NBA Power Rankings: Who's Rising, Who's Falling After 3 Weeks?
Giannis Antetokounmpo and the Milwaukee Bucks are through messing around, and the result is the biggest power rankings shake-up of the year.
Elsewhere, Anthony Davis' elbow sprain caused a six-game skid for the New Orleans Pelicans, and the Utah Jazz just can't seem to put everything together. With those clubs plummeting down the rankings, we've got a pair of freshly available spots in the top 10.
Who wants them?
The upper reaches of our rankings remain off limits to all but a handful of select clubs. Nearly a month into the season, we've got a half-dozen elites working to separate themselves from the commoners. The Golden State Warriors, Milwaukee Bucks and Toronto Raptors have already done it, but squads in Denver, Portland, Houston and Boston are among those on the cusp of joining the upper crust.
These rankings are designed to organize all 30 teams into an order that reflects the league's in-the-moment power structure. Full-season stats are the main component, but recent play, injuries and a dash of gut feeling round out the criteria.
30. Cleveland Cavaliers (30)
Larry Drew, the voice of the head coach of the Cleveland Cavaliers, will be around in corporeal form at least through the end of what'll be a brutally painful season. He agreed to a new deal with management, per ESPN's Adrian Wojnarowski.
So...good for him?
Having installed a coach, all the Cavs (0-3 this week) have to do now is make good on promises to trade their older rotation pieces, stop Jordan Clarkson from ball-hogging at a criminal level, overcome Kevin Love's foot surgery and figure out how to repair the division forming between Collin Sexton and several vets—all of which The Athletic's Joe Vardon chronicled in a damning assessment of just how bad things are in Cleveland.
29. Phoenix Suns (28)
Devin Booker sank some tough buckets in the late going to down the Memphis Grizzlies on Sunday, giving the reeling Suns their first win since opening night. Of course, the hometown crowd booed Phoenix during a listless blowout loss to the Nets on Tuesday.
Continuing the peak-and-valley theme, Phoenix limited a struggling Boston offense to just 35 first-half points...but then wound up losing in overtime.
Deandre Ayton is already one of the most efficient low-block scorers in the league. Among players with at least 60 post-ups, only Kevin Durant's field-goal percentage is higher. He's got a long, long way to go before he's even an adequate defender, though. His lack of effort and attentiveness against Brooklyn was as jarring as you'll ever see from a big man. Even if he remains clueless about rotations going forward, he's got to operate with at least a shred of urgency.
Until he does, the Suns aren't going to stop anyone.
28. Washington Wizards (24)
This is ridiculously low for a team with as much raw talent as Washington, but what else can we do with this monument to malaise and dysfunction?
Infighting, shot-hunting and zero-effort defense have all contributed to the Wizards' disastrous start, but it's always important to attribute some blame for underachievement to a team's most prominent player.
That's John Wall.
Per ESPN's Zach Lowe:
"Perhaps age and knee surgeries have chipped away at Wall's speed. The Wizards have long been concerned about his conditioning. The same issues have infected his defense. Three years ago, Wall made a deserving appearance on the league's second All-Defense team. We have not seen much of that player since."
Quick suggestion: If you've been concerned about a player's conditioning for years, and you've got a front-row seat to his obvious albeit gradual physical decline...maybe don't max him out.
Washington is 2-8 with the third-worst net rating in the league. Even if we ignore the drama and focus only on actual performance, this is where the Wizards belong.
27. Chicago Bulls (29)
Antonio Blakeney is the only Bulls player not named Zach LaVine to lead the team in scoring this season. His 22 points in Friday's 107-105 loss to the Pacers was the lone interruption in LaVine's streak of team-high scoring efforts.
Chicago has loads of problems, but at least it got its third win of the year against New York on Monday: a double-overtime thriller (can we say that about a game involving these two teams?) in which LaVine posted a career-best 41 points.
The Bulls have lost five of their last six.
26. Atlanta Hawks (26)
Trae Young can see the floor, people. And more importantly, when he sees where the ball needs to wind up in order to create an efficient shot, he gets it there. His 15 assists in a 123-118 win over the Heat on Saturday showed that.
Exploitable on defense and still adjusting to the NBA's supercharged athletes, Young is nonetheless learning to use craft and skill to compete. Even with his weaknesses on display, the Hawks' prized rookie is flashing signs that point toward stardom.
Also, 41-year-old Vince Carter spun baseline and dunked against Jeremy Lamb on Tuesday. When he's 114 years old, wheelchair-bound and playing for the NBA's Denver Tides (because Colorado will be the West Coast by then), Carter will still be dunking on 20-somethings.
25. Orlando Magic (27)
Orlando got game defensive efforts from both D.J. Augustin and Jerian Grant in Sunday's 117-110 win over San Antonio, and Aaron Gordon put up a combined 49 points between that win and Monday's follow-up victory against the Cavs. Evan Fournier hit the buzzer-beater in that one, completing a comeback from a five-point deficit in the final minute.
One way to think of Orlando's week: The Magic have now beaten the last two non-Warriors teams to win championships. Neat!
Another way: Orlando is still not very good, Jonathan Isaac is out with an injury to the same ankle that cost him months last year, and the lack of three-point shooting means average offense may be impossible. Less neat!
24. Minnesota Timberwolves (21)
Hey, just got this anonymous (and made-up) missive from a member of the Timberwolves. Things sound bad!
We are running out of supplies, and morale is flagging. Orders from high command contradict themselves with every new communication, to the point where it's now impossible to be sure who's in charge at all. Factions are forming among the men. The less seasoned members of our once-plucky troop are surrendering to hallucinations. They belong to the mud now.
There's, um, trench foot going around? Probably.
Sometimes Jimmy Butler plays. Sometimes he doesn't. Minnesota has stopped defending entirely, is the worst defensive rebounding team in the league and is 0-4 on its current road trip. Maybe Butler gets traded tomorrow, and this interminable struggle ends. Maybe this hopeless conflict stretches on forever.
Who can say?
23. New York Knicks (25)
Enes Kanter put up 23 points, 24 rebounds and seven assists during Monday's loss to the Bulls, and Mitchell Robinson corralled and crammed a lob pass for a sweet reverse dunk in last Friday's win over Dallas.
Why did Robinson spin 180 degrees for no reason before catching that oop and throwing it down backwards? Who cares? There are maybe a dozen guys in the league who could have completed the play in that fashion. Let's just enjoy the positives and celebrate the Knicks after a 2-2 week that included road wins over Atlanta and Dallas.
22. Dallas Mavericks (23)
Luka Doncic and Dennis Smith Jr. are Dallas' most important long-term pieces, and it's a little concerning that they've been so bad together in the early going. According to Cleaning the Glass, the Mavs' net rating is minus-10.2 when those two share the floor. Swap in J.J. Barea for Smith, and Dallas vaults all the way up to plus-17.1.
Before freaking out, note that we're about an eighth of the way through the season. Also, if the Mavericks want to get their kids a lot of reps while piling up losses in pursuit of another lottery pick, they only have to convey their 2019 first-rounder to Atlanta if it falls outside the top five.
If Dallas needs more help losing, it could just encourage the whole roster to match DeAndre Jordan's intensity level...which has been alarmingly poor for too many stretches. The tape doesn't lie.
The Mavs' only win this week came against Washington.
21. Detroit Pistons (16)
Detroit's 103-96 win against Orlando on Wednesday snapped a five-game losing streak that highlighted a glaring weakness. The Pistons rank last in catch-and-shoot three-point percentage and accuracy rate on wide-open treys, which makes it awfully tough to keep defenses honest.
At last the Pistons have Andre Drummond around to haul in all those misses. He's got four 20-20 games on the ledger through his first 10 games.
20. Sacramento Kings (19)
Despite a negative overall net rating (thanks largely to a 35-point loss against Milwaukee on Sunday), the Kings sit at 6-5 with three straight home games coming up next week. And while we've given much deserved attention to De'Aaron Fox, Willie Cauley-Stein and Buddy Hield, Nemanja Bjelica has quietly been key to Sacramento's surprising start.
When Bjelica plays the 4 alongside Fox, Cauley-Stein and Hield, the Kings wreck everyone to the tune of a plus-15.4 net rating. Bjelica isn't just riding coattails either. Filter the lineup data to remove him and leave the Kings' young trio out there, and the net rating is just plus-1.6 points per 100 possessions.
Bjelica's spacing, passing and savvy make a massive difference, and it's encouraging that head coach Dave Joerger hasn't used Bjelica at the 3 for a single possession all year.
The Kings are young, and we shouldn't get too caught up in a hot start. But these guys are getting a lot right.
19. Brooklyn Nets (22)
The Nets forced a league season-high 28 turnovers against the Sixers on Sunday, leading to a 122-97 win.
"We can control games by our defense, even if our shots aren't falling," Caris LeVert told Brian Lewis of the New York Post. "That's something last year that we didn't have. Last year when we weren't hitting shots we were in trouble."
Brooklyn has won three of its last four, and the 101.4 defensive rating it managed over three games this past week would be good enough to rank second in the league over a full season.
18. Miami Heat (17)
The Heat offer an interesting indicator of mediocrity, per Anthony Chiang of the Miami Herald:
"After playing in a league-high 53 clutch games—defined by the NBA as a game that has a margin of five points or fewer inside the final five minutes of the fourth quarter—last season, six of the Heat’s first nine games this season have fallen in the clutch category. Miami is 3-3 in those games."
After taking a 95-88 victory against San Antonio on Wednesday, make it seven of the Heat's first 10 games that have reached clutch time. And bump Miami's mark to 4-3.
There's something to be said for consistently succeeding in high-leverage minutes, but there's probably more to be said for avoiding those close games altogether. That's how the best teams operate. The ones in the middle, like Miami, have to do a lot more late-game scrapping to survive.
17. New Orleans Pelicans (8)
Anthony Davis destroyed the Bulls on Wednesday, finally looking better after an elbow injury limited him in three games and held him out of another three entirely. The Pels lost all six of those contests leading up to the 107-98 win against Chicago, but Davis' 32 points, 15 rebounds, seven assists and four blocks suggested he was finally on the mend.
Jrue Holiday was actually a team-high plus-17 in that contest, missing a triple-double by a single assist.
If there's consolation to be had in the wake of a just-concluded six-game skid, it's that New Orleans has played the toughest schedule in the league so far.
16. Los Angeles Lakers (18)
The low point came when the Lakers trailed by 31 points in the first quarter of Sunday's loss to the Raptors, and the high point may have been freshly signed Tyson Chandler back-tapping a bunch of offensive boards to ice Wednesday's win against Minnesota.
Chandler, on board after a buyout from the Suns, gives L.A. another conventional center—one who, unlike JaVale McGee, has been productive and defensively reliable since before 2018. He's no panacea, but Chandler's experience and tenacity on the glass will help. Because although the idea of the Lakers playing smaller has long been intriguing, their lack of shooting often means they're both undersized and suffering from poor spacing. That's a lose-lose proposition.
Finally, before team president Magic Johnson admonished head coach Luke Walton for a sub-.500 start, I wonder if he stopped to consider that everyone knew the roster he put together would have exactly the kinds of defensive and rebounding problems that have plagued them so far.
15. Memphis Grizzlies (20)
There's something to be said for knowing who you are, and after several years of attempted updates, the Grizzlies seem to be embracing a past identity—one that doesn't quite square with modern trends but is getting results nonetheless.
With losses at Golden State and Phoenix (yuck) sandwiched between victories against the Jazz and Nuggets, the Grizzlies are settling into position as a dangerous old-school outfit. Sound familiar?
14. Utah Jazz (5)
The Jazz have some positive indicators: They rank third in frequency of shots at the rim and absolutely will not continue shooting 27.2 percent on their corner threes. For reference, they hit 41.7 percent of those shots a year ago.
A ho-hum win over Dallas on Wednesday snapped a four-game slide, and the Jazz will have to prove themselves against top competition before re-entering the top 10. Utah has the talent and track record to get there, but at some point, the process has to produce results.
13. Charlotte Hornets (15)
Nobody's been deadlier as a pick-and-roll ball-handler than Kemba Walker, who's using 12 such possessions per game with an efficiency that ranks in the 92nd percentile.
When searching for drivers of Charlotte's top-five offense, start there.
Head coach James Borrego seems committed to a score-first mentality, as he's shown a willingness to use Walker, Tony Parker and Malik Monk together. How that undersized unit will ever compete defensively remains a mystery, but it's hard to argue with the offensive output. Those three produce an offensive rating of 132.6 when sharing the floor.
Charlotte went 2-0 this past week.
12. San Antonio Spurs (11)
If you're not going to create high-value looks by running and shooting threes, you'd better find ways to recoup all the easy scoring you're forgoing.
The Spurs, 1-2 this week following a lackluster showing against Miami on Wednesday, are doing that by taking historically good care of the ball. They're on pace to log the lowest turnover rate the league has ever seen.
Some of that has to do with San Antonio's shot profile. If you're content taking mid-range jumpers or shooting over a contest in the post, you're probably not chucking high-risk passes to shooters or cutters. At the same time, credit high-usage guys like DeMar DeRozan and LaMarcus Aldridge for valuing possessions. And don't forget a nod to Pau Gasol, who spends significant time running the offense on the second unit.
All of those players are helping San Antonio make the most of the talent it has.
11. Philadelphia 76ers (12)
Joel Embiid has seven games of at least 30 points and 10 rebounds in his first 10 games, underscoring his value to a Sixers offense that struggles to find easy buckets.
Philly has experimented with lineups featuring Markelle Fultz and Embiid surrounded by three shooters, but the long-term question about Fultz and Ben Simmons working together remains unanswered. Early returns suggest the pairing may never work. In 479 possessions together, Simmons and Fultz have produced an offensive rating of 95.0, five points worse than the Suns' No. 30 ranking on the season.
The defense has been sound; Philadelphia held the Pacers to 94 points in a win on Wednesday. But until the Sixers solve this scoring problem, they'll have a hard time stringing wins together.
10. Los Angeles Clippers
Last Week: 13
The schedule hasn't been all that impressive, as the Clippers have lucked into facing teams missing stars or otherwise falling apart. But wins over OKC (no Westbrook), Houston twice (no Paul in one, no Harden in the other) and Washington (healthy but fracturing entirely) still count.
L.A.'s free-throw rate is the highest in the league, its roster is deep, and it has the versatility to trot out lineups geared to score or get stops. The Clippers don't have a surplus of two-way contributors, but they've got guys with at least one clear skill all the way down the bench.
Rob Mahoney of Sports Illustrated explained how it all works:
"Any attempt by Beverley, Williams, or rookie Shai Gilgeous-Alexander to run the show like an auteur would fall flat. Featuring Harris or Gallinari too overtly would only highlight their limitations. So rather than try to be something they’re not, the Clippers collaborate."
Limitations can be liberating, it seems. The Clippers are 6-5 after a 2-1 week.
9. Houston Rockets
Last Week: 10
A 3-1 week doesn't mean the Rockets have sorted out all the issues that produced a 1-5 start, but isn't it funny how a healthy James Harden makes it easier to win basketball games?
Harden returned from his sore hamstring against the Bulls on Saturday, and even if his eight turnovers in that game indicated some rust, he quickly settled into his spot as an offensive focal point. Just as importantly, Houston's defense has come around after an exhaustively covered bad start. The Rockets held the Bulls to seven third-quarter points and limited Indiana's solid attack to just 19 fourth-quarter points. Houston outscored the Pacers by 10 in that decisive period to earn a quality road win.
Along with Harden, James Ennis III and Chris Paul are both back from injury and suspension, respectively. With Eric Gordon nearing a return, Houston almost has its rotation back.
"One of the problems we had, with the problems of guys being out, guys being in, new guys, trying rookies out, who to trust, who not to trust, it wasn’t a great rotation of people," head coach Mike D'Antoni told Jonathan Feigen of the Houston Chronicle. "They weren't feeling comfortable and it showed up in how we played."
If you gave up on the Rockets, shame on you. Even if Thursday's 98-80 loss to the Thunder proved Houston is nowhere near all the way back to last year's level, it was always hard to believe it would look like a lottery team forever.
8. Oklahoma City Thunder
Last Week: 14
Only the Lakers generate a higher frequency of shots at the rim, and the Thunder are still playing winning basketball, despite an abysmal hit rate on three-point attempts. In other words, don't worry too much about OKC's lagging offense. Even if playing with Russell Westbrook tends to stifle offensive flow, the Thunder are getting the right kinds of shots.
A sprained ankle knocked Westbrook out of action in Monday's win over New Orleans, and OKC carried on without him against the Cavs on Wednesday and, most impressively, the Rockets on Thursday. That makes it seven straight victories for the Thunder.
Westbrook tends to make it back from injury quicker than most, but Oklahoma City's survival (and defensive dominance) without him means he can take his time.
Paul George—who hit the Rockets for 20 points, 11 rebounds, six assists and six steals—can handle things for as long as necessary while Russ heals up.
7. Indiana Pacers
Last Week: 9
If the Indiana Pacers find themselves in a close game down the stretch, they've already won.
At least that's how it feels with Victor Oladipo firing in game-winners and averaging the second-most clutch points per game in the league. Though it's early, and though this is a clearly unsustainable and misleading stat, it's delightful to note that Oladipo is shooting 61.1 percent from the field and 58.3 percent from deep in close-and-late situations.
That, folks, is how you win Player of the Week for the East.
Domantas Sabonis still isn't starting, but his game continues to expand. He was integral to Indiana's attack in a 98-94 loss to the Rockets on Monday, taking advantage of switches by getting into the post and either scoring or finding teammates. In 30 minutes of a four-point loss, Sabonis was a plus-three. He scored 17 points on 7-of-9 shooting and distributed five assists against just one turnover.
He's so much more than the guy OKC turned into a perimeter statue two years ago.
Indy retains its hold on a top-10 spot on the strength of Saturday's narrow escape against Boston and Wednesday's tough loss to the Sixers.
6. Boston Celtics
Last Week: 4
Victor Oladipo beat them with a game-winning three on Saturday, and Jamal Murray's 48-point conniption made it two straight losses for the Boston Celtics, who recovered to get the first win of their current five-game road trip against the Suns on Thursday.
Despite the disappointing record this past week, Boston's defense remains tops in the league. The other end has been the problem, as the Celtics rank 30th in field-goal attempts in the restricted area and 29th in free-throw rate. The lack of easy close-range shots and free throws doesn't necessarily doom an offense, but the Celtics aren't making the healthy volume of threes they're taking.
During a 35-point first half against Phoenix, Boston just couldn't get anything to fall.
Through their first 11 games, the Celtics rank third in three-point attempt rate but 17th in accuracy.
Finally, Jayson Tatum's adjustment to life further down the totem pole has gone as expected. After posting 10 20-point games in 19 playoff appearances last spring, he's had just three 20-pointers in his first 11 games this year. Terry Rozier is in a similar boat; he's hitting his threes at a better clip than last year but has struggled mightily to finish inside.
If it seems like every piece of player analysis we do for Boston turns up a substandard offensive profile, well...that's how you end up scoring 35 points in a half against the Suns' putrid defense.
5. Portland Trail Blazers
Last Week: 7
The Bucks gave up all the mid-rangers Portland could handle on Tuesday, and nobody capitalized more than CJ McCollum, who rang up 40 points in the 118-103 home win.
Long one of the league's top in-between scorers, McCollum was 8-of-10 in the mid-range area against Milwaukee. Any teams considering conservative pick-and-roll coverage against Portland might want to keep McCollum's jumpers and floaters in mind.
Damian Lillard has been the Blazers' most consistent presence, and even if he's smack in the middle of his prime, the 28-year-old just keeps getting better. He's on pace for new career highs in effective field-goal percentage, free-throw rate and box plus-minus all while having clearly worked on attacking the league's switching and trapping schemes.
His dismantling of Clint Capela on Oct. 30 forced Houston out of its switch-everything scheme. That's hard to do.
Portland ranks in the top six in both offensive and defensive efficiency.
4. Denver Nuggets
Last Week: 6
"The buy-in, the commitment, the effort [is there]," Nuggets head coach Mike Malone told ESPN.com's Tim Bontemps of his team's defensive growth. "So no, I wouldn't say I'm surprised at all. Our guys are out there doing it, and they deserve all the credit. We haven't come up with a grand master plan."
Denver, 9-2 and a winner in five of its last six, is second in defensive efficiency. The Nuggets' high-potency offense barely ranks inside the top 10, and if you saw that coming, congratulations; you're in an exclusive club of one.
Jamal Murray's 48-point bucketfest against Boston wasn't an indicator Denver's offense will now be run differently. It was a shot-making clinic put on by a skilled player whose confidence bordered on supernatural that night. What Murray's eruption really means is that the Nugs have the type of individual scorer who can win a playoff game on his own. Maybe Murray had hinted at that capacity before, but now there's no denying it.
He's the kind of emergency weapon teams need for a deep playoff run when opponents can scheme to stop offensive systems. Denver, increasingly, looks like a club intent on making one of those runs.
3. Toronto Raptors
Last Week: 3
The Raptors have won 11 of their first 12 games after sweeping a road trip out West with a 4-0 mark. All that with Kawhi Leonard missing a third of their games so far?
Serge Ibaka's offensive emergence has helped. He started 14-of-14 from the field in Sunday's 121-107 win over the Lakers, finishing with 34 points and 10 boards on 15-of-17 shooting. It was the first time anyone had made his first 14 shots since Shaquille O'Neal did it in 2006. The very next night, Ibaka went 8-of-8 from the field in just 14 minutes, leading to a 124-111 road win against the Jazz.
Kyle Lowry's assist avalanche also continues apace. He's your league leader with an average of 11.3 after never topping 7.4 per game over a full season.
"He's just seeing a lot more opportunities to deliver the ball to a variety of people," Raptors head coach Nick Nurse told Reid Forgrave of CBSSports.com. "That is different. It's spacing. He's just seeing a lot more opportunities to dish the ball off to people this year. The spacing's gotta be a big reason for it. His vision of what he's seeing out there is changing a little bit."
Nobody has taken more charges than Lowry, and the 32-year-old is also shooting 39.2 percent from deep. Leonard is the marquee name, but Lowry is Toronto's best player so far. If he keeps this up, and the Raptors keep winning, he'll deserve serious consideration for MVP.
2. Golden State Warriors
Last Week: 1
Camp invitee and former basketball vagabond Alfonzo McKinnie has done enough to solidify his spot in the Warriors' rotation. Alongside Jonas Jerebko, who's also providing useful minutes off the bench, McKinnie has given the Dubs something they've lacked for most of their ongoing dynasty: depth.
McKinnie is the league's best offensive rebounder among wings, and after never establishing himself as a reliable outside shooter, he's confidently drilling treys like a three-point specialist. Able to get his own looks by hustling on the offensive glass and finish setups from deep, McKinnie is about as low maintenance as role-fillers get. He's an ideal fit alongside the Warriors' high-usage stars.
Speaking of which, Stephen Curry left Thursday's blowout loss to the Bucks with a left adductor strain. Shaun Livingston and Draymond Green also sat with injuries. So while depth helps, it's still true that the Warriors aren't the Warriors without their full arsenal.
Injury concerns have more to do with Golden State's demotion than the thorough beating suffered at the hands (hooves?) of the Bucks. Still, that 134-111 loss has to be accounted for.
1. Milwaukee Bucks
Last Week: 2
Milwaukee's drop pick-and-roll coverage is basically a necessity with Brook Lopez in the game. Though that strategy yielded 55 three-point attempts (and a franchise-record 24 makes) during last week's loss to the Celtics, it has also helped the Bucks allow fewer restricted-area attempts than any other defense.
While aggressive offenses with capable pull-up three-point shooters will try to replicate Boston's shot profile against Milwaukee, what usually happens is opponents get stuck hoisting two-point jumpers. The Bucks are wise to be comfortable with that outcome, even when an anomaly, like Portland's 16-of-21 mid-range shooting in a 118-103 win on Tuesday, produces a loss.
No team has forced more mid-rangers than Milwaukee.
The Bucks fell to a Blazers team that made the shots they wanted to concede, but recovered to smash the Warriors in Oakland on Thursday. Though Golden State was flat for most of the contest and missing Draymond Green and playing without Stephen Curry for most of the second half, the all-out mastery Milwaukee displayed demands attention.
The Warriors were just physically overwhelmed. Beset on all sides by rangy athletes with endless arms, deployed at high speed and with ill intent.
Throw in the health concerns with Curry and Green, and you've got all it takes for a new No. 1. If we're talking who'd win a playoff series, or who has the best shot at a ring, that's still the Warriors. But today, Milwaukee looks tougher.
The Bucks, 9-2 and owners of the top net rating in the league, earned this.