NBA Power Rankings After 1st Week of 2017-18 Season
The first rule of NBA Power Rankings is to never get carried away with short-term results. That's especially true in this edition, which comes after our first set of games in the 2017-18 season. Following a summer of speculation, it's so easy to dismiss everything we thought about for months and judge teams entirely on a handful of early contests.
That doesn't mean we ignore surprises or obvious trends, particularly when they appear to be the product of genuine strategic changes or player improvement.
We've seen some intriguing examples of both so far, and that'll impact the rankings.
As always, the goal is to organize all 30 teams in order of present strength. Recent play matters, but we have to weigh that against longer track records and, unfortunately, injuries. Several prominent players are already down, with Gordon Hayward's grisly opening-night fall resounding as the biggest landscape-alterer.
We've got one in-season set of power rankings in the can and (this is the important part) many, many more to go.
30. Chicago Bulls
←→ No Movement
Some fun facts about the Chicago Bulls'...let's just call it a "situation."
Bobby Portis fractured Nikola Mirotic's face in practice, according to Vincent Goodwill of NBC Sports Chicago. On purpose. By punching him.
The Bulls announced Mirotic would be out indefinitely.
Justin Holiday, journeyman extraordinaire, has already occupied the prime spot in pregame introductions reserved for a team's most popular (and, usually, most effective) player.
ESPN.com's Nick Friedell dropped a lengthy report this week chronicling the five-plus-year spiral that began with Derrick Rose's first knee injury, a downward tumble that has the Bulls in a position that sure feels like rock bottom.
Robin Lopez hasn't even mustered the will to choke-slam a mascot yet. It's that bleak in Chicago right now.
At least Lauri Markkanen looks like a player, and at least the Phoenix Suns set a bunch of futility records and fired their coach. And at least the New York Knicks are doing everything wrong. Otherwise, this wouldn't have even been close.
Chicago is 1-3, but it's actually much worse than that.
29. New York Knicks
↓ 4 Spots
Kristaps Porzingis hasn't had much trouble adapting to life as the New York Knicks' top scoring option, but we'll see what happens to his production as the league learns there's just nobody else worth worrying about on the roster.
That may have already begun in the Knicks' third game, when KP went 3-of-14 from the field.
The 22-year-old big man opened the season with back-to-back nights of at least 30 points (33 and 31, respectively) for the first time in his career. Porzingis' efficiency is getting a boost from better foul-drawing skill. His 19 free-throw attempts against the Oklahoma City Thunder and Detroit Pistons were also the highest two-game total of his young career.
It's a good thing Porzingis looks comfortable generating so many of his own opportunities because the Knicks haven't gotten much creation elsewhere. During their 0-3 start, their point guard play—chiefly from Ramon Sessions and Ron Baker—has been abysmal.
Toss in a horrendous defense and the baffling minimization of Willy Hernangomez's role, and you have a real mess.
28. Phoenix Suns
↑ 1 Spot
It's borderline miraculous that the Suns started as badly as they did and somehow recovered to move up a spot in our rankings.
These Suns got bludgeoned by a franchise and league-wide opening-night record 48 points...then lost by 42 in their third game. Following that defeat, Eric Bledsoe tweeted dissatisfaction about his current location (Hair salon or Suns locker room? You be the judge!), and head coach Earl Watson got the ax.
But with Bledsoe sent home and publicly on the trade block, the Suns knocked off the Sacramento Kings by a deuce for interim coach Jay Triano's first win on Monday. Then they downed the Utah Jazz.
Bledsoe is almost certainly done in Phoenix, and though his departure from a rebuild felt like a foregone conclusion, it's tough to imagine the Suns will get anything approaching fair value now.
"This is a reset. This is a turning of the page," GM Ryan McDonough told reporters about sending Bledsoe home after his tweet. "As we try to change the culture and build a foundation that's sustainable for long-term success, we didn't want him to be a distraction."
A bigger highlight than two surprising wins: This bizarre clip in which all five Suns start running at the exact same time, which makes it seem like they've got some kind of mind meld happening.
27. Atlanta Hawks
←→ No Movement
It's too early to tell whether effort, energy and athleticism give John Collins a star's ceiling. But there's been enough evidence of those three qualities through two weeks of action to be very optimistic about his floor.
The Atlanta Hawks rookie has hunted down rebounds with abandon, hustled back to short-circuit breakaways with chasedown blocks and leveraged his bounce to finish high-wire lobs on offense. No matter what else happens with his game going forward, Collins does enough with his will, length and vertical leap to be a rotation option—particularly if paired with another floor-spacing big man.
Collins' early excellence hasn't amounted to much for the Hawks, who lost to the Brooklyn Nets when the rookie had 14 points and 13 rebounds, then fell to the Miami Heat despite 14 and 11 the next night out.
Injuries have stung Atlanta, as Dennis Schroder (ankle), DeAndre' Bembry (wrist), Ersan Ilyasova (knee) and Miles Plumlee (quad) have already missed time. Bembry will be shelved for 4-6 weeks, which means Taurean Prince, who scored 20 points against the Heat, must shoulder an even bigger load on the wing.
The Hawks can stomach these losses and injuries a little more easily with Collins showing such early promise.
26. Dallas Mavericks
↓ 5 Spots
Nerlens Noel has shuttled in and out of the starting lineup and seen his minutes perplexingly limited against what should be favorable matchups. It's enough to make you wonder whether there's an off-court reason for the lack of playing time so far.
Is Noel residually frustrated by a summer of failed contract negotiations that resulted in a one-year qualifying offer? Is head coach Rick Carlisle not seeing enough hustle in practice?
Regardless, the Mavs are losing early ground they can't afford to surrender, and Noel has been too productive in his abbreviated stints to keep spending so much time on the bench. Especially with the way he seems to fit into the team's longer-term plans.
Here's SB Nation's Tim Cato: "In theory, Noel would fit well next to the young core that Dallas is building—being a deadly roll threat for Dennis Smith Jr. and a great frontcourt partner for [Harrison] Barnes. But more and more, it’s looking like just that: a theory.
The Mavs may yet return to fringe playoff status, but they're hurting at 1-5 so far, and the signs aren't promising.
25. Sacramento Kings
↑ 1 Spot
A loss to the Suns looks a little less embarrassing than it did earlier this week, and a couple of other developments saved Dave Joerger's underwhelming squad from a rankings dive.
De'Aaron Fox is a lefty lightning bug with lift. His presence on the floor accelerates the action, and it's already easy to see how he'll eventually control the pace of a game, pushing it to a velocity at which he's the only one comfortable. Watching him zip around, getting past defenders and into the lane despite no threat of a jumper, you can see little glimpses of early John Wall and Russell Westbrook.
Fox even thinks fast, as Joerger told Jason Jones of the Sacramento Bee: "He's probably one of the higher IQ guys on our team, so I've got to catch everybody up to him. Which is pretty cool for a 19-year-old guy to have the kind of intuition and intelligence."
It remains to be seen what will happen when the league aggressively shades Fox to his weaker right hand, but even if that puts a stopper on his half-court game, Fox will still annoy opponents on defense and dart past them in transition.
With Bogdan Bogdanovic also making his season debut on Monday, the Kings have a rookie backcourt that looks and feels like it already belongs at this level.
Sacramento plays hard, suffers a few too many lapses on defense when Willie Cauley-Stein or Skal Labissiere is in the middle, and rookie Justin Jackson seems to think he's only allowed to shoot 10-foot floaters.
It's been a mixed bag with limited on-court success so far, but the Kings have some bright spots worth watching.
24. Indiana Pacers
↑ 4 Spots
The Indiana Pacers have stopped treating their nickname ironically, which is an early positive for a couple of reasons.
First, upping the tempo may be the only way this group, led by the undeniably exciting Myles Turner and supported by Victor Oladipo, can compete. Lacking proven shooting, playmaking and bulk inside, Indy needs to run to succeed.
Second, even if the Pacers fail to stay in games, at least they'll be exciting if they're playing this fast.
Well, they combined with the Brooklyn Nets on opening night to play the speediest game in nearly a decade, a tidbit uncovered by Vice Sports' Michael Pina. The Pacers earned an early 1-0 record with that blistering 140-131 result, and they currently rank fifth in pace after slapping 130 points on the Minnesota Timberwolves in another up-and-down affair on Tuesday. Last year, head coach Nate McMillan's club ranked 18th.
Speed (not to mention fantastic starts from Oladipo and Domantas Sabonis) is helping the Pacers surprise. They're 2-3 despite that Turner has missed time with a concussion.
23. New Orleans Pelicans
↓ 4 Spots
The strange inversion experiment going on with the New Orleans Pelicans, in which Anthony Davis and DeMarcus Cousins effectively function as guards, has mostly worked. In 82 minutes together over their first three games, AD and Boogie helped the Pels post a plus-10.1 net rating.
Davis was particularly effective in those contests, posting at least 27 points and 15 rebounds in all three. DeMarcus Cousins waxed his former team for a monstrous 41 points, 23 rebounds and six assists on Thursday. No player has ever amassed those totals in a single game while also making three triples.
Cousins made a little history in his return to Sacramento.
As expected, the rest of the roster hasn't chipped in enough.
Davis banged knees with Damian Lillard on Tuesday and couldn't return. If he's hobbled for long, the Pelicans might get desperate and...what the? No! Seriously?
New Orleans is short on shooting, quality wings and several other attributes necessary to be a playoff team. But we can now look forward to the future with hope because there's a non-zero chance Rajon Rondo, Jordan Crawford (or Tony Allen), Josh Smith, Davis and Cousins one day share the floor.
If the Pelicans are going to struggle (they're 2-3 so far), at least they'll be interesting.
22. Los Angeles Lakers
←→ No Movement
It'd be better if Lonzo Ball didn't have to fall down quite so hard to prove he knows how to get back up, but at least the Los Angeles Lakers rookie savior point guard is making resilience a habit. He did it in summer-league play, looking overmatched and then answering critics with big performances, and he's doing it now.
After getting chewed up by Patrick Beverley in the Lakers' opener, Ball responded with 29 points, 11 rebounds and nine assists in his second game. Yes, it was against the Suns, but it's still telling that Ball rarely gets discouraged and, more importantly, has the game to be productive when he can get comfortable.
Brandon Ingram, last year's No. 2 overall pick, has conversely disappointed. He's committed to a steady diet of mid-rangers, and he's playing with little force in his second season. If two-pointers outside the restricted area continue to comprise 44 percent of Ingram's shots (which has been the case through four games, according to Cleaning the Glass), Ingram will struggle to become an efficient scorer.
And like the rest of the Lakers, he's also not defending with any zeal.
L.A. is 2-2, though, and Kentavious Caldwell-Pope made a real difference in his first two games back from suspension. He'll help the Lakers get their shot profile in order, as evidenced by 12 of his first 24 shots on the year coming from three-point range.
21. Brooklyn Nets
↑ 3 Spots
A Spencer Dinwiddie three with 43 seconds left in regulation earned the Brooklyn Nets their third win of the season on Wednesday, as they downed the Cleveland Cavaliers despite the absence of Jeremy Lin and D'Angelo Russell.
Lin's torn patellar tendon will cost him the season and may hurt the Nets' long-term outlook, as he'll now be more likely to opt in to the final year of his deal in 2018-19, cutting into the team's cap space.
That's a concern for the future, though. For now, the Nets are fast, fun and somehow loaded with intriguing talents. Rookie Jarrett Allen blocked four shots in 15 minutes against the Hawks on Sunday, and second-year guard Caris LeVert has hit double figures in four of the Nets' five games.
DeMarre Carroll looks much healthier, and Russell, before missing the Cleveland game with a knee injury, was averaging 23 points and 5.5 assists while hitting 39.1 percent of his threes. He's been the key to Brooklyn's early offensive flow and owns the distinction of being the first guy to pull off the fabled double nutmeg this year.
The last time the Nets were over .500 this deep into the season was Nov. 12, 2014.
20. Orlando Magic
↑ 3 Spots
Despite losing Elfrid Payton to a hamstring injury last Friday, the Orlando Magic's offense produced plenty of points during our first ranking session. In fact, they've averaged 113.4 points per 100 possessions through their first four games, far better than the 101.2 they managed last year, finishing 29th in offensive rating.
They have Nikola Vucevic to thank for a lot of that.
In what feels like a basketball hack, Vooch has thought his way around a key weakness, tweaking his game for optimum efficiency. A high-volume shooter who never drew fouls, Vucevic always needed lots of touches to get his points. So he did the only logical thing in the era of floor-spacing bigs: He extended his range.
Because if you're going to shoot jumpers and never get fouled, you might as well back up far enough to get that extra point.
Vucevic dropped 41 on the Nets last Friday, hitting six triples in eight tries. He's going to obliterate last year's career high of 23 made threes in a season.
Aaron Gordon's significantly juiced-up confidence on offense has also been huge for the 3-1 Magic. He pumped in 41 points to beat the Nets on Tuesday, and his shot selection is dramatically improved. If he's not putting up threes, he's cutting and utilizing his athleticism to generate high-quality looks.
Orlando already has wins over the Cavaliers and Miami Heat. It'll need that momentum with three of its next four games coming on the road.
19. Detroit Pistons
↑ 1 Spot
The early front-runner for double-take stat of the year goes to Andre Drummond's free-throw percentage, which sits at 72.2 percent through the Detroit Pistons' first five games, three of which they've won.
If you were paying attention to the Pistons during the preseason, first of all, what's wrong with you? But second, you probably noticed Drummond's form at the foul line had changed. It was smoother, and he held the ball a bit more out in front of his face, almost shooting it forward at a lower angle instead of up in a high arc. Preseason being preseason, it was still easy to discount his 16-of-20 performance from the stripe.
It's harder to do that now.
If Drummond is now, optimistically, a 70-percent converter, it fundamentally changes how the Pistons play. Opponents can't hack him off the floor, and perhaps emboldened by his new accuracy, Drummond will start using all that bulk to seek out contact, punishing smaller opponents and better leveraging his considerable strength advantage.
Drummond aside, Stanley Johnson's activity and versatility made it easy to forget an 0-of-13 shooting night in the opener, and Reggie Jackson looks closer to his 2015-16 self than he did a year ago.
Finally, Tobias Harris just keeps getting better. He planted 34 points on the Minnesota Timberwolves on Wednesday. It was a season high and already his second 30-point effort.
18. Philadelphia 76ers
←→ No Movement
There'll be plenty of time to talk about Joel Embiid this season, and he'll deserve the copious coverage he gets here and everywhere else.
But for now...HOW ABOUT BEN SIMMONS?!
The 6'10" rookie averaged 16.4 points, 10.0 rebounds and 7.4 assists in his first five contests and hit the Pistons with a triple-double on Monday. Possessed of unteachable court sense and inherent unselfishness, Simmons boasts a phenomenal handle for a player his size. Even without any threat of a jumper, his ball-handling and strength allow him to get to any spot he wants. Once there, he generally makes the right decision.
If he learns to seek contact in the lane rather than shooting awkward leaning floaters (almost always off the wrong foot), he'll become even tougher to stop. Several first-year players have impressed in the early going, but if you got your money down on Simmons for Rookie of the Year, well done.
Meanwhile, Markelle Fultz's shot is genuinely broken. Odd as it sounds, it's actually encouraging to hear chatter of an injury. Differing accounts regarding the nature and origin of Fultz's right shoulder soreness highlight an odd disconnect between management and player, but at least we have some explanation. If the issue had been entirely mental, Philly would have had a bigger problem.
The 76ers are just 1-4, but those defeats all came against likely playoff teams that sit ahead of them in the rankings. They played the Washington Wizards to the hilt in the opener and fell to an Eric Gordon buzzer-beater on Wednesday.
Tough luck doesn't dampen the optimism here.
17. Charlotte Hornets
←→ No Movement
After watching the Charlotte Hornets crumble into dust whenever Kemba Walker sat last year, we shouldn't have needed the reminder.
But with Walker's on-off splits looking once again cartoonish, we got one anyway: He's vital to Charlotte's success.
In 2016-17, Walker helped Charlotte to a plus-3.6 net rating whenever he was on the court. Without him, the Hornets were a minus-7.0. Through four games this year, the differential has expanded, bloating the swing from 10.6 points per 100 possessions to 49.5. Your small-sample alarm should be blaring right now, but still. That's a big number.
Malik Monk, preseason source of intrigue, hasn't quite offset the absence of Nicolas Batum like many hoped. But he still profiles as a useful bench weapon who should improve. And while he's been finding his form, Frank Kaminsky is the one offering role-player scoring. He's produced 59 points on 22-of-37 shooting from the field in Charlotte's last three games.
Dwight Howard had a predictably strong revenge night against the Hawks last Friday and has rebounded well. But he's been especially awful from the foul line, going 0-of-9 in Monday's loss to the Milwaukee Bucks.
Charlotte's defense has been stingy, allowing 94.4 points per 100 possessions in its 2-2 start.
16. Miami Heat
↓ 1 Spot
A bone bruise cost Hassan Whiteside three games following his 26-point, 22-rebound opener, and though a bum ankle hasn't kept Dion Waiters out of action, it's still a concern for a guy who endured pain in the same spot last year but never opted for surgery.
Still, the Heat are off to a 2-2 start, sandwiching losses to the Magic and San Antonio Spurs around wins over the Hawks and Pacers.
Head coach Erik Spoelstra is tinkering with lineup combinations, searching for ways to get the most out of newcomer Kelly Olynyk while still getting James Johnson enough minutes as an undersized big man to maximize his playmaking and defense. Johnson actually played some center against the Spurs on Wednesday.
After giving up 117 points to San Antonio, Miami is in the league's bottom third defensively. That ought to change when Whiteside returns.
The Heat need to make some hay next week against the Boston Celtics, Minnesota Timberwolves and Bulls at home before hitting the road for six straight.
15. Minnesota Timberwolves
↓ 5 Spots
If not for Andrew Wiggins' desperate, banked-in bailout game-winner against the Oklahoma City Thunder, we'd be looking at a 1-4 Wolves team with the worst defense in the league.
So much for Minnesota's inevitably improved stopping power.
The Timberwolves have been bad in all facets of point prevention, but it's been particularly troubling to see Karl-Anthony Towns continue his inattentiveness on D. A player with his ability and intelligence simply can't keep missing rotations while playing with so little interior force.
Britt Robson of The Athletic tweeted: "KAT still bewildered on defense. Going to become the elephant in the room unless he gets a clue in next few weeks."
It's the elephant in the room now, but at least we can't blame Towns entirely. You don't get blitzed for 24 fast-break points (while scoring zero of your own) without some serious collective half-assery.
"Counting the playoffs, I've coached something like 900 games in this league, so I can't remember all of them," Pistons head coach Stan Van Gundy told reporters after his team whipped the Wolves on Wednesday, putting up that striking 24-0 gap in fast-break points. "I might have seen a disparity like that before, but it is certainly rare."
Towns had a sweet dunk on Patrick Patterson early in the week, but that doesn't keep the Wolves from being one of the biggest disappointments so far.
14. Memphis Grizzlies
↑ 2 Spots
Good luck sorting out how the world-beating Memphis Grizzlies knocked off the Warriors and Rockets but then fell to the Mavs (before exacting revenge against Dallas on the second leg of a home-and-home set).
Memphis knows what it's getting from Mike Conley and Marc Gasol, but the surprise so far has been the chip-in efforts from role-fillers.
"Some of the best minutes of the Grizzlies' opening games have come with Mario Chalmers and second-rounder Dillon Brooks," Rob Mahoney wrote for Sports Illustrated. "Even Chandler Parsons, who was booed by the Grizzlies’ home crowd last week, has turned around to knock down shots and weather the absence of JaMychal Green."
James Ennis shot 12-of-16 in his first three games, notably completing a sequence in which he finished one alley-oop and set up another on consecutive plays during the Grizzlies' 111-101 win over the Warriors on Saturday.
If the Grizzlies keep getting contributions from secondary players, and if the Gasol-Conley tandem comes close to replicating last year's career-best offensive performance, we may have to recalibrate Memphis' place in the crowded West playoff race.
13. Utah Jazz
↓ 2 Spots
Bless their hearts, the Utah Jazz are trying, but the offensive struggles so many foresaw heading into the season have materialized immediately. Result: This team can't score, which has so far rendered depth, good defense and admirable team play insufficient.
Utah is 2-3 but has cracked the 100-point barrier just once in five games, most alarmingly managing just 88 points (while turning the ball over 24 times) in Wednesday's embarrassing loss to the Suns.
"You spot a team 40 extra possessions, you’re going to to have to have a monumental night shooting the ball to win," Jazz head coach Quin Snyder told Kyle Goon of the Salt Lake Tribune. "We obviously didn't have that either."
The Jazz won't be this bad on offense going forward. Fatigue from playing four games in six nights could have factored into the Phoenix loss, and there have been positive signs from several bench players. Alec Burks, for one, looked electric in the season opener. Rookie Donovan Mitchell profiles as a three-and-D weapon with playmaking potential down the line. Derrick Favors seems marginally healthier. Rudy Gobert is a lock for efficient double-digit points every night.
So far, though, it's looking like the Jazz may not score enough to fully capitalize on a defense that should easily be among the league's best.
12. Denver Nuggets
↓ 5 Spots
Raise your hand if you saw the Denver Nuggets losing three of their first four games because of crummy offense.
For the record, if you raised your hand, I know you're a liar and will never trust you again.
Denver, despite young personnel that should be getting better, and despite the fact that it posted the league's best offense for the final four months of the 2016-17 season, looks shockingly ineffective so far. Shot selection seems to be the culprit.
After ranking third in the league by taking 40.2 percent of its shots at the rim last year, Denver is now dead last, attempting only 23.8 percent of its looks from that range, per Cleaning the Glass. More mid-range shots, fewer threes and the league's second-highest turnover percentage all conspire to produce a version of the Nugs nobody expected.
Can it really be that hard to integrate Paul Millsap?
Denver, 1-3 so far, can't have just forgotten everything that made it so hard to stop last year. Even without assistant Chris Finch, now in New Orleans and widely credited for the schemes that made the Nuggets so effective in 2016-17, there's no way this much talent will continue to lay eggs on offense.
11. Portland Trail Blazers
↑ 3 Spots
All of the Portland Trail Blazers' numbers are out of whack (and will be for weeks) because of that 48-point hammering of the Suns on Oct. 18. We won't be able to trust their offensive or defensive ratings until the sample gets large enough to normalize that outlier.
The Blazers did earn that win, though. And they've grabbed a few more in the early going—mainly against lottery teams but not without providing signs they're ready to do more damage against better competition.
CJ McCollum has been exceptionally efficient, and his 16 fourth-quarter points helped beat the Pelicans to preserve a remarkable 17-year home-opener winning streak.
With Pat Connaughton more than replacing Allen Crabbe's three-point shooting so far, Portland's offense should, as usual, wind up in the top 10. Whether it can hang in the upper half of the league defensively is another question, but by allowing the lowest opponent's offensive rebound rate through their first four games, the Blazers are at least doing some of the right things to get there.
10. Milwaukee Bucks
↑ 2 Spots
You can't crown an MVP two weeks into a season, but if you could...
Giannis Antetokounmpo is destroying the league without even needing the jumper everyone thought was required for him to take the next step. He's taking fewer threes than last year but getting to the rim at will—and finishing those point-blank shots (often through contests) at elite rates. Always dangerous in transition, Antetokounmpo now gets close-range looks in half-court sets by sucking up the space defenders leave him (because they aren't afraid of his jumper) and using his physical strength to shoulder them out of the way.
This combination of length, speed and ever-increasing muscle should not be possible.
But it is, and Antetokounmpo is off to a phenomenal start.
Among many early highlights, his career-high 44-point outing against Portland stands apart. This game-deciding sequence in the final minute is a clinic on versatility.
The Bucks haven't been perfect, but Antetokounmpo has been darn close, averaging an exceptional 35 points, 10.6 rebounds and 5.6 assists on 62.4 percent shooting.
9. Boston Celtics
↓ 3 Spots
The Hayward injury was devastating, frankly removing the Boston Celtics from serious contender consideration—if they were every really in that conversation to begin with. Though there's no glass-half-full spin to put on that brutal development, at least the Celts will get to see if their young wings can handle big roles and added pressure ahead of schedule.
So far, Jaylen Brown and Jayson Tatum have been equal to the task.
Both have defended well, which is somewhat surprising in Tatum's case, and Brown's development as a scorer rates as a similar phenomenon on the other end.
If those two continue contributing two-way play (particularly with Marcus Smart and Marcus Morris missing time), Boston will be better for it in the long run. And while we can't laud Brad Stevens' genius in this instance because of the Celtics' lack of alternatives, it's still impressive that he's punting on excuses available to a coach trotting out a 19-year-old and a 21-year-old in the starting unit.
"Let's beat the age thing," Stevens told Chris Forsberg of ESPN.com. "Let's not talk about the age thing. Let's talk about how we can be better at what we can control and how we can learn and grow every day and everybody expedite the learning curve."
Positives aside, an 0-2 start and Hayward's absence cost the Celtics significant ground.
8. Los Angeles Clippers
↑ 5 Spots
In light of last year's terrific start and ultimate stumble to 13th in points allowed per 100 possessions, we need to keep enthusiasm about the Los Angeles Clippers' defensive fortitude in check.
Better to save the excitement for Blake Griffin's effectiveness as an offensive hub.
Griffin, on pace to easily quadruple his previous career high for three-point attempts in a season (1.9), is letting the treys fly while still finding time to dunk on shot-blockers once in a while (leading with the elbow to the face is, admittedly, an aggressive approach).
Health was always the concern for this Clips team, and most of the key bodies (led by Griffin, Danilo Gallinari and DeAndre Jordan) have avoided damage. Milos Teodosic, fanciful flinger of underhand outlet passes, is an unfortunate exception. He's out indefinitely with a torn plantar fascia.
As long as the main starters hold up, the Clippers are a top-10 team.
L.A. is oddly constructed, always on the brink of physical failure and probably can't defend better than last year's Spurs forever. But this has been a strong start—one made all the more meaningful as several other bottom-tier playoff hopefuls in the West have struggled.
Thanks to Griffin's buzzer-beating game-winner over the Blazers on Thursday, the Clippers are one of only two undefeated teams (Spurs).
7. Toronto Raptors
↑ 2 Spots
It's not uncommon to hear teams crowing about more pace or passing over the summer; everyone wants crisper ball movement and better shot quality. What's unusual is when that talk turns to action.
Through five games, the Toronto Raptors, who finished last in assist percentage and 27th in passes per game last year, are whipping the ball around, chucking up threes and generally delivering on their promises to modernize a stale attack.
With CJ Miles firing off treys whenever and wherever he touches the ball, the Raps have added a quick-strike element to their approach—one that puts defenders on edge and forces far more attentive tracking of off-ball movement.
After taking only 26.4 percent of their shots from deep last year, the Raptors sit near the top of the league with a 37.6 percent three-point frequency, per Cleaning the Glass. The mid-rangers are virtually gone. The isolation sets are diminished.
It's been so much easier to watch Toronto play, and while that's not necessarily a ranking criterion, it sure doesn't hurt.
Rookie OG Anunoby looks like a steal, Delon Wright is a capable backup point guard and Jakob Poeltl might already be more useful to this new Raptors offense than Jonas Valanciunas.
There's no shame in dropping a couple of single-digit road games to the Spurs and Warriors. Toronto's offensive reformation and improving youth are enough to warrant a slight rankings gain.
6. Washington Wizards
↑ 2 Spots
The Washington Wizards had it all in front of them: The Celtics lost Hayward, the Raptors had dropped two straight and the Cleveland Cavaliers were reprising their drowsy shuffle through the regular season once more.
A dominant win against the Lakers on Wednesday might have been enough to get these guys serious top-five consideration—while at least removing any doubt about the identity of the East's second-best team to this point.
But the Wiz and their ghastly shot profile (tops in long-two frequency but near the bottom in corner threes, per Cleaning the Glass) dropped a bummer of a 102-99 contest to the Lakers, somehow failing to push the tempo against a notoriously sketchy transition defense.
It was one slip, but the missed opportunity makes it sting.
John Wall's athletic bursts have been marvelous so far; he registers at least one blow-by slam per game and has been plunging at full speed into the chests of rim-protectors. His predilection for mid-rangers remains frustrating, but it's hard to be too critical of Washington's best player.
One other note: 6'7" Kelly Oubre Jr. has shown increasingly frequent signs of a breakout. He's been enjoying minutes as an undersized 4 and might soon prove to be a better two-way option than Markieff Morris, who's still out after hernia surgery.
5. Oklahoma City Thunder
↓ 1 Spot
A 2-2 mark after a soft, home-heavy schedule has to register as a disappointment for the Thunder, a team that won the offseason and could have cemented its contender status with a hotter start.
In a thematic recurrence that wasn't supposed to carry over from last year, OKC still only wins when Russell Westbrook registers a triple-double. He's got two so far.
Carmelo Anthony has taken more shots than any other Thunder player, but he hasn't been particularly efficient, hitting just 31.3 percent from long range. Westbrook, pleasantly, is drilling 44.4 percent of his treys. Chances are, those two numbers will migrate toward one another. But for Anthony, best used on this team as a third option, it's the volume that presents a concern. OKC can't keep giving him 20.5 shots a night.
Some uncharacteristic rebounding woes and Patrick Patterson's very limited involvement (he's made one shot on the year) have held the Thunder back and cost them in the rankings.
4. Cleveland Cavaliers
↓ 2 Spots
The Nets and Magic are among the league's early improvers, but they combined for 49 wins last year. The Cavs had no business losing to either club but fell anyway, marring yet another brilliant stretch from LeBron James (playing some point guard lately!).
Some lineup tweaking (Tristan Thompson is back starting at the 5, Dwyane Wade is a reserve now and Derrick Rose is out with an ankle injury) has the Cavaliers in flux. Couple that with the malaise you'd expect from a team that'll cruise through the East, and it's less of a surprise to see that Cleveland is shuffling along unremarkably.
Through five games, James is averaging 27.6 points, 9.0 assists and 7.4 rebounds while shooting 61.1 percent from the field and 45.0 percent from deep. This doesn't need to be reported on a weekly basis, but he's still very good.
One potential long-term concern: The Cavs aren't flinging up as many threes as they did a year ago, when they attempted the second-most triples of all time. So far, they're in the middle of the pack in three-point frequency, per Cleaning the Glass. That'll need to change if the they want to run and gun with the Warriors in another Finals matchup.
3. Houston Rockets
←→ No Movement
Even without Chris Paul, who might miss as much as a month due to a knee injury, per Marc Stein of the New York Times, you could make the case that these Houston Rockets are better than last year's version.
James Harden remains unguardable as a leading scorer and facilitator, 6'6" PJ Tucker gives head coach Mike D'Antoni the ultra-undersized center he's always preferred and Eric Gordon has more athletic verve than he's had in years. Through five games, Gordon has been relentlessly attacking the basket, getting to the foul line a career-best 9.6 times per 36 minutes.
"Last year, it was all about just playing as many games as possible. Now, I'm just going to put it all together and playing my real game," Gordon told Jonathan Feigen of the Houston Chronicle. "I've always been able to shoot threes. Early on in my career, I used to take it to the hole a ton. This is a good year to put it all together."
In addition, Clint Capela looks improved, as evidenced by his 16 points, 20 rebounds and four blocks against Embiid and the Sixers.
At the same time, Houston needed two buzzer-beaters to go its way to reach this 4-1 mark. If Gordon didn't bury a three to beat Philly at the horn, and if Kevin Durant got his would-be game-winner off two-tenths of a second sooner in the season opener, the Rockets would be 2-3.
Factoring in all that—the improved roster, Paul's injury and a little luck—it feels right to leave Houston right where it was last week.
2. San Antonio Spurs
↑ 3 Spots
Nobody panic, but it's happening again.
"We're doing what we've always done, I guess," head coach Gregg Popovich told reporters after the San Antonio Spurs moved to 4-0 Wednesday.
As always, these guys are winning games, shrugging off superstar injuries and chuckling at aging curves while out-scheming, out-executing and out-Spursing everyone.
Danny Green is megastar now, apparently having learned to dribble over the summer while remembering how to shoot almost 50 percent from deep. Also, LaMarcus Aldridge is great again, too. He's averaging 26.0 points and 8.8 rebounds as the top scoring option we all decided he couldn't be during last year's playoffs.
Rudy Gay is back from a torn Achilles, unfazed and effectively playing some stretch 5 in uncharacteristically creative Spurs lineups.
Dejounte Murray is defending like he got in 10 years of film study during the offseason.
It just...it never stops with these guys, does it?
1. Golden State Warriors
←→ No Movement (Fight Me)
The Warriors got blasted by 29 in their opener last year, so while their home loss to the Rockets didn't kick off the 2017-18 season how they would have liked, at least the defending champs know it could have been worse.
Golden State has done some sleepwalking to start the year, which is excusable for a team that's coming off three straight Finals trips and a long preseason sojourn to China. They're gassed, mentally and physically. And head coach Steve Kerr knows it.
"We're obviously not ready," he told reporters after Saturday's 111-101 loss to the Grizzlies dropped the Dubs to 1-2. "We knew that. We're not ready to put things together."
Stephen Curry incurred a $50,000 fine for chucking his mouthpiece in that defeat but has otherwise remained composed enough to hit 47 consecutive free throws.
The Warriors showed some flash in Monday's blowout win against Dallas, posting a 40-point first quarter and, thanks to an off-the-backboard dunk by Jordan Bell in garbage time, at least made sure that even if they weren't winning as much, they'd retain true villain status.
Positive signs include Kevin Durant's loads of blocked shots and Draymond Green's negative MRI results after his knee tweak against the Rockets.
Nothing about this messy start changes Golden State's status as prohibitive title favorites, and as long as everyone's healthy, it's still too hard to move the Dubs from the top spot. Frame it this way: If the Warriors were playing any of the other 29 teams tomorrow on a neutral court, you'd still pick the Dubs to win. Everyone would.
I'm not sure what it might take to change that, but a 3-2 start due to predictable rust sure doesn't.