B/R NBA Power Rankings: Everyone Chasing Steph, Warriors to Start New Season

Grant Hughes@@gt_hughesNational NBA Featured ColumnistOctober 19, 2018

B/R NBA Power Rankings: Everyone Chasing Steph, Warriors to Start New Season

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    The new NBA season begins as the last one ended: with the Golden State Warriors in everyone's crosshairs.

    The difference in 2018-19 is Stephen Curry and the Dubs are hemmed in on all sides. Powerhouses are rising in Boston, Toronto and Philadelphia—and that's just the East. In its own conference, Golden State must contend with a Houston Rockets team that could have eliminated it last spring. Throw in the defensively dominant Utah Jazz, LeBron James' Los Angeles Lakers and the inevitable handful of fast-developing contenders, and you've got a gauntlet...in a minefield...with, like, wolves (mean ones!) all over the place.

    It's early. The metaphors will improve.

    As a reminder, these rankings are meant to organize all 30 teams into an order that reflects the league's current hierarchy. Only a small percentage of each team's ranking depends on how well or poorly the club has played through the season's first few days. The more reliable inputs include last year's baseline, additions, subtractions and preseason play. Until we get through a few weeks, it makes sense to heavily weigh those larger samples.

    Welcome back. Be nice to one another, and don't blink. We'll be in the playoffs before you know it.

30-26

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    30. Sacramento Kings

    "I'm serving a lot of masters as far as development and trying to get a lot of guys minutes," Kings head coach Dave Joerger told Jason Anderson of the Sacramento Bee.

    Even though the front office saddled Joerger with too many big men, he leaned on Willie Cauley-Stein at center and a perimeter-oriented big at the 4 for most of his team's best stretches against Utah on Wednesday. Marvin Bagley III and Harry Giles III combined for just 22 minutes as starter Nemanja Bjelica and reserve Justin Jackson played well as power forwards.

    Cauley-Stein took the ball to Rudy Gobert at the rim and had shocking success. His 23 points came via several impressive drives at the league's premier interior defender. Meanwhile, De'Aaron Fox posted a plus-19 in a game his team lost by six points.

    There were signs of life from a frisky Kings team against the Jazz, but we'll need to see that consistently before we switch up the occupant of our No. 30 spot. Sacramento's roster remains young and imbalanced.

                       

    29. New York Knicks

    A 49-point second quarter against the Atlanta Hawks isn't enough to get the Knicks out of the No. 29 ranking. Overreacting to small samples is a dire mistake this early in the year, and it's hard to find a less reliable indicator of true talent than a single quarter.

    New York will play 328 quarters this season. Let's just wait to see if the Knicks have a few more great ones before adjusting expectations.

    Shout-out to Noah Vonleh, who managed 12 points and 10 boards without missing any of his five field goals in just 16 minutes. In what should be a purely developmental year, maybe 2014's No. 9 pick will mature into a rotation player.

                  

    28. Chicago Bulls

    Jabari Parker probably didn't expect to come off the bench when he signed with the Bulls this summer, but apparently $20 million per year doesn't automatically mean you offer more to a team than Bobby Portis. Parker isn't in the first unit without Lauri Markkanen available (right elbow injury), which isn't a great sign.

    Chicago's defense performed as expected in surrendering 127 points to the 76ers on Thursday.

    Zach LaVine offered his typical offensive highlights and nonexistent defense in that 19-point loss, effectively illustrating why his new contract won't return enough value.

                      

    27. Atlanta Hawks

    It's disheartening to get hammered by the Knicks, but the Hawks will have more than their share of rough losses. Nonetheless, Atlanta has intriguing talent that should produce more wins than New York.

    Trae Young scored 14 points in his debut, and Taurean Prince put up 21 points, six rebounds and six assists, possibly signaling his strong second half last year will carry over.

    Remarkably, Vince Carter started the opener at age 41, scoring 12 points in 24 minutes. He'll play until he's 100.

             

    26. Cleveland Cavaliers

    Is it too early to proclaim this the dawn of the Cedi Osman era?

    Now a starter, Cleveland's 23-year-old small forward amassed 17 points, 10 rebounds and four assists during Wednesday's 116-104 loss to the Toronto Raptors.

    Rookie Collin Sexton only played 18 minutes in his first game, which is a little concerning for a Cavs team that needs to give its (theoretically) foundational pieces as much run as possible.

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    25. Orlando Magic

    Despite Wednesday's 104-101 win against the Miami Heat, it still feels like the Magic are just biding their time until they break up the Aaron Gordon-Jonathan Isaac-Mo Bamba trio. Nobody in the bunch is a wing, and even if all three looked good in the opener, the Magic have to know they've got a frontcourt glut to address.

    Gordon put up 26 points and 16 boards while Bamba hit a three, blocked two shots and registered a plus-13 in 25 minutes. With starter Nikola Vucevic only playing three more minutes than Bamba (and posting a minus-17), it may not be long before the rookie cracks the first unit.

               

    24. Dallas Mavericks

    Luka Doncic threw a slick behind-the-back dime to DeAndre Jordan, but the Mavs dropped a 121-100 decision to the Phoenix Suns that did little to assuage concerns that Dallas, led by youth, will be in for a rough year.

    Jordan was disappointing on D, Doncic seemed to wear down as the game progressed and Dennis Smith Jr. has a long way to go before he becomes a net-positive player.

    Maybe someday, when the sun burns out and millennia have passed, J.J. Barea will stop being a useful rotation piece. Judging by his nine points and 10 assists off the bench, we're a long way from that day.

                     

    23. Brooklyn Nets

    Jarrett Allen stuffed dunks at the rim and knocked down a pair of threes in the first game of what figures to be an awfully fun season for the second-year center. Meanwhile, Caris LeVert and Spencer Dinwiddie combined for 50 points, 10 assists and eight boards.

    D'Angelo Russell managed just eight points and should be a little concerned by the fact that he might be the third-best guard on his team. At least he avoided the ignominy of flinging up the season's first air ball from the foul line. That (dis)honor went to Jared Dudley.

                         

    22. Phoenix Suns

    Ready for some deep analysis? OK, here goes.

    The Suns might be good...at least offensively.

    It was just one game against the lottery-bound Mavs, but Phoenix looked like a new team Wednesday. Devin Booker appears to have taken another step. His 35 points on 12-of-19 shooting were impressive, and he saved some of his best shot-making for late in the contest, hitting all six of his field-goal attempts in the fourth quarter.

    Deandre Ayton spaced out on several defensive possessions, but it's hard to argue with 18 points, 10 rebounds and six assists in an NBA debut.

    More than that, though, Phoenix's revamped offense under head coach Igor Kokoskov stood out. The Suns racked up 35 assists on the night, equalling last year's season high.

                   

    21. Charlotte Hornets

    Kemba Walker hung 41 points on the Milwaukee Bucks in Charlotte's 113-112 loss on Wednesday, nearly taking a home win that looked like a blowout defeat in the first half. At this point, it's difficult to remember a time when Walker was a suspect off-the-dribble shooter from long range. Against Milwaukee, he was 7-of-13 from deep, slithering around high screens and hopping into several deep treys with his man scrambling over the pick.

    As the rest of the Hornets struggle, expect Walker to see traps up top more often.

    Also, look for Charlotte to close games with Tony Parker alongside Walker in small lineups. Those two give the Hornets their best chance for consistent shot creation, even if the sacrifice on the other end will be significant.

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    20. Memphis Grizzlies

    Crushed by the Indiana Pacers in their first game, the Grizz have work to do on offense. JaMychal Green was the only starter to make at least half of his shots, but he was also a team-worst minus-29.

    Encouraging signs were few and far between, but at least Memphis got the ball moving. Nobody topped the Grizzlies' 410 passes on Wednesday, per Nylon Calculus. If only that unselfishness had led to a few more made buckets.

              

    19. Detroit Pistons

    Despite the absences of Stanley Johnson (toe) and Reggie Bullock (illness), the Pistons started the year with a 103-100 win over the Nets on Wednesday.

    Jarrett Allen stoned Blake Griffin at the rim, but the Pistons forward shrugged off the swat and finished with 26 points, eight rebounds and six assists. Plus, Andre Drummond hit a three!

    Apparently, Drummond's preseason dalliance with the long ball will stick.

              

    18. Washington Wizards

    Positive: Nobody on the Wizards' highly combustible roster attacked a teammate. Only 81 more games to go for an incident-free season.

    Negative: Dwight Howard missed Thursday's opener with sore buttocks, per The Athletic's Shams Charania.

    Amendment: Missing an opener because of sore buttocks is very nearly neutral, on account of the humor.

    John Wall looked much fitter in Washington's 113-112 loss to the Heat than he did over the summer, and his free throws gave the Wiz a one-point lead with under a minute left. Unfortunately for Washington, Miami iced the game on a last-second bucket by Kelly Olynyk.

                

    17. Minnesota Timberwolves

    Karl-Anthony Towns fouled out after taking six shots in 22 minutes of Minnesota's season opener, and you have to wonder if some part of him was glad to be off the floor and away from Jimmy Butler for the bulk of the action.

    Butler gave a good effort and scored 23 in the 112-108 loss.

    Though it's dangerous to lean on the unquantifiable when evaluating a team, it feels fair to say there's value to be had when the best player pulls in the same direction as the rest of the roster. It's unclear whether that's the case with Butler in Minnesota, even though the disgruntled star told Wolves owner Glen Taylor his trade demand won't affect how he competes, per Sid Hartman of the Star Tribune.

    Until this situation resolves, it's impossible to trust Minnesota.

           

    16. Miami Heat

    The only team in the league that had to start the year with a back-to-back set, Miami rebounded from a loss to the Magic with a one-point victory against Washington. Josh Richardson led the way with 28 points and looked every bit the blossoming star. Rodney McGruder got the start at shooting guard and pumped in 20 points while picking up eight rebounds and six assists.

    If he's fully healthy after last year's mostly lost season, the Heat have yet another rotation-quality wing to lean on.

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    15. Los Angeles Clippers

    We're about to find out what happens when an NBA team collects roughly a dozen playable bodies and no stars. Chances are, the Clips will parlay their depth into a record somewhere around .500 before they sell off assets later in the year.

    Danilo Gallinari averaged 17.2 points (in only 21.2 minutes per game) while hitting 42.9 percent of his threes and 51.2 percent of his shots overall in the preseason. If he's healthy after hand and glute injuries last year, L.A. could flirt with repeating as a top-10 offense. The other end will be problematic, though. A .500 record feels reasonable for the Clippers, who are walking the line between competitiveness and rebuilding.

                

    14. San Antonio Spurs

    No team boasts a more anachronistic offensive profile than the Spurs, who'll devote the lion's share of field-goal attempts to DeMar DeRozan and LaMarcus Aldridge, two players who ranked in the 99th and 98th percentile, respectively, in percentage of shots attempted from mid-range last season.

    Relatedly, the Spurs will have a tough time scoring.

    Preseason injuries to Dejounte Murray (torn ACL), Derrick White (heel) and Lonnie Walker IV (torn meniscus) destroyed the guard rotation, and the departures of Parker and Manu Ginobili will now be magnified on the floor as much as in the locker room. This feels like the end of an era in San Antonio, but predicting a lottery trip for these guys (which we are) has never been a comfortable bet.

    Wednesday's season-opening win over the drama-addled Wolves came courtesy of 21 points and 19 boards from Aldridge, and DeRozan closed things with a scoring burst in the fourth. It's OK to bet that the Spurs will go down, but it won't happen without a fight.

                          

    13. Portland Trail Blazers

    Damian Lillard isn't into being written off, as he told the Los Angeles Times' Dan Woike:

    "We've always been one of those teams that will rise up to it. Now, does that mean we're guaranteed to make the playoffs? No. But I mean, I think, that it's been enough years of us showing that we rise to it and make it happen where I don't see why people would look at it and say, 'The Trail Blazers are going to be the team that gets replaced.'"

    Counterpoints: The West is better than it was a year ago, Maurice Harkless' left knee remains a concern, and Portland made no meaningful additions to last year's roster.

    This is a middle-of-the-pack bunch until it proves otherwise. On the bright side, as Lillard said, the Blazers have made a habit of doing that.

                  

    12. Oklahoma City Thunder

    Sometimes, these things aren't complicated.

    Over the last two seasons, the Thunder haven't been good without Russell Westbrook. Last year, they were 11.4 points per 100 possessions worse when he sat. When Russ won MVP in 2016-17, the difference in net rating was 11.8 points per 100 possessions.

    No surprise, then, that OKC struggled against Golden State on Tuesday.

    Westbrook is already practicing as he works back from his fourth right knee surgery since 2013, but it might be a mistake to assume the Thunder will snap into shape when he returns. Guards who depend so heavily on athleticism don't tend to age well as they hit their 30s; Westbrook crosses that divide November 12.

                    

    11. Indiana Pacers

    So close!

    Indy just missed the top 10, despite adding Tyreke Evans, Doug McDermott and Kyle O'Quinn to a 48-game winner. Frame it right, though, and this feels like a huge win. Last year, at the outset of that 48-victory campaign, we kicked off the power rankings by slotting Indiana at No. 28.

    Oops.

    The Pacers broke the Grizzlies by halftime in Wednesday's 111-83 win, and the margin prevented any Indy player from logging more than 28 minutes. Good start.

10. Los Angeles Lakers

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    Here's what we know:

    • The Los Angeles Lakers have LeBron James;
    • LeBron James is very good;
    • LeBron James hasn't missed the Finals in almost a decade, let alone the playoffs.

    For some, that's more than enough information to rubber-stamp L.A.'s spot as one of the NBA's top teams. But while there's every possibility one or more of the Lakers' young pieces—Lonzo Ball, Brandon Ingram, Kyle Kuzma and Josh Hart—makes a leap this season, it's also worth remembering that not one of those guys has played a meaningful NBA minute.

    That inexperience has to matter when forecasting risk, as does James' possible decline, the ill-fitting veteran reserves who came aboard this past offseason (Rajon Rondo, JaVale McGee, Lance Stephenson) and the West's stacked status.

    Can the Lakers compete on the defensive glass? Do they have sufficient shooting? Will the 33-year-old James put forth enough effort on D to set a better example than he did with Cleveland last year?

    Questions abound for a club that's attempting to nurture young talent alongside an all-timer near the end of his prime. That's a delicate operation.

    That we have to hedge and illustrate potential pitfalls while slotting the Lakers into the top 10 says everything about this group's high floor. If enough goes right, L.A. could spend time in the top five this season—even if it feels foolish to label it a title threat.

9. New Orleans Pelicans

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    For safety's sake, you'll want to stretch before watching the New Orleans Pelicans this season. Deep-tissue massages might be advisable, too. Really, anything you can do to limber up.

    Because these guys will spend entire games in an all-out sprint.

    Last year's leaders in pace, the Pels averaged 101.6 possessions per 48 minutes. Apparently convinced that "stupid fast" wasn't fast enough, New Orleans mashed the pedal harder, resulting in a hamstring-popping, lung-searing pace of 114.2 in preseason play.

    Even though almost everyone played faster in the preseason, the gap between the figure that led the NBA last year and the one New Orleans managed across five preseason contests is shocking.

    Notably, the Pelicans were winless in exhibition play. But with Anthony Davis a short-lister for both MVP and Defensive Player of the Year, it's hard to get too down on these guys for throwing up a goose egg in games that don't matter.

    After winning 48 times a year ago, the Pels have established and embraced their identity as an uptempo team that'll try to turn every defensive board into a transition opportunity. Julius Randle's grab-and-go game couldn't be in a better place.

    In its 131-112 blowout shocker over the Houston Rockets on Wednesday, New Orleans punished off-ball switches by immediately posting up Davis and Randle against smaller matchups. This team was ready for its opener.

8. Denver Nuggets

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    The Denver Nuggets are crossing an important threshold as they transition from a team in development to one that should win loads of games and make the playoffs. With Nikola Jokic in the first year of his max contract, Jamal Murray ready for stardom ahead of his third season and Paul Millsap healthy, Denver can no longer explain away losses as growing pains.

    This team is supposed to be ready.

    Head coach Mike Malone inked an extension for two more years after this one, according to Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN, which means he'll be tested, too. Obviously, Denver is confident in him, but leading a young team with built-in excuses is different than captaining one with real expectations.

    Offensively, it'll be disappointing if the Nuggets finish outside the top three. And they'll have to be nearly that good to offset a defense that remains suspect—even if Jokic has doubled down on his efforts to optimize his positioning, which is all you can ask of an athletically limited big.

    Denver took down the Clippers on the road to kick off a campaign that should feature a win total near 50.

7. Milwaukee Bucks

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    It'll take time to determine if the Milwaukee Bucks' offensive rebirth under new head coach Mike Budenholzer is real.

    Early signs are encouraging, as Milwaukee dramatically altered its shot profile in preseason play. FiveThirtyEight's Chris Herring broke it down:

    "Milwaukee last year ranked just below league average in attempts that came from the most efficient parts of the floor, taking 64 percent of its shots from inside the restricted area or outside the 3-point line. But this preseason, the Bucks led the NBA in that capacity, taking a whopping 81 percent of their shot attempts from those regions. For context, the Houston Rockets, who avoid midrange shots like the plague, led the NBA last season by taking 82 percent of its shots from the restricted area and behind the 3-point line."

    Milwaukee was 10th on offense and 18th on D last year, so a scoring fix won't necessarily cause a leap in the standings (or here); the defense will also have to get better.

    Things looked shaky on that end during the second half of Wednesday's 113-112 victory over the Hornets. Part of the problem was ridiculous shot-making from Kemba Walker, but Milwaukee's slippage on that end turned a blowout win into a squeaker.

    Also worth noting: Giannis Antetokounmpo forced the action, took the ball to trouble and had a subpar game by his standards. He still put up 25 points, 18 boards and eight assists. Yowza.

6. Philadelphia 76ers

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    Ben Simmons took three jumpers outside the lane against Boston on Tuesday, hitting none. He also clanked six of his 11 free-throw attempts. Fortunately, he looked so physically imposing, so unstoppable in the open floor, that the ongoing struggles with his stroke barely registered.

    Breathtakingly talented and deeply flawed, Simmons is on the short list of the league's most fascinating players. Case in point: He put up 19 points, 15 rebounds, eight assists, four steals and two blocks in 43 minutes against the Celtics...and you could argue he didn't play nearly as well as he could have.

    His triple-double during Thursday's easy win over the Bulls felt pedestrian by his standards.

    The 76ers' top-end talent will overwhelm opponents on most nights, but the best teams will exploit a lack of depth, poor spacing and turnover woes—which is exactly what Boston did in its 105-87 win.

    If Philadelphia can get halfway decent contributions from rookie Landry Shamet (who seems to be occupying JJ Redick's role as a whirling, screen-using catch-and-shoot threat) and Markelle Fultz, it'll be easier to trust the offense. For now, the Sixers don't look capable of scoring efficiently enough to worry upper-echelon opponents.

    With this much youth and talent, that could change quickly.

5. Utah Jazz

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    If it weren't the coward's way out, I'd assign a No. 2 ranking to each of the next four teams. Call it a four-way draw, or break out the letter modifiers so the Utah Jazz technically check in at 2(c), and it'd better reflect the inseparable multi-squad tier beneath the top-slotted Warriors.

    That's no way to rank, though.

    Utah—elite defensively and capable of producing a top-10 offense behind Donovan Mitchell and several versatile wings—hasn't proved enough to move past the three teams immediately ahead of it. The Celtics, Raptors and Rockets have all reached the conference finals at least once in the last three seasons. All three topped the Jazz's 48 wins in 2017-18 as well.

    If Rudy Gobert stays healthy and Mitchell takes even a small step forward, the Jazz could wind up as the league's second-best team. Based on what should be a top-ranked defense alone, this group will pile up 55-plus wins without breaking a sweat. Get last year's No. 16 offense into the top 10 (highly doable), and you've got a title threat.

    There's little worth gleaning from Wednesday's road win over a young Kings team, but we'll get better information when Utah sees Golden State and Houston ahead of our next set of rankings.

4. Boston Celtics

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    No non-Warriors team has a higher ceiling than the Boston Celtics, who methodically broke down a dangerous Sixers squad on Tuesday, winning 105-87 even though some anticipated trouble spots materialized right away.

    Kyrie Irving couldn't buy a bucket, Gordon Hayward lacked lift (but managed four steals in his return from last year's broken ankle), and Boston seemed to search for the best way to divvy up offensive touches among so many worthy options.

    Jayson Tatum's efficiency should make that task easier. He led Boston with 23 points against Philly, needing only 59 touches to get the job done. For context, Irving's seven points came on 82 touches. More Tatum, please.

    Aron Baynes (2-of-4 from deep) seems intent on making the three-point stroke he unveiled during the 2018 postseason a constant, and Terry Rozier crackled with energy off the bench.

    The Celtics defense figures to rank comfortably in the top five, but the offense appears likely to extend its preseason struggles until roles solidify. With so many options—we haven't even mentioned Al Horford, Jaylen Brown or Marcus Morris—bet that Boston will figure out how to score.

    This team will be in the mix for the top spot all year.

3. Toronto Raptors

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    The Toronto Raptors won 59 games a year ago, added Kawhi Leonard and Danny Green, boast a boatload of switchy wings and should count on improvement from vital role players Fred VanVleet, OG Anunoby and Pascal Siakam.

    Deep, defensively fearsome and running a more free-wheeling offense than ever under new head coach Nick Nurse, Toronto, on paper, is better than Boston. Now, if things come together perfectly for the Celtics, that could change. But don't forget to apply the same optimism to Toronto. With the right breaks and a healthy Leonard, a mid-60s win total is on the table.

    Toronto looked fine against a shaky Cavs team Wednesday, getting 24 points (and 37 minutes) from Leonard, five made triples from Kyle Lowry and a sterling effort from new starter Siakam, who opened the game at the 4 and contributed 13 points on 6-of-8 shooting in 20 minutes.

    Boston, a far greater test, looms on Friday.

2. Houston Rockets

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    Nobody came closer to knocking off the Warriors last season, and though the Houston Rockets may have downgraded a touch when Carmelo Anthony and James Ennis replaced Luc Mbah a Moute and Trevor Ariza on the wing, it's too hard to rank a team with James Harden, Chris Paul and Clint Capela any lower.

    Now, if a few weeks of action suggest Houston's defense isn't top-10 caliber, things could shift. With Boston, Toronto, Utah and a handful of other clubs looking improved, the No. 2 spot will change hands often.

    Already, Houston looks a bit more vulnerable than it did a year ago. It trailed the Pelicans by at least 20 points for just over 12 minutes in Wednesday's 131-112 loss. NBA.com's John Schuhmann noted the Rockets trailed by at least 20 points for a total of 13.2 minutes in the entire 2017-18 season.

    Anthony came off the bench in the opener, and he's made assurances that he's moved off his staunch opposition to a reserve role, telling Jonathan Feigen of the Houston Chronicle: "It's an adjustment, more so a mental adjustment than a physical adjustment. That would be the most ... challenging part, shifting your mindset, shifting the way you approach the beginning of the game. The approach to the game is pretty much the same, but you're three, four minutes behind now."

    If Melo stays on board with bench duties, Houston can better hide his defensive deficiencies against second units. Keep an eye out for how Anthony reacts if he's absent from the closing lineup in tight games, though. The careerlong go-to scorer may not care so much about starting, but spectating during crunch time could create unrest.

1. Golden State Warriors

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    Stephen Curry was in prime form for Golden State's home opener Tuesday, ringing up 32 points on 20 shots while contributing nine assists and eight rebounds in 37 minutes. He sank his first four triple attempts and broke out every slick, twisting, off-balance close-range finish in his bag. Though the Thunder briefly took a third-quarter lead, Curry was good enough to close out the 108-100 win on a night Golden State hung another banner.

    You can only invoke the term "vintage performance" if you're hinting a guy is past his prime, so we can't use it here. Curry, clearly, is as good as ever at age 30.

    That augurs well for a team that saw Draymond Green and Klay Thompson struggle offensively. Worse still, Andre Iguodala didn't play in the second half after he left with calf tightness. The Warriors won't need him until May, but a breakdown this early isn't the best sign.

    More encouraging: Kevon Looney led the team with a plus-23, fought Steven Adams on the glass and always materialized in the right spot on both ends. In just 18 minutes, he amassed eight offensive boards, two blocks and a steal. Looney's knack for the little things marks him as Golden State's most reliable center, even if starter Damian Jones opened eyes with his above-the-rim finishing.

    Things will get experimental as the Warriors try to keep things fresh and explore new looks. Head coach Steve Kerr used a whopping 23 different lineups in the opener, per Rotoworld's Michael Gallagher. Adventurous as the rotations may get this year, Golden State remains the league's top team because of Curry's reliable greatness.

             

    Stats courtesy of Cleaning the Glass, NBA.com and Basketball Reference unless otherwise indicated. Accurate through games played Thursday, Oct. 18.