting the best week of their young season.

    Not that that's saying much.

    Chicago went 1-2 overall, but both losses came by single digits, and Saturday's defeat against the New Orleans Pelicans went into overtime.

    Bobby Portis returned from suspension to total 21 points and 13 rebounds in a loss to the Toronto Raptors on Tuesday, but Nikola Mirotic, whose face Portis broke, remains out while the team decides what to do with him. Portis reached out to Mirotic shortly after the Oct. 17 altercation but hasn't heard back, according to Nick Friedell of ESPN.com.

    We still don't know exactly what transpired between the two teammates leading up to the fracas, but it feels a little inequitable for Portis to be back on the floor while Mirotic is still out—even if there are reports, like this one from Joe Cowley of the Chicago Sun-Times, that the locker room has actually taken Portis' side.

    The Bulls remain a bit of a mess.

29. Atlanta Hawks

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    A three-point loss to the Boston Celtics on Monday was a heck of a lot more impressive than the two-point win over the Cleveland Cavaliers the preceding evening, but that says more about the state of the Atlanta Hawks' competition than it does about the Hawks themselves.

    Still, when you're ranked this low, any victory is notable.

    Dennis Schroder has quietly taken a step forward this season, averaging 22.6 points and 6.6 assists while shooting 40 percent from deep and cutting his turnovers. He had 28 points in that win over the Cavs and has hit at least two triples in six straight games.

    John Collins already looks like a game-altering force on the offensive glass, where his motor and bounce have produced a 17 percent offensive rebound rate so far. Among players with as many games and minutes as Collins has played this year, only Enes Kanter and DeAndre Jordan have been better at snatching their own teams' misses.

    The eight-game skid ended in Cleveland, but the Hawks have a rough week on the road ahead.

28. Phoenix Suns

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    Well, that's a little more like it.

    When the Phoenix Suns reached 4-4 on Nov. 1, it was starting to seem like jettisoning head coach Earl Watson and sending Eric Bledsoe home had awakened something in the young roster.

    Four consecutive losses later, order is restored. The Suns are bad again, and in ways that are frustratingly odd.

    A team with this much youthful bounce shouldn't be so inept at forcing mistakes. In theory, young players are supposed to botch schematic execution and use their athleticism to gamble. It's still shoddy defense, but at least it generates miscues.

    Nope.

    The Suns are tied for last in opponent turnover percentage. And while we're burying them, let's also note that they're 30th in assist percentage. No activity on D and inefficient, stagnant, iso-heavy offense?

    Ladies and gentlemen, the Phoenix Suns!

    One last thing. Can we all agree that this dunk attempt by Mike James on Hassan Whiteside was the most overly ambitious, immediately ill-fated such attempt in recent history? Yes? Good.

27. Dallas Mavericks

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    Positives first: Harrison Barnes scored a season-high 31 points on Tuesday as the Dallas Mavericks knocked off a clinically somnolent Washington Wizards squad on the road. Rookie Dennis Smith Jr. also contributed 22 points in that one, enjoying the Wizards' defensive inattentiveness.

    "It was much-needed," Dirk Nowitzki told Mavs.com's Earl K. Sneed of Smith's effort against Washington. "We need his energy, his explosiveness and quickness on the break, and he was fantastic for us."

    It was the Mavs' second win of the year, and it snapped a six-game slide.

    Negatives last: Dallas is 2-10 and ranks among the league's bottom five in rebound percentage. It also struggles to get to the rim and the foul line, which significantly depresses its scoring efficiency. When the threes aren't falling (credit the Mavs for at least taking a healthy percentage of their looks from long range), it's tough for these guys to score.

26. Brooklyn Nets

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    You're going to want to buy stock in Jusuf Nurkic, Rudy Gobert and Al Horford next week. Their teams will face off with the Brooklyn Nets, and pretty much every big man that has crossed Brooklyn's path this year has blown up.

    Anthony Puccio of NetsDaily noted: "In 11 games, the Nets have allowed opposing frontcourt starters to average 34.4 points on 55.7 percent shooting. They’ve allowed six players to score 30 or more points, and five out of the six are bigs."

    Aaron Gordon and Nikola Vucevic both hit Brooklyn for career-high 41-point outings in October, and Nikola Jokic did exactly the same thing on Tuesday night.

    The lesson: If you're a forward or center and want a new career high, just make sure not to oversleep on the night you play the Nets.

    Brooklyn took down the Suns this week but finished 1-2 overall and sits at No. 25 in net rating. So 26th in the rankings feels close enough, wouldn't you say?

25. Sacramento Kings

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    The Sacramento Kings beat the Oklahoma City Thunder on Tuesday, and Buddy Hield had a season-high 21 points on 7-of-9 shooting off the bench. Then, on Thursday, De'Aaron Fox hit a game-winner to knock off the Philadelphia 76ers at home.

    That Tuesday win might seem like a monumental achievement, what with OKC checking in at No. 2 in last week's rankings. But the Kings managed to set an NBA record for a particular type of futility in that victory (I'll get to that later), and the Thunder are in a bit of a tailspin at the moment.

    The Sixers win was legit, though. Sacramento fought down to the wire against a quality opponent.

    We can't get too excited yet because Sacramento has one of the league's most alarming shot profiles. Per Cleaning the Glass, the Kings rank last in percentage of shots taken at the rim and from three. Not coincidentally, they lead the league in percentage of attempts from the mid-range area.

    There is no way to succeed long-term with that kind of shot breakdown. If you didn't know better, you'd think they were actively trying to sabotage their own offense.

    Speaking of which, according to Elias Sports (h/t Sam Amick of USA Today), the Kings' bench tallied 29 points before any starter scored in that win over OKC. That's never happened before.

24. Indiana Pacers

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    The Indiana Pacers are this week's no-brainer choice for the "life comes at you fast" award.

    After some unsustainably hot shooting helped them to a surprising 5-3 start, the Pacers went 0-4 with a minus-10.8 net rating in their next four contests. In each of those defeats, they allowed a 35-point quarter. Chances are, defense was a key talking point in the extended locker room meeting following Wednesday's loss to the Detroit Pistons.

    "We just lost four in a row so we definitely talked about it," Thaddeus Young told Clifton Brown of the Indianapolis Star. "Coach talked, I talked, a few of the other guys talked. We know what we have to do."

    Now that we know Victor Oladipo and Domantas Sabonis aren't surefire first-ballot Hall of Famers (which seemed possible in the exuberance of Indy's hot start), it's clear the Pacers will have to achieve respectability as a collective. Myles Turner may still make his leap toward stardom this year, but we're seeing now that the team's overall talent level isn't quite as high as it seemed in those first eight games.

23. Miami Heat

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    The Miami Heat split their four games this past week, but Hassan Whiteside's discouraging second-half benching in Monday's 97-80 loss to the Warriors is the reason a 2-2 mark still leads to a drop in the rankings.

    Head coach Erik Spoelstra sat Whiteside after just 16 minutes of play because of the 28-year-old, max-contract toting center's lack of effort. It was a bad look, one the three Heat captains—James Johnson, Goran Dragic and Udonis Haslem—spoke about openly following the game.

    "Minutes is earned, man. Minutes is earned on this team," Johnson said, according to Manny Navarro of the Miami Herald. "We had our talk as we should as a team, and as the three captains that we are. And he gets it. I know he gets it."

    Based on Whiteside's line of 23 points, 10 rebounds and four blocks in Wednesday's win over the Suns, the message seems to have landed. For now.

    It'd be nice if we could spend our time on the Heat discussing the intrigue of Justise Winslow getting his first start at the 4 (which he did against the Suns) instead of professionalism-related discipline. Maybe next week.

22. Los Angeles Lakers

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    Nobody expected Lonzo Ball to step in and score—not with those mechanics, limited off-the-dribble zip and lack of strength.

    But this...this has to be worse than even the most conservative evaluators could have imagined.

    Ball can't make a shot. At all. From anywhere.

    Through his first 12 games, Ball shot 29.2 percent from the field, 22 percent from deep and 50 percent from the foul line. The only saving grace is his shot profile, in which nearly 80 percent of Ball's attempts come from areas you'd want, the rim and beyond the arc.

    At some point, all the intangibles and outlet passes in the world won't matter if you're a complete non-threat to score. The sample is small, but this is beyond anything we saw from early Ricky Rubio or Jason Kidd, two comparisons that feel awfully flattering in light of Ball's performance so far.

    On a more encouraging note, the Lakers knocked off the Nets and Grizzlies this week, and their defense, stunningly, resides comfortably in the league's top 10.

21. New Orleans Pelicans

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    Davis has been a beast all year, making his 37 points, 14 rebounds and career-high-tying four made threes during Tuesday's 117-112 win over the Pacers look routine.

    The Pelicans have fattened up on weak competition since we last ranked, but at least the three wins against Dallas, Chicago and Indy came on the road. That lends the victories a bit more quality. The Pels will take them however they can get them, especially early in the year. Remember, these guys got out to a 1-9 start in 2016-17 after bumbling their way to a 1-11 record to begin 2015-16.

    Just by not being eliminated from the realm of the relevant in mid-November, the Pelicans are way ahead of their usual pace.

    Can Davis and DeMarcus Cousins get enough help from an underwhelming bench? Can Jrue Holiday tap into whatever produced Thursday's 34-point explosion? Worries aside, New Orleans moves up after completing its most successful rankings session this year at 3-1, marred only by a competitive road loss to the Raptors.

20. New York Knicks

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    Kristaps Porzingis is no stranger to a fast start. Last year, for example, his three highest monthly scoring averages were in October, November and December.

    This is different, though. Porzingis already has seven 30-point games, and he set a franchise record by becoming the first New York Knicks player in history to amass 300 total points in the first 10 games of a season.

    He leads the league in usage rate but has somehow juiced his accuracy from the field, long range and the foul line at the same time. The relationship between volume and efficiency is not supposed to work that way.

    He's winking at Dwight Howard after drawing fouls. He's giving one-word answers in postgame interviews because he can. Hornets head coach Steve Clifford called him a superstar. He is not wrong.

    No wonder New York went 3-0 with Porzingis in the lineup this week, only to fall to the Orlando Magic on Wednesday while KP nursed elbow and ankle injuries. With a minus-2.4 net rating, the Knicks are a bit lucky to be 6-5. But when measured against the windfall of having Porzingis, that statistical good fortune hardly even registers.

    We are living the ascendancy of KP. Bask in it. Bask!

19. Charlotte Hornets

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    Not good, Charlotte Hornets. Not good at all.

    Three straight losses on the road and a defensive rating of 113.5 make last week's leap to No. 15 feel awfully hasty. And when you can only muster 94 points against the Minnesota Timberwolves (which is what Charlotte did in an 18-point loss on Sunday), it's not just the defense that's an issue.

    If there's a bright side to the Hornets' recent slide, it's the performance of Jeremy Lamb.

    He's averaging 17.4 points per game while hitting 47.2 percent of his shots overall and 45.5 percent from long range. His production has more than made up for the absence of Nicolas Batum, but it's worth noting that much of his added value is coming from that suspiciously high three-point percentage. If that regresses, Charlotte's offense could suffer.

    Kemba Walker still makes every floater he takes, the Hornets never turn the ball over, and Malik Monk continues to delightfully chuck whenever he gets on the floor. There's a lot to like here, but the Hornets can't go 0-3 and expect anything but slippage.

18. Milwaukee Bucks

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    Eric Bledsoe is going to help. He should be motivated now that he's out of Phoenix, and he's practically custom built to fit in the Bucks' scheme.

    Except...that scheme stinks.

    Sorry, but the whole "trap everything" approach is killing Milwaukee. And while it's exciting to imagine this Bucks squad suffocating opponents with length and speed, the fact of the matter is head coach Jason Kidd's approach has a team with oodles of defensive potential checking in at No. 29 in points allowed per possession. 

    Nobody allows more looks at the rim than Milwaukee, and that is a direct result of wild aggression against ball-handlers away from the basket. You can read about the theory in this piece from ESPN the Magazine's Kevin Arnovitz, and you can watch it fail in practice time after time whenever the Bucks play. All the aggression isn't even forcing mistakes; Milwaukee ranks in the bottom third in opponent turnover percentage.

    Milwaukee needs another creator, which Bledsoe is. And an extra dogged defender with something to prove never hurts.

    But it's the system that has to change for the Bucks to capitalize on the talent they have.

    They've lost four straight.

17. Utah Jazz

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    The Utah Jazz had a hard time stopping the opposition this past week, and if you have even the faintest sense of where this team's strengths lie, you know that's a problem.

    A 113.0 defensive rating since we last ranked resulted in an 0-3 record and a particularly nasty 137-110 loss to the Houston Rockets on Sunday.

    "Right now, we’re too much in our own heads," Thabo Sefolosha told Tony Jones of the Salt Lake Tribune following Tuesday's 104-97 loss to the Philadelphia 76ers. "We're too worried about not making shots and it's affecting our defense."

    Sefolosha has been around a while, and his assessment largely rings true—except in the case of rookie Donovan Mitchell, who seemed wholly unconcerned with making shots in the process of going 3-of-21 from the field against Philly. That's the most shot attempts with that few makes since Jrue Holiday went 2-of-24 in 2013.

    Head up, rookie. It takes confidence to keep firing when nothing is going down. And it's not like anyone else on the Jazz has been lighting it up lately. Utah sits at No. 27 in offensive rating this year.

16. Los Angeles Clippers

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    The Los Angeles Clippers are looking for answers after a crushing defeat at the hands of the Golden State Warriors sent them into a defensive nosedive.

    Including that 141-113 drubbing on Oct. 30, L.A. has lost four of its last five. Only the Bucks and Cleveland Cavaliers registered a worse defensive rating than the Clippers' 116.1 since we last ranked.

    "We're going to figure it out and we're going to get back to where we need to get, because if we do this, we're not going to win games," Austin Rivers told Broderick Turner of the Los Angeles Times. "You're just not going to win. You can't win if you're scoring 115 and you're still losing! That means the defense ain't right"

    Well, sort of. It can also mean you've been unlucky.

    A good defense limits its opponents chances from high-yield areas, chiefly at the rim and from long range. Shot frequency matters more than an opponent's conversion rate—or, at least it tells you more about what a defense is systematically trying to achieve. Generally speaking, the good ones force mid-range shots and choke off the three-point line and restricted area.

    So far, the Clips have been a mid-pack team defending the three, allowing opponents to take 31.2 percent of their shots from long range. They've been excellent in limiting restricted-area attempts, and DeAndre Jordan's presence in the lane is largely responsible for L.A. allowing the league's fourth-lowest field-goal percentage at the rim.

    Opponents have been hot, though, hitting 39.3 percent of their treys and 38.9 percent of their long twos. It's encouraging that the Clips are forcing more long mid-rangers than anyone, and that'll eventually lead to L.A.'s defensive rating improving.

    The Clippers aren't an elite defense, but they're nowhere near as bad as they looked this past week.

15. Orlando Magic

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    The regression so many expected arrived over the weekend, as the Orlando Magic averaged just 85.5 points in losses Friday and Sunday to the Bulls and Boston Celtics. 

    We can all agree bumping the Magic all the way up to No. 9 last week was a mistake, but let's remember we spent most of that section explaining why the team was headed for a fall. That's almost as good as not overrating Orlando in the first place, right?

    The Magic get some slack because D.J. Augustin joined Elfrid Payton on the sidelines, forcing third-stringer Shelvin Mack into a bigger role than was ideal in that two-game slide. Payton returned to action on Wednesday, scoring 11 points and handing out 11 assists in a 112-99 win over the KP-less Knicks.

    The Magic are not the incendiary offensive force their first eight games suggested, but they're also unlikely to keep laying eggs against teams of Chicago's ilk.

    The smart money is on Orlando to retain pleasant surprise status for as long as its shooting holds up. It's still tied for fourth in effective field-goal percentage, even after that rough weekend. Once the numbers normalize, the Magic should find themselves in a fight for a bottom-half playoff spot—which is still great in the wake of last year's 29-win campaign.

14. Philadelphia 76ers

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    The Philadelphia 76ers have won five of their last six games, and you can feel the excitement building as Joel Embiid stays healthy, Ben Simmons continues making history and role players keep drilling threes.

    "We all recognize the significance of tonight and getting over .500 for the first time in a long time," JJ Redick told reporters after scoring 31 points in the 76ers' 121-110 win over the Pacers on Friday. "My focus was more on winning. Obviously I had a good third quarter there where I got hot and then the three threes down the stretch were more about, let's just get a win."

    Redick buried eight treys in that win, and Robert Covington is all the way up at 50 percent from long range through his first 11 games—on some serious volume.

    Tuesday's 104-97 win at the Jazz was another high-water mark. Embiid rested for that one, and Dario Saric coolly slid in with 25 points to lead the team.

    Simmons hasn't stopped making the Rookie of the Year race a formality. He joined Oscar Robertson as the only players to accumulate at least 100 rebounds and 80 assists in their first 10 games, according to ESPN Stats & Info.

    Markelle Fultz's decision to shoot left-handed in practice is weird and frightening, and the specter of youth and injury will hover over these guys all year. But right now, the Sixers look tough.

13. Portland Trail Blazers

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    If the Blazers could get more consistent contributions from their role players, they'd have little trouble separating themselves from the mass of Western Conference teams hanging around the .500 mark. At 6-5 following a 1-1 week that could have been better if CJ McCollum's potential game-winner had gone down on Tuesday, Portland is still leaning on its stars too heavily.

    Sometimes, things still work out. Like when Damian Lillard, McCollum and Jusuf Nurkic contributed all but 20 of Portland's 103 points in Sunday's win over the Thunder.

    Still, it'd be nice if others (looking at you, Moe Harkless and Evan Turner) could help out a little.

    One possible solution would be running more. If role-fillers aren't getting looks in half-court sets, maybe the open lanes of transition basketball could lead to easier buckets. Through their first 11 games, the Blazers rank dead last in percentage of offense derived from fast-break points.

12. Memphis Grizzlies

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    If the Memphis Grizzlies keep getting production like this from Dillon Brooks and the bench while Mike Conley rounds into form, it'll get easier to believe in the team's playoff future.

    Brooks swiped a key steal before finishing a critical and-1 bucket in the late going of the Grizzlies' 98-97 win over the Portland Trail Blazers on Tuesday, after which he defended CJ McCollum well enough to force a miss on Portland's final possession.

    The counting numbers won't wow you, and any mention of plus-minus at this stage of the season warrants skepticism, but Brooks' presence on the floor has coincided with more success than anyone else on the team. In Brooks' 326 minutes, Memphis has outscored its opponents by 75 points.

    As a whole, the Grizzlies' reserves have been excellent, and they were integral to a 2-1 stretch. But nothing matters more than Conley's return to form. After an inefficient start to the season and a sore Achilles scare, Conley scored at least 20 points in all three games this past week while hitting 46 percent from the field and 42.9 percent from deep.

    If he and the bench are good enough to help Memphis at least split road contests against Houston and Milwaukee next week, a top-10 ranking will be in order.

11. Detroit Pistons

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    Andre Drummond was 14-of-16 from the foul line against the Bucks on Friday. This is real. We are in the upside down.

    Unless we aren't. Drummond was 0-of-7 from the stripe the following Wednesday but still managed to dominate with 14 points and 21 rebounds.

    He's at 63.8 percent for the season, which looks pretty good against that career conversion rate of 38.8 percent.

    And while skill development like this doesn't necessarily mean some of the other weaknesses in his game (inconsistent focus chief among them) are fixable, it's still encouraging. Moreover, it's a reminder to never totally close the book on someone. If Drummond can suddenly hit free throws in bunches, anything's possible.

    An undefeated stretch at home against the Bucks, Kings and Pacers isn't anything to brag about, but the Pistons are taking care of the teams they should beat. And the bench remains a strength. Detroit's reserves are a plus-24 on the season. 

10. Denver Nuggets

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    We haven't said much about Nikola Jokic for a while, which, if you followed these rankings last year, is quite a surprise. This was basically the designated space for fawning over the guy no-look hook-passing the Nuggets to the best offense in the league after December 15.

    Jokic got off to a slow start, though, and we had to talk about Jamal Murray and Emmanuel Mudiay instead. 

    No more!

    Jokic is back in his rightful place as the subject of the Nuggets section. He scored a career-high 41 points Tuesday, and you'd have to hope his improvement will kick-start Gary Harris' season as well. Harris' efficiency has been fantastic, but somebody's got to get him more than 10 shots per game.

    That someone is the Joker.

    Can I just tell you something? This feels right. It's comforting to know we can again commit this space to Jokic worship and, pending editorial approval, some tasteful, romantic Jokic-centered fan fiction. Make sure to check back for that next week.

9. Minnesota Timberwolves

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    The Minnesota Timberwolves' five-game winning streak ended Wednesday when the Warriors rolled over them in Oakland, 125-101, but there's no shame in falling to the defending champs on the road.

    The streak was Minnesota's longest since 2009, and the 7-3 start before the loss to Golden State was the franchise's best since 2001-02.

    Defense is still an issue, as the Wolves rank in the bottom five in points allowed per possession. But even that stat has been trending the right way, as the Wolves' 103.1 defensive rating this past week checks in right around the league average.

    Karl-Anthony Towns and Andrew Wiggins keep piling up the numbers, but Jimmy Butler is the one earning praise for setting the tone.

    Here's Zach Lowe of ESPN.com: "Thing I didn't see coming: Jimmy Butler being fifth among Minny rotation players in usage rate. He's blending in, focusing on defense."

    And here's SB Nation's Tim Cato: "Butler is a star, but he isn't acting like one. The forward is averaging 15.1 [now 14.7] points per game, nearly nine points worse than his scoring average last season with the Chicago Bulls. He's dialed in on defense and doing the dirty work, while embracing a leadership role that the young Wolves badly need."

    There's some luck involved when a 7-4 team has been outscored by 28 total points on the season, but let's allow the Wolves a week without mention of encroaching doom for once.

8. Cleveland Cavaliers

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    The Cleveland Cavaliers didn't land Eric Bledsoe, which means they'll have to continue searching for a spark via some other means. And clenching their fists in frustration.

    According to NBA.com's John Schuhmann, the Cavs were 3-0 through their first nine games when leading at the end of the first quarter and 1-6 when they trailed. There are several problems combining to sink Cleveland—limited backcourt spacing, too many one-way players, zero urgency—but it sure looks like one of them is an unwillingness to get back up when it falls down early.

    A cruder term would be "quitting."

    James' 57 points Friday against the Wizards stood out as a bright spot, as his 14 baskets in the restricted area represented the highest total of his career. Same for his 23 made buckets, per Brian Windhorst of ESPN.com.

    But Cleveland went out and lost to the Hawks (the Hawks!) in its next game. At home.

    So much for a turning point.

    Deep down, everyone believes these guys will figure it out by the time the games matter. That's admittedly a huge reason this 5-7 team is still hanging in at No. 8. But until we see signs of life, the Cavs don't deserve to rank in the top five.

7. Washington Wizards

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    The Washington Wizards salvaged a 2-2 mark during a week that saw John Wall's shoulder act up and the defense check out.

    Whether that's encouraging depends on how sure you are that tough talk will fix a focus issue that has plagued Washington for several seasons.

    Bradley Beal laid it out it out after Tuesday's incomprehensible 113-99 loss to the Mavs, per Candace Buckner of the Washington Post"It's pretty much the same as all our losses. We didn't play hard. They outworked us. We didn't defend. That's plain and simple. You don't win if you don't defend."

    Washington gave up 113 points to Dallas four days after surrendering 130 to the Cavs.

    Do the Wizards have it in them to lock down consistently and avoid the recurring theme of falling behind early because of poor defensive focus, and only then dialing up the urgency?

    If they do, it'll do wonders for one of the league's more annoyingly inconsistent good teams.

6. Oklahoma City Thunder

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    The Oklahoma City Thunder are a great example of how you've got to peel the layers to uncover a team's quality at this stage of the season.

    Sure, OKC has close wins and a couple of hard-luck losses, but it also gets a massive boost to its net rating from that 32-point demolition of the Bulls back on Oct. 28. Point differential matters, but until we've got a larger sample, it'll still be best to scrutinize how teams amassed those figures.

    More immediately, OKC's offense is a mess, marked by the fewest passes per game and the most isolation possessions in the league. Russell Westbrook's scoring is way down, and he even clanged three straight foul shots when the Thunder trailed by four with 21 seconds remaining against the Blazers on Sunday.

    The ball is sticking, and even though the Thunder's defense remains among the league's best, it's genuinely alarming that a club with this much talent can't generate efficient scoring on the other end.

    OKC scored 59 points in quarters two through four of its shocking Tuesday loss to the Kings. It's early, but after an ugly week and considering the club's sub-.500 record (4-7), it's fair to wonder whether Westbrook, Carmelo Anthony and isolation ball might prevent the Thunder from sniffing their potential.

5. Toronto Raptors

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    It's not a great sign when two of the pre-eminent Toronto Raptors authorities produce simultaneous versions of "What's up with Kyle Lowry?" stories on the same day, but that's what happened when The Athletic's Eric Koreen and Ryan Wolstat of the Toronto Sun released their takes this week.

    "The offence badly needed to be modernized, but if doing so comes at the cost of neutralizing Lowry," Wolstat explained, "the Raptors won't be any further ahead."

    Lowry has struggled to get to the foul line as often as in years past, and if some of that has to do with the league's emphasis on differentiating between contact deliberately drawn before shots and typical shooting fouls, perhaps more has to do with Toronto's tweaked attack.

    Less isolation and more jump-shooting off passes combine to make it harder for Lowry to get to the line. Through his first 10 games, Lowry averaged 12.4 points and 1.7 foul shots per game. That's a far cry from last year's 22.4 and 6.1.

    Lowry will sort himself out, and it's encouraging that Toronto still has a winning record (7-4) with its best player struggling.

    If not for Lowry's early ejection in a loss to the Wall-less Wizards on Sunday, the Raps might have completed a 4-0 week.

4. San Antonio Spurs

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    Dylan Buell/Getty Images

    ↑ 3 Spots

    First, the San Antonio Spurs were a highly functioning basketball machine whirring along perfectly despite the absence of key cog Kawhi Leonard. They went 4-0 to start the year.

    Then, they were in full meltdown, dropping four straight to even their record. Leonard really did mean the difference between life and death!

    And now, having won all three games this past week, the Spurs are...still pretty good, I guess? But also possibly in big trouble? Only maybe not?

    It's complicated, and the only certainty is San Antonio will have to keep at it a while longer as Tony Parker and, most importantly, Leonard work their way back from quad injuries.

    "His body hasn't reacted the same way as Tony's," Spurs head coach Gregg Popovich told ESPN.com's Michael C. Wright of Leonard's rehab. "Tony's at the point where he's been going five-on-five and that kind of thing. He's not totally confident. It'll be a few more weeks. But he's definitely going the right direction. And so is Kawhi. It's just taking a little bit longer."

    For reference, Parker is expected back sometime in December. If Leonard is going to take "a little bit longer," what's that mean?

    We're in for a lot more week-to-week flip-flopping about the Spurs' survival chances.

3. Houston Rockets

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    Bill Baptist/Getty Images

    ↑ 1 Spot

    James Harden has been phenomenal without Chris Paul (knee) around, getting loose for 56 points and 13 assists against the theoretically stout defense of the Utah Jazz on Sunday.

    According to NBA.com, the 91 points Harden accounted for on his own or via the assist were the third-highest single-game total in league history. Per Micah Adams of ESPN Stats & Info, it was the second time he'd scored or set up at least 90 points' worth of offense, which the entire rest of the league has done...once...ever.

    He's averaging more points and fewer turnovers than he did a year ago, and he's doing it all in a Houston Rockets system even more committed to chucking up threes than ever. It is a virtual lock that Houston, which is taking almost exactly half its shots from deep, will beat its own the single-season record for most three-point attempts in a season (3,306).

    The Rockets won four straight after they downed the Cavs on Thursday behind 35 points, 13 assists, 11 rebounds and five steals from Harden. PJ Tucker's late-game offensive rebounding iced it, but Clint Capela can't be overlooked either.

    In the midst of a breakout, he put up 19 points, 13 rebounds and four blocks.

2. Boston Celtics

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    Brian Babineau/Getty Images

    ↑ 1 Spot

    Sunday's victory against Orlando gave the Boston Celtics eight straight, its longest undefeated streak in head coach Brad Stevens' tenure.

    Add two more to that, and you've got the current Celts, 10-2 with the NBA's best defensive rating (95.6) and one of the more shocking plot twists of the young season: Kyrie Irving is guarding people.

    Only former Cavs general manager David Griffin saw this coming, and even his take on the subject, offered back in April to David Zavac of Fear the Sword, felt close to puffery: "When he's highly motivated to [defend], you realize he's special. His hands are lightning-quick, his feet are lightning-quick. When he wants to, he can do whatever he wants."

    It seems Irving wants to be a two-way player. He leads the league in steals and has put forth more effort on D in three weeks than he did in several years for Cleveland.

    Injuries are a developing concern, as Jayson Tatum (who's shooting 53 percent from deep) and Al Horford are battling ankle and concussion issues, respectively. But this group is locking down opponents, sharing the ball and generally thriving since starting 0-2 and losing Gordon Hayward.

    Hot as the Celtics are, they're still not on this next team's level.

1. Golden State Warriors

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    Andrew D. Bernstein/Getty Images

    ↔ No Movement

    "We just got better. We're starting to put it together on both ends of the floor," Golden State Warriors forward Draymond Green told Mark Medina of the San Jose Mercury News. "We're taking better care of the ball and we're playing better defense. That's the recipe. We know that. It took a couple of weeks for us to lock in on it."

    Bad news, 29 other teams. The lock-in continues.

    Green made those comments after the Dubs strung together road wins against the Clippers, Spurs and Nuggets. Since then, they've added two more blowouts to the ledger, giving them five straight victories with a margin of at least 15 points. Per NBA.com, the Warriors have only done that one other time in franchise history.

    Kevin Durant continues to flash shocking defensive growth, typified by this sequence of three blocks in six seconds against Miami. Omri Casspi is catching feels when describing his relationship with head coach Steve Kerr. Nick Young is posting five-assist games.

    Nick Young!

    It's all coming together in Golden State, and with so many other contenders floundering, we may not be far from employing a straight copy-and-paste approach for this slot every week. Something like...

    "Warriors: good. Everyone else: trying their best."

    We'll work on it.

                  

    Stats courtesy of Basketball Reference, Cleaning the Glass or NBA.com unless otherwise specified. Accurate through games played Thursday, Nov. 9.

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