NBA Power Rankings: It's the Golden State Warriors and Everyone Else

Grant Hughes@@gt_hughesNational NBA Featured ColumnistNovember 6, 2015

NBA Power Rankings: It's the Golden State Warriors and Everyone Else

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    Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports

    It's been less than two weeks since the 2015-16 NBA season kicked off, and already we've got some serious shaking going on in our second edition of power rankings.

    That's going to happen with small sample sizes and a whole bunch of teams integrating new personnel. So if your favorite squad gained or lost a dozen spots since the season tip-off rankings, don't worry about that volatility.

    We've got another six months for things to stabilize.

    The rankings, as always, reflect how each team has performed to date. There are no excuses for injury, strength of opponents is a factor, and we'll always look beyond the cosmetic record in making determinations.

    The league is playing faster, the threes are flying and a familiar juggernaut (that happens to specialize in both pace and space) somehow tightened a stranglehold on the top spot that felt pretty suffocating before the season even started.

    Here's the hierarchy.

30. Los Angeles Lakers

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    Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

    Last Week: 27

    We begin with a new Power Rankings feature: Face-Palmiest Quote of the Week.

    The winner in this edition is Los Angeles Lakers head coach Byron Scott, who has drawn the ire of critics once every three or four days since taking over the job in 2014.

    With the Lakers off to a brutal start marked by Kobe Bryant's profound and obvious decline, rookie D'Angelo Russell's prolonged stints on the bench and a generally depressing tone, Scott offered up what might be the worst thing a coach in a rebuilding situation could possibly say, per Baxter Holmes of ESPN.com: "I’m not always thinking about necessarily developing (young players). I’m always thinking about trying to win. I’m always thinking about trying to win. The development part comes secondary to that."

    And...face palm.

    The Lakers haven't played anyone with realistic playoff expectations yet, and they certainly shouldn't have any of their own. Yet here's Scott prioritizing immediate success over long-term player development.

    This thing isn't turning around any time soon.

29. Brooklyn Nets

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    Soobum Im-USA TODAY Sports

    Last Week: 29

    Unlike Scott, Brooklyn Nets head coach Lionel Hollins doesn't have many young talents to bench. He's doing his best with the one he has, though.

    "Especially odd was Hollins' decision to play rookie defensive sparkplug Rondae Hollis-Jefferson, who was a plus-13 and recorded three steals during his time on the court, for just 11 minutes, including three minutes in the second half (against the Atlanta Hawks on Nov. 4)," wrote ESPN.com's Mike Mazzeo. "This came after Hollins played Hollis-Jefferson for only four minutes in Monday night's loss to Milwaukee."

    These old-school coaches, man.

    Brooklyn has been getting absolutely crushed through its 0-5 start, losing by a larger average margin than the Lakers. The only reasons they rate ahead of the Los Angeles Tire Fires are Brook Lopez's predictably solid play, the diminished incentive to lose because they lack a first-rounder in this year's draft and the marginally less delusional atmosphere.

    It's bad in Brooklyn, but it'll take some work to match the all-time low the franchise hit in 2009-10 when it lost an NBA-record 18 straight to open the season.

28. Philadelphia 76ers

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    Last Week: 30

    The Philadelphia 76ers' upward move is as much about two teams looking flat-out awful as it is about the faint signs of hope in the frontcourt.

    Jahlil Okafor has arrived as advertised: a fluid scoring threat with an array of intuitive moves and touch for days. He's not the pace-and-space big man most teams crave, but he has the makings of being a bigger, Al Jefferson-esque offensive anchor in the lane.

    What's even more encouraging is what Okafor's offensive gravity has done for teammate Nerlens Noel. 

    Bob Cooney of Philly.com observed: "More than the numbers, though, was the ease at which Noel now plays. There is more room on the floor with Okafor for him to use his athleticism to get where he wants."

    To be fair, it's often unclear if Noel knows where he wants to get. He can be hyperactive on both ends, but that's mostly a good problem. The wins haven't come yet, but Okafor's undeniable NBA skill, Noel's freedom to move and even Nik Stauskas' wild long-range aggression (he shot 14 threes against the Milwaukee Bucks on Nov. 4) bode well for the future.

    Congrats, Sixers! You are not the worst.

27. New Orleans Pelicans

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    Steve Dykes/Associated Press

    Last Week: 11

    We might have made a mistake in assuming Anthony Davis' upward trend would be an uninterrupted line. Things have been rough for AD so far. His scoring efficiency has dipped to career-low rates, and he's clearly been pressing to make up for the New Orleans Pelicans' absent injured.

    Davis has begun his third season looking physically stronger and featuring an itchier three-point trigger finger, but he's also been showcasing a frustration level we've never seen before.

    It's uncomfortable to suggest it, but Davis' effort level has waned. NBA analyst Zach Lowe tweeted: "There have been too many possessions already this season in which Anthony Davis flat hasn't played hard enough."

    That's not encouraging.

    Davis remains a statistical monster, and you could even make the case that his production to date (without much help at all) ranks among his more impressive career feats. But there's no escaping the disappointment of both AD and the Pelicans falling flat to start what many thought was a sure leap-forward season.

26. Milwaukee Bucks

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    Benny Sieu-USA TODAY Sports

    Last Week: 16

    Three straight losses to open the season have given way to better results for the Milwaukee Bucks. Led by the consistently awesome Giannis Antetokounmpo (averages of 21.3 points 7.8 rebounds and 2.5 assists on 59.3 percent shooting through his first four games), Jason Kidd's crew has looked much more like the defensively stout outfit it was last season.

    With the Greek Freak showing vast improvement in his perimeter game, Jabari Parker making his return from last year's torn ACL and an East-heavy schedule on the horizon, the Bucks should vault back toward the top half of the power rankings in short order.

    For now, thanks to that shaky opening week and a pair of suspect wins over the Nets and Sixers, it's just not fair to rank them any higher.

25. Sacramento Kings

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    Rich Pedroncelli/Associated Press

    Last Week: 19

    That's a picture of DeMarcus Cousins in street clothes, which is basically the worst thing imaginable for the Sacramento Kings...other than this, of course.

    A sore Achilles has cost Boogie some time in the early going, and the Kings have predictably struggled without their best player on the floor. Aside from a 132-point explosion in a win against the Lakers (and, really, wins against L.A. mean next to nothing these days), the Kings haven't had much to get excited about so far.

    Before he went down, Cousins was definitely a source of optimism. Marginal improvements and a very interesting 4-of-5 effort from downtown on opening night gave the impression that the Kings might be able to ride their big man to respectability this season. 

    "He's just better than he has been, really," SBNation's Tom Ziller wrote. "A better finisher, a better shooter, a smarter playmaker, a more dedicated defender. It's like super basic plain improvement...though the deeper range has a feel of the new."

    Sacramento wants to win now, and it hasn't done much of that to this point.

24. Indiana Pacers

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    Ron Hoskins/Getty Images

    Last Week: 20

    Despite being chased by what appears to be a giant ice cream cone (see image above), Paul George is rounding into his pre-injury form.

    The Indiana Pacers' preferred small-ball approach depends on George taking advantage of his matchup on offense, and it was encouraging to see him crack the 20-point barrier (he had 26 against the Boston Celtics on Nov. 4) for the first time since returning from the broken leg he suffered two summers ago. Still, Indy hasn't scored much at all this season, cracking the 100-point barrier just once in its first five games despite shrinking its lineup and adding some pace.

    George has struggled to convert efficiently, Monta Ellis' athleticism (vital to his game) seems to have slipped and the Pacers have been getting crushed on the glass.

    Rookie Myles Turner looks like he'll be viable stretch 5 down the line, so that's intriguing. But on balance, Indiana has underwhelmed out of the gate.

23. Denver Nuggets

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    Bart Young/Getty Images

    Last Week: 26

    Expectations were awfully low for the Denver Nuggets heading into the season, and even if it's not saying much, they've mostly exceeded them.

    Emmanuel Mudiay has been surprisingly accurate from long range, hitting 9-of-20 from three in his first five games. His conversion rate inside the arc has been ugly in contrast, but the Nuggets will surely take the deep ball accuracy from a player whose main weakness was supposed to be shooting.

    Denver's opening night win over the Rockets was probably the shock of the young season, and they also took care of business against the hapless Lakers. A 2-3 record through five games isn't anything special, but it's, well...something.

    It'll be interesting to see how the small-ball Nugs, who've been spacing the floor for Mudiay by using Kenneth Faried at center, will adjust to the eventual return of promising big man Jusuf Nurkic. Head coach Mike Malone has done fine so far; we should expect him to handle that mini-transition well. 

22. Orlando Magic

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    Stacy Revere/Getty Images

    Last Week: 23

    The Orlando Magic are onto something, even if the early win-loss results don't show it.

    Per Jonathan Tjarks of RealGM: "In a league becoming more wing-oriented by the season, Orlando has wings for days. They have five between 6’4" and 6’9"—Oladipo, Fournier, Harris, Gordon and Hezonja—and they can all match up with multiple positions, look for their own shot and move the ball."

    An early slate riddled with opponents who made the playoffs last year has Orlando sitting comfortably below .500, but the Magic have been competitive in every game to this point. And their vast collection of wing talent, led, surprisingly, by Evan Fournier, is too good to struggle against weaker opponents.

    If anything, head coach Scott Skiles has too many options. Aaron Gordon and Mario Hezonja need minutes, but it's been difficult to keep Tobias Harris, Fournier, Victor Oladipo and Elfrid Payton off the floor.

    Assuming Nikola Vucevic's knee injury won't cost him too much time, those wings will get to fly around one of the best interior-scoring centers in the league all year long.

    The Magic could be in for a rise up the rankings soon.

21. Charlotte Hornets

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    Last Week: 22

    The 0-3 start is a little deceptive; three relatively close losses to quality opponents (Miami and Atlanta twice) certainly didn't help the Charlotte Hornets in the standings, but they didn't necessarily signal doom either. That became apparent when they erupted for a 130-105 win over the Chicago Bulls Nov. 3 and then followed it up with a win at the Dallas Mavericks Nov. 5.

    Jeremy Lamb inked a somewhat controversial $21 million pact before that Bulls game, and he promptly produced 20 points on 9-of-10 shooting. Head coach Steve Clifford jokingly said he saw it coming: "I said, 'Listen, this guy is going to go 9 for 10 most nights—if we don't pay him now it's a mistake.'"

    A 7-of-11 effort against the Mavs suggests Clifford might be onto something.

    Al Jefferson can still score on the box, and Nicolas Batum is doing decent work as a facilitating wing.

    The Hornets made moves over the summer that suggest the playoffs are the goal. They're no lock for postseason play yet, especially without Michael Kidd-Gilchrist. But the outlines of a seventh or eighth seed are visible in Charlotte.

20. Houston Rockets

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    Last Week: 5

    Three consecutive 20-point losses to open the campaign were probably more of a blip than a death knell, but the Houston Rockets can't be happy about how they've started a season that came with some serious built-in expectations.

    After reaching the West finals last spring, Houston added Ty Lawson to the starting lineup and had reason to believe it'd get more than 41 games from Dwight Howard (his career low last year) during the regular season. Sixty wins seemed possible.

    Maybe it still is, but one solid victory over the Oklahoma City Thunder and a very shaky OT escape at home against the Orlando Magic don't inspire a ton of confidence.

    James Harden got off to an awful start, and his constant off-ball loafing raised questions about how well he'd function as an outlet for Lawson. The theory of taking some responsibilities off Harden's plate seemed appealing, but the Rockets have yet to work out the practical kinks.

    Donatas Motiejunas and Terrence Jones, both sidelined by injury, can't get back soon enough.

19. Boston Celtics

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    Last Week: 15

    The Boston Celtics haven't been pleased with their start, and even at this early juncture, they're taking steps to remedy the situation. Head coach Brad Stevens shook up his starting unit against the Pacers Nov. 4, swapping Amir Johnson and Jared Sullinger in for David Lee and Tyler Zeller.

    The result was another loss.

    "I don’t know what it is, but we’ve got to figure it out sooner than later,” Isaiah Thomas, who also joined the starters in place of the injured Marcus Smart, told Adam Himmelsbach of the Boston Globe. “I’m tired of losing."

    If lineup tweaks won't fix the issue, maybe some strategic ones will.

    For example, utilizing Jae Crowder on 95-foot shots more often.

    That's your Shot of the Week and also your Injustice of the Week because, of course, it didn't count. Do that at halftime, and you win a car—maybe two. Do it in the game and it's a turnover.

    Where's the sense in that?

18. Minnesota Timberwolves

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    Brad Rempel-USA TODAY Sports

    Last Week: 28

    Quick! Try to think of something you don't like about Karl-Anthony Towns.

    All I've got is a general uneasiness about guys with two first names. Seems a little shifty.

    Other than that, the No. 1 overall pick has been bulletproof. And he's earning some wildly positive reviews from analysts like ESPN's David Thorpe, who tweeted earlier this season: "i know it's just been 3 games against non-playoff teams, but I have seen enough to suggest that Karl Anthony Towns has more upside than AD."

    Whoa. Just whoa.

    A 3-of-13 effort in 22 minutes against the Miami Heat Nov. 5 was a reminder that it's probably not a great idea to make outlandish claims after three games.

    Towns looks like a future star, but let's not go starry-eyed over him just yet.

    His Minnesota Timberwolves have notched two road wins and two home losses, but they've got a narrowly positive net rating through those four games, which is probably better than most expected for last year's lottery winner.

    The Wolves made a nice little climb. We'll see if they hang on against an imposing slate that includes the Bulls, Hawks and Warriors over the next week.

17. New York Knicks

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    Last Week: 24

    Go ahead and get bent out of shape about Carmelo Anthony tossing up some bricktacular performances (4-of-16 in the opener, 10-of-27 the very next night against the Hawks and 4-of-17 against Kawhi Leonard and the San Antonio Spurs Nov. 2, to name three).

    Feel free to also worry over the New York Knicks' two consecutive games without a single fastbreak point, a feat they achieved Nov. 2 against the Spurs and Nov. 4 against the Cavs.

    Maybe even wring your hands over rookie Kristaps Porzingis' persistent foul trouble.

    Or, forget all that and acknowledge that these Knicks are actually kind of fun.

    Porzingis keeps flashing real skill and follow-dunking over opposing power forwards; Jerian Grant and Derrick Williams keep attacking like lunatics; and Kyle O'Quinn apparently has Dirk Nowitzki's one-legged fadeaway in his arsenal.

    Unlike some recent Knicks teams, this version won't be mostly bad and entirely depressing. Instead, it'll be mostly bad but also largely encouraging. There are signs here—signs that point to a way forward. Younger talent, a couple of solid wins over the Bucks and Wizards, and reasonably improved defense suggest the Knicks are on the right track.

    It's way too early to start thinking about the playoffs, but for the first time in a while generally good thoughts are allowed.

16. Memphis Grizzlies

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    Marcio Jose Sanchez/Associated Press

    Last Week: 7

    What do you consider when ranking the Memphis Grizzlies?

    Does the perennial certainty of 50 wins weigh heavier than a one-week span that included losses by 30 to the Cleveland Cavaliers and 50 to the Golden State Warriors? Do we look past the increasingly obvious truth that the league's emphasis on perimeter shooting and pace have left the Grizzlies stranded in the past?

    There are lots of questions worth asking right now, perhaps the most significant being this: Are the Grizz finished as a reliable mid-tier playoff seed?

    A 3-3 record, a crippling refusal to fire up threes and those two brutal defeats make it seem like Memphis is in trouble.

    Don't count out the Grizzlies, but let's at least agree to consider the possibility that the identity that has defined them for so long might be hurting them now.

15. Dallas Mavericks

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    Jason Miller/Getty Images

    Last Week: 18

    Years after his official hiring, a transcript of Rick Carlisle's interview pitch to Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban has surfaced: "Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, the wretched refuse of your teeming shore," an impassioned Carlisle exclaimed. "Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me, I lift my lamp beside the golden door!"

    It's possible none of that's true. It's also possible that's from Emma Lazarus' The New Colossus and that it's on a plaque bolted to the Statute of Liberty.

    But it pretty nicely encapsulates what Carlisle does: He takes the undesired, mangled and otherwise unseemly talents—whatever the Mavs invariably get after whiffing on big free-agent targets—and he turns them into a respectable outfit.

    I guess that's why Dallas agreed to make him the highest paid coach in the NBA (excluding those with additional executive titles) Nov. 5, according to Marc Stein of ESPN.com: "Mark Cuban, Donnie Nelson and Dirk Nowitzki are the reason an extension like this is possible," Carlisle said (for real this time). "I have the best owner and general manager in sports, and one of the greatest players in NBA history to thank for this opportunity. There is much work to be done as we move forward."

    Carlisle's new five-year deal will pay him $7 million annually. That's money well spent because I'm not sure there's another coach who could coax a pair of wins out of a lineup that is either old, injured or both right now.

14. Phoenix Suns

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    Jennifer Stewart-USA TODAY Sports

    Last Week: 17

    The Phoenix Suns haven't done anything to move themselves out of comfortable middle-tier positions, beating inferior opponents (Portland twice and Sacramento) and losing to superior ones (Dallas and the Clippers) to start the year.

    Of course, the middle isn't where any NBA team wants to be these days. Becoming something more than a maybe/maybe not playoff participant will depend on the continued success of the Eric Bledsoe-Brandon Knight dual-point guard experiment (version 3.0) and Tyson Chandler's predictable steadying influence in the middle.

    All three have been good so far.

    Markieff Morris could stand to improve the 34.3 percent shooting he posted in Phoenix's first five games, but at least his long-range stroke isn't far below his overall number (33.3 percent).

13. Detroit Pistons

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    Last Week: 21

    Andre Drummond scored 81 points and tractor-beamed 78 rebounds in his first four games of the season, totals no player in Basketball-Reference.com's database (which goes back to 1985 on these particular stats) has ever amassed.

    So that's pretty good.

    Also pretty good was the Detroit Pistons' overall start.

    Despite a thin rotation made thinner by the loss of Jodie Meeks to a Jones fracture in his right foot, the Pistons have already secured wins over the Hawks, Jazz and Bulls. And if you chalk up that Nov. 3 loss to an off night (in which Drummond had 25 points and 29 rebounds), there's plenty to like here.

    Seven of their next eight contests come on the road against Western Conference opponents. We'll know for sure if the Pistons are legit once that trip is done Nov. 20.

12. Portland Trail Blazers

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    Last Week: 25

    Yes, I'm aware it's weird to rank the Portland Trail Blazers ahead of the Suns, who took both games from Portland in a home-and-home series on Oct. 30 and 31. Just hear me out.

    There are plenty of ways to completely tear down and rebuild a team, and almost all of them are super unfun.

    But the Blazers have so far managed to make the construction process bearable—even exciting. That's all thanks to Damian Lillard, who we suspected would get his numbers with an entirely new and mostly unproven starting unit around him, and C.J. McCollum, whose scorching season-opening quarter has morphed into a generally hot start.

    The Blazers starting backcourt pumped in a combined 62 points on 24-of-40 shooting in a pretty stunning 108-92 win over the Utah Jazz Nov. 4. And even if results like that probably won't be too common as the Blazers push through a transitional season, at least there's hope the process will be entertaining.

    And hey, they smoked the Grizzlies Nov. 5—on the back end of a back-to-back set. That's no joke.

    Can we agree to be in on the Blazers this year? Because I'm leaning that way and would like some company.

11. Miami Heat

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    Issac Baldizon/Getty Images

    Last Week: 9

    There's a lot to like about the Miami Heat, who entered the season with enough talent and depth to profile as a sneaky contender for the East crown. They've run up a plus-7.0 net rating through five games, which is good enough to rank fifth in the league, per NBA.com.

    Hassan Whiteside has been productive on both ends, Goran Dragic has clearly enjoyed working with Chris Bosh for the first time and Dwyane Wade just keeps pump-faking suckers into fouls. The "if healthy" caveat will always apply, but the early results suggest Miami is legit.

    Then again, the Heat's three wins have come against the Hornets, Rockets and Timberwolves—all of whom have endured some shaky or suspect starts this year. And the two losses: against the Cavs and Atlanta Hawks.

    Viewed that way, it's not really fair to say we know much about the Heat beyond the fact that they've beaten who they should beat.

    Cautious optimism is fair here, and the upside remains very high. But let's see if Miami eventually starts notching some quality wins before we really go nuts.

10. Chicago Bulls

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    Last Week: 10

    Fred Hoiberg's offense is kind of a mess, his rotations are strange and the defense he was supposed to have inherited from Tom Thibodeau just isn't there. On top of that, the Chicago Bulls are dealing with the fallout of a report from Brian Windhorst of ESPN that the breakup between Derrick Rose and the team is already underway.

    Yet here the Bulls are with a 4-2 mark that includes wins over the Cleveland Cavaliers and Oklahoma City Thunder. Dysfunction and disappointment can't be too crippling if they lead to victories against LeBron James and Kevin Durant, right?

    For his part, Rose responded to the rumors with his best game of the season, going off for 29 points, seven assists and five rebounds in 37 minutes against OKC.

    The hints of long-term instability are visible in Chicago, but they haven't yet led to many losses.

9. Washington Wizards

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    Alex Brandon/Associated Press

    Last Week: 13

    Marcin Gortat is the starting center for a Washington Wizards team that looks suspiciously like it's ready to make a run at one of the top three spots in the East, and he just finished celebrating a last-second victory over the San Antonio Spurs (thanks, Bradley Beal game-winner!) Nov. 4.

    And yet Gortat is bummed.

    "I appreciate, actually, that they kept me in the game and they keep throwing me the ball," he told Jorge Castillo of the Washington Post. "I’m just in a big black hole right now so I’m just trying to get out of that."

    Cheer up, big guy; a big game or two and you'll be right back in line with last year's averages of 12.2 points and 8.7 rebounds on 56.6 percent shooting.

    The Wizards are good, and both Beal and John Wall look poised for career years. The big win over San Antonio helps Washington crack the top 10 with the potential to do more than that if it holds steady until Gortat's game comes back.

8. Utah Jazz

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    Bill Streicher-USA TODAY Sports

    Last Week: 14

    The Utah Jazz, clearly, are going to play their way. And it's been working.

    Last year's post-All-Star break darlings rank third in defensive efficiency, proving their stretch-run stinginess was real. Few play bigger than the Jazz, who trot out Rudy Gobert and Derrick Favors to form an imposing front line, and nobody plays slower, per NBA.com.

    Head coach Quin Snyder knows he's got an elite defense, but he's been searching for answers on the other end, even going with no-point-guard lineups for stretches in the early going.

    Utah should go a long way on the strength of its defense, and it has already gotten it to 3-2 on the year. But it may run into trouble when its soft opening schedule toughens up—especially if scoring continues to be a real problem.

7. Oklahoma City Thunder

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    Phelan M. Ebenhack/Associated Press

    Last Week: 2

    In the entirety of their lost 2014-15 season, the Oklahoma City Thunder lost back-to-back games against Eastern Conference teams just twice.

    They've already done it once this season, dropping consecutive tilts to the Toronto Raptors and Bulls. After a 3-0 start that included a win over the San Antonio Spurs, OKC has struggled mightily to defend—particularly with Enes Kanter on the floor. Hardly a shock given the big man's reputation, but a max player like Kanter simply can't have an on-off split that shows the Thunder are 7.7 points per 100 possessions better when he sits.

    New head coach Billy Donovan's offense was supposed to be more innovative than Scott Brooks', but many of the same problems with stagnation and "your turn, my turn" possessions involving Russell Westbrook and Kevin Durant have persisted.

    On balance, a 3-3 mark is a real disappointment. But there's just so much talent here (and so much history that shows OKC is dominant when its big guns are healthy) that a turnaround feels inevitable.

    Fair's fair, though. The Thunder have to take a plunge based on their early efforts.

6. Atlanta Hawks

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    Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

    Last Week: 8

    It's a real shame everybody was right about the Hawks' fluky, 60-win 2014-15 season. If they'd only been able to hold it together, maybe we would have been convinced that team-oriented, movement-heavy hoops could work over the long haul. And maybe we would also have finally acknowledged that guys like Al Horford, Paul Millsap and Kyle Korver aren't just overachievers; they're stars.

    Wait, sorry, what?

    The Hawks started 5-1 and look much like they did last season?

    Never mind then, I guess.

    Atlanta is still a contender for the top seed in the East, despite the pile of offseason narratives that said it wouldn't be.

5. San Antonio Spurs

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    Alex Brandon/Associated Press

    Last Week: 3

    And now, some of the requisite hyperbolic praise Kawhi Leonard's continued ascent is generating.

    "He has the ability to do what Michael Jordan did at both ends," Spurs coach Gregg Popovich told reporters after San Antonio fell to the Wizards Nov. 4.

    Hang on, Pop. We all agree Leonard's dramatically increased role on offense and shock-and-awe defense make him one of the biggest stories of the young season. But...invoking Jordan? Seriously?

    Don't worry; Popovich hasn't gone crazy.

    Here are the rest of his comments: “I don’t mean he’s Michael Jordan. I mean, Michael played both ends of the court. Kobe [Bryant] does the same thing when he so desires. When you think about the best players in the league, they’re now two-way players. He wants to do that."

    Fair enough.

    Look: LaMarcus' Aldridge's integration has been shaky, Tony Parker still looks a half step slow and the Spurs have only managed a 3-2 record to start the year. They're not world-beaters yet, but remember there comes a point in every season when we blink and realize they've won nine straight.

    Led by Leonard, they'll get there.

4. Cleveland Cavaliers

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    David Richard-USA TODAY Sports

    Last Week: 4

    I don't want to say LeBron James' sweet 'stache was a factor in the Cleveland Cavaliers rating this high despite a mostly underwhelming early schedule.

    But it also wasn't not a factor.

    Cleveland has defended better than expected and moved the ball more frequently than it did a year ago; its assist rate of 19.9 is a step up from the 17.2 it posted last season. Not bad considering Kyrie Irving and Iman Shumpert remain out with injuries.

    Better yet, the Cavs seem to have figured out how to integrate Kevin Love into the system after the power forward spent 2014-15 as a glorified role player. His usage rate is up, and the Cavs are actually running the occasional sets to get Love looks.

    All things considered, the Cavaliers are in good shape.

    Somewhere, Carl Winslow, from whom James clearly stole his look, is smiling about the Cavs' solid, undermanned start.

3. Los Angeles Clippers

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    Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports

    Last Week: 6

    A loss to this year's version of the Warriors is effectively nine-tenths of a win, so the 4-1 Clippers climb three spots to top the ranks of the un-undefeated.

    Un-undefeated...there has to be a better way to say that. How about this: The Clips are the best among mortals.

    Blake Griffin has been a revelation so far, averaging 28.2 points, 9.4 rebounds and four assists per game on 58.9 percent shooting. His mid-range jumper has reached the point where conceding it amounts to giving away free points, and he's substituted some slick lateral moves on basket attacks, replacing many of the more taxing vertical methods he used to employ.

    Chris Paul still runs the show in L.A., but it's no longer out of line to suggest Griffin is the Clippers' best player.

2. Toronto Raptors

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    Jerome Miron-USA TODAY Sports

    Last Week: 12

    Are the Toronto Raptors the favorites to represent the East?

    Nope, not while James and the Cavs retain the possibility of a return to full health at some point before April. As long as there's even a slim chance the Cavaliers hit their stride in the next five months, they deserve East-favorite status.

    But we kind of knew there'd be a team with the capacity to put together a good enough regular season to overtake the cautious, healing Cavs in the win column, perhaps securing the top seed. The Raps, at 5-0, look like that team.

    Kyle Lowry is thinner, DeMarre Carroll has provided the two-way wing play Toronto has lacked for years and the defense looks great, ranking sixth in efficiency through games played Nov. 5, according to NBA.com.

    We've seen hot Raptors starts go frigid before (like, last year, for example), but until they prove otherwise, the East's only undefeated squad deserves this spot.

1. Golden State Warriors

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    Last Week: 1

    The Golden State Warriors have already beaten the three teams they faced from the West in last year's playoffs (New Orleans (twice), Houston and Memphis) plus the Clippers, running their record to 5-0 in utterly dominant fashion. They're tops in the league in net rating at plus-22.1, per NBA.com, and Stephen Curry has passed into some kind of basketball dreamscape in which three points suddenly materialize on the scoreboard whenever he blinks or breathes.

    He's averaging 35.8 points, 5.8 assists, and five rebounds on 51.9 percent shooting from long range. And he's doing it all in just 32 minutes per game. He's made 28 threes in his first five games, an NBA record. He's turning the ball over just 1.6 times per contest. He's finishing at the rim better than ever.

    At this rate, we're going to have to invent an award higher than MVP.

    Oh, and there's also this from Curry, who after dropping seven threes and 31 points on the Clippers, basically said the scariest thing an MVP/champion/67-game winner could possibly say: "We're better than we were last year."

    Unthinkable...yet accurate.

    The Dubs have done this without head coach Steve Kerr, who's on the mend after a spinal fluid leak, or Andrew Bogut, who suffered a concussion on opening night.

    This team is so good, it's a joke.

    Stats courtesy of NBA.com and Basketball-Reference.com unless otherwise indicated.

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