NBA Power Rankings: Warriors Strife Intensifies Competition for Top Spots

Grant Hughes@@gt_hughesNational NBA Featured ColumnistNovember 16, 2018

NBA Power Rankings: Warriors Strife Intensifies Competition for Top Spots

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    With Draymond Green and Kevin Durant beefing and a Stephen Curry injury further weakening the defending champs, the Golden State Warriors lost their chance to regain the top spot in the latest edition of NBA power rankings. Filling that vacancy was tricky, as every other potential upward-mover also stumbled this week.

    Though virtually every other top-10 squad lost at least once this past week, the Milwaukee Bucks and their league-leading net rating deserved the No. 1 spot most.

    Meanwhile, there are signs the Houston Rockets could be finding their form, and the Oklahoma City Thunder, Toronto Raptors and Portland Trail Blazers all look capable of making the fight for the top position interesting while the Warriors mend fences. And, very importantly, groins.

    The goal of these rankings is to organize the league into an order that reflects current strength. Recent play and overall performance are factors, and advanced metrics like offensive rating, defensive rating and net rating matter more than win-loss records. Head-to-head matchups can break ties, but beating a specific opponent never means you're guaranteed a better spot than a vanquished foe. And, bringing it back around, injuries are a major consideration.

    Take care of those groins, people.

30-26

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    Last week's ranking in parentheses.

           

    30. Phoenix Suns (29)

    Last in offense and 28th on defense, Phoenix is settling in a notch below the rest of the lottery-bound crowd. This, even after a 20-point win over the Spurs on Wednesday pumped up the Suns' efficiency numbers on both ends.

    Of the 250 players to log at least 200 minutes this season, Josh Jackson's box plus-minus ranks last. The No. 4 overall pick last year is shooting 41.2 percent from the field and 29 percent from deep while piling up 35 turnovers against just 23 assists.

    Please withdraw all Jackson-related optimism and deposit it in the bank of Mikal Bridges.

            

    29. Cleveland Cavaliers (30)

    The Cavs blew out the Charlotte Hornets on Tuesday, winning 113-89 on the strength of 21 rebounds from Tristan Thompson. The victory was just Cleveland's second of the season, but in another positive development, rookie Collin Sexton scored a career-high 24 points in a 119-95 loss to the Wizards.

    Though tied for the fewest wins in the league, Cleveland's minus-8.7 net rating is comfortably better than Phoenix's. Glass half full.

            

    28. Chicago Bulls (27)

    Zach LaVine is still getting shots up and still getting to the foul line, but the strain of carrying a rotten Bulls offense is getting to him.

    "I'm tired, but I'm all right," LaVine told The Athletic's Darnell Mayberry after Monday's 103-98 home loss to the Mavs. "I'm doing everything I can."

    LaVine is 1-of-12 on his last dozen three-point attempts and hasn't made half his field goals in a game since a 41-point explosion (in 49 minutes!) against New York on Nov. 5. James Harden and Giannis Antetokounmpo are the only players with a higher usage percentage.

    The Bulls went 1-2 this week, with the lone victory being a one-point win over Cleveland.

           

    27. Atlanta Hawks (26)

    The three-ball hasn't fallen for Trae Young all year, but he's shown so many other positive signs that the cold shooting hardly matters. For example, if he keeps up his current rate of facilitation, Young will have a chance to break the rookie record for assist percentage, set by Brevin Knight back in 1997-98.

    Atlanta has lost 10 of its last 11, but Young's surprising success in areas unrelated to outside shooting provides real hope. Because we all know the long ball will start going in eventually.

            

    26. New York Knicks (24)

    Losers in five of their last six, the Knicks are necessarily tinkering with their lineups. Following losses to Toronto and Orlando this week, head coach David Fizdale swapped out Frank Ntilikina and Damyean Dotson for Emmanuel Mudiay and Kevin Knox in the first unit.

    It didn't make much difference, as New York lost by 25 to the Thunder with its new starting five.

    At least Mitchell Robinson keeps blocking threes. Although, he tweaked his ankle landing on Mario Hezonja's foot Wednesday, which seems to support the idea that the Knicks can't have nice things.

25-21

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    25. Washington Wizards (28)

    It's a little alarming that it took media criticism (and not Washington's 2-9 start) to make John Wall mad enough to start really trying, but if that's the narrative everyone's into, let's indulge it.

    Wall averaged 20 points, 10.0 assists and 4.5 rebounds while hitting 46.2 percent of his threes in the Wizards' last four games, three of which were wins.

    "Y'all pissed him off," Bradley Beal told reporters after Monday's victory over Orlando. "He's going to come out and play like Wolf Wall. That's what we need him to do. I'm happy that you guys lit a little flame."

    We'll see if Wall's focus and production hold steady as the Wizards embark on a remaining November schedule that features a litany of playoff-caliber opponents.

          

    24. Orlando Magic (25)

    Jonathan Isaac returned from his sprained ankle Wednesday, scoring just four points after six games on the shelf. Though his 16-minute stint was short on stats, Isaac still managed to turn in one of the better blocks we'll see this season, meeting Joel Embiid at the rim and somehow not being bludgeoned into subatomic particles.

    The stuff was part of a 21-0 run that gave Orlando a third win in its last four tries. Nikola Vucevic, who always seems to get up for the Sixers, helped out with 30 points and eight boards in the 111-106 win.

            

    23. Detroit Pistons (21)

    Winners in three of their last four games, the Pistons climbed back over the .500 mark Wednesday for the first time since they were 4-3 on Halloween. Despite the recent success, Detroit's net rating remains in negative territory. And though extracurriculars like this don't always factor in, there's got to be some penalty for Blake Griffin's dirty undercut on an airborne Malik Monk.

    That's some amateur-hour stuff.

    On a lighter note, head coach Dwane Casey got a win over the Raptors, his former team, on Wednesday. Reggie Bullock's game-winning buzzer-beater sealed the deal.

           

    22. Miami Heat (18)

    The Heat have lost three of their last four, but at least they adopted some perspective after a team meeting this week.

    "Without getting too pumped up in your head, most of us got paid, most of us got good contracts to be able to come back here. So, what are we complaining about?" Tyler Johnson said, via Anthony Chiang of the Miami Herald. "I think what's crazy is before any of us got any money, we were just some dogs."

    Wednesday's 120-107 victory suggests Miami, 6-8, got some of its bite back.

           

    21. Minnesota Timberwolves (23)

    Having spent the first few weeks of these rankings saying Jimmy Butler's presence made success impossible for the Wolves, we're now obliged to argue his absence following a trade to the Sixers will have the opposite effect.

    That seemed reasonable Wednesday, as Karl-Anthony Towns posted 25 points 16 rebounds, three assists and two blocks in a 107-100 win over Anthony Davis' Pelicans. In his last three games, just one in which Butler played, Towns is averaging 29.7 points and 18.7 rebounds with a 65.5 effective field-goal percentage.

    Andrew Wiggins even got involved against the Pels, cutting backdoor and jamming one home over Nikola Mirotic.

    Minnesota is shorter on talent with Robert Covington and Dario Saric replacing Butler, but there's got to be something valuable in jettisoning the one guy on the roster who wasn't invested in the Wolves winning games.

20-16

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    20. Brooklyn Nets (19)

    Caris LeVert's gruesome injury looked as bad as Gordon Hayward's season-ender last year (no, you won't find a link to the video here), but the Nets got some good news when tests revealed their breakout star hadn't broken bones or severely damaged ligaments, portending a return at some point this season.

    Brooklyn lost its first contest without LeVert on Wednesday, and third straight overall, falling to the Heat by 13.

    If ever there were a time for D'Angelo Russell to take his play up a notch as a lead guard, it's now.

                

    19. Utah Jazz (14)

    What's there to say besides "118-68"?

    Utah, having won three straight before Wednesday's debacle against the Mavs, is going to need weeks (and possibly some primal scream therapy) to recover from its lowest scoring output since 2006 and second-worst loss in franchise history.

    "There was a point where we stopped competing," Utah coach Quin Snyder told reporters. "We all have to own that and obviously the scoreboard reflected that.

    I would submit that point occurred at halftime, after which Utah was outscored 60-22. Yes, that's correct: The Jazz scored 22 points in the second half.

    Yowza.

           

    18. Dallas Mavericks (22)

    It's going to be a long time before Dallas' stats make any sense. That's how a 50-point win like the one the Mavs slapped on the Jazz on Wednesday skews season-long stats. The massive victory bumped Dallas' net rating from minus-2.3, which ranked 21st, to plus-1.5, which ranks 12th.

    Is Dallas the 12th-best team in the league? Hardly. But a 118-68 obliteration at least shows the Mavericks have the capacity to dominate on the right night. And the result looks even better when you consider it was Dallas' third consecutive victory.

    Also, I am here for Luka Doncic pass-faking Rudy Gobert at point-blank range and getting away with it.

           

    17. San Antonio Spurs (12)

    The Spurs' ledger includes November losses to Orlando, Miami, Phoenix and Sacramento—not exactly a high-profile quartet. Defense has been the problem, as San Antonio, perennially hovering around the top five on that end for 20 years, now occupies the middle of the pack in defensive efficiency.

    "We have been terrible defensively," DeMar DeRozan told reporters after San Antonio surrendered 116 points to the Suns (THE SUNS!) in a 20-point defeat Wednesday. "We didn't make nothing too uncomfortable for them. They kept their rhythm and pulled away again. We can't let that happen and it all starts on defense."

    We've all burned calories lamenting San Antonio's outdated offensive approach. But if the Spurs are going to surrender huge totals to suspect offenses all year, it really won't matter how much (or how little) they can score.

           

    16. Sacramento Kings (20)

    "I'm really impressed," Spurs coach Gregg Popovich told The Undefeated's Marc J. Spears following a 104-99 loss to the Kings in Sacramento on Monday. "The culture is changing, and it's changing drastically."

    A faster pace, universal acknowledgment that this is De'Aaron Fox's team and steps forward from Willie Cauley-Stein and Buddy Hield have the Kings, 2-1 this past week and 8-6 overall, generating real optimism. That should be tempered with an understanding that the rest of November's schedule is positively murderous, but anytime you end a 14-game losing streak to one franchise, which the Kings did by knocking off the Spurs, a move up the standings has to follow.

15-11

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    15. New Orleans Pelicans (17)

    Following one of the more impressive efforts by any team this season, a 126-110 win at Toronto in which Nikola Mirotic and Elfrid Payton didn't play, the Pels suffered a letdown in Wednesday's 107-100 loss to the Wolves.

    New Orleans' 2-1 week once again underscored the simplicity of evaluating this team.

    If Anthony Davis is right, the Pelicans can beat anybody. If he's not, anybody can beat them. The on-off splits highlight that reality, but you really only need to know the win-loss record; New Orleans went 0-6 in a stretch when Davis' elbow limited him or kept him out of the lineup entirely. With a healthy AD, the Pels are 7-1.

              

    14. Charlotte Hornets (13)

    The Hornets were going to sniff the top 10 this week, but that 113-89 loss to the Cavs on Tuesday made it impossible. Charlotte's net rating of plus-5.0 marks it as a much better team than its 7-7 record suggests, but Wednesday's anemic offensive effort shows just how dependent the Hornets are on Kemba Walker, who was just 2-of-16 in that dispiriting loss.

    Charlotte is solid and steady, and it takes care of the ball better than everyone. That's all fine, but it doesn't add up to top-10 status.

                

    13. Los Angeles Lakers (16)

    L.A. notched its fourth straight win Wednesday, beating the dangerous Blazers behind LeBron James' best performance of the season. Suddenly invested on defense and hunting his shots on the other end, James piled up 44 points, 10 rebounds and nine assists on 13-of-19 shooting.

    He even blocked three shots, one in highlight fashion when Nik Stauskas tried to spike a dunk over James' contest. Relatedly: Nik Stauskas, WYD!?

    Tyson Chandler is here to help, which he did by swatting Trae Young's potential game-winner after James missed free throws (but redeemed himself with a go-ahead follow dunk) in the closing moments of a Sunday win over the Hawks.

    This week, we saw evidence that the best player in the world is still the best player in the world. As such, the Lakers are looking scarier.

            

    12. Philadelphia 76ers (11)

    OK, so: Jimmy Butler's here now.

    In theory, adding one of the league's fourth-quarter scoring leaders (Butler ranks second only to LeBron James with 8.1 points per fourth quarter) to a team that ranks 26th in that same category seems like a cure-all.

    It's not as simple as that, of course, as there are fit issues to iron out between Butler, Ben Simmons and Joel Embiid, who should not, under any circumstances, take a back seat to anyone. Embiid is averaging 27.6 points, 13.4 rebounds, 3.9 assists and 2.1 blocks while playing a brand of physically dominant basketball we haven't seen since Shaquille O'Neal savaged opposing centers almost 20 years ago.

    No player in league history has matched those averages while also hitting even a single three in a season. Embiid is 23-of-70 from deep.

    Philly lost its first game with Butler, blowing a late lead against the lowly Magic. Clearly, there will be some growing pains. But the Sixers added a top-20 player who should fill gaps on both ends.

    The only question now: Does Markelle Fultz still factor into the 76ers' plans? If not, the time to trade him is now, before he starts losing minutes.

                 

    11. Memphis Grizzlies (15)

    I'm not sure anyone would pick the Grizzlies to take down the Sixers in a hypothetical playoff series, but in the wake of a comeback win over Philly, Memphis has done enough lately to claw four more spots up the rankings.

    The starters—Mike Conley, Garrett Temple, Kyle Anderson, Jaren Jackson Jr. and Marc Gasolstruggle to score, but, man, do they put the clamps on opponents. Among fivesomes with at least 100 minutes of shared court time, that Grizzlies unit ranks first in defensive efficiency.

    Capping a 2-1 week, Memphis came from eight points down in the fourth quarter to dispatch the Bucks. Conley and Gasol combined for 55 points in that one, and Gasol tied a career high with six made triples.

    If healthy, Memphis looks capable of grinding its way to a win total in the mid-to-high 40s.

10. Denver Nuggets

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    Last Week: 4

    You can find loads of mitigating factors to soften the impact of the Denver Nuggets' four-game losing streak: Caris LeVert beat them in the final second last Friday, Brook Lopez broke out an array of 30-foot heaves to give the Bucks a seven-point win on Sunday and the Rockets found themselves at the wrong time (from the Nuggets' perspective) on Tuesday.

    Even amid those close defeats, there were good signs. A game after he attempted one field goal in a two-point loss to Memphis, Nikola Jokic slapped 37 points and 21 boards on Brooklyn.

    Still, the defensive slippage is worrisome. After a strong start on that end, Denver is looking more like it did last year...in all the wrong ways.

    "Last four [games], the defense just fell off big time," head coach Mike Malone told Mike Singer of the Denver Post. "And there are a lot of things to that, a lot of levels. It's one-on-one containment, the blow-bys are at epic levels right now, just the inability to guard one-on-one and then just having pick-n-roll awareness."

    Denver downed the Hawks on Thursday to end its slide, but anyone who bought this team's early top-end defense is feeling a little silly.

9. Indiana Pacers

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    Last Week: 7

    The Indiana Pacers have lost three of their last four, even though Victor Oladipo has averaged 27.0 points, 6.8 rebounds and 6.5 assists per game in that stretch.

    As has been the case for most of the year, three-point defense is a bugaboo for Indy. No team allows opponents a higher frequency of attempts from deep, and the price for all those looks has been high. Indiana's opponents have shot 38.3 percent on threes, the league's fifth-highest mark.

    The trade-off, in which Indiana concedes jumpers to protect the rim, is still getting results. Opponents get just 32.8 percent of their shots at the rim against the Pacers, which ranks fourth-best in the NBA.

    A three-game homestand to start the next rankings session should help Indiana steer out of this minor skid.

8. Houston Rockets

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    Last Week: 9

    Some of the Houston Rockets' positioning is by default; just about everyone else in the top 10 stumbled this week—some worse than others—and Houston is looking comparatively stable. That's an odd thing to write about one of the early season's biggest disappointments—one that also just broke up with Carmelo Anthony (who was part of the problem but definitely not all of it), as ESPN's Adrian Wojnarowski reported.

    Since starting 1-5, Houston has come around. James Harden dropped 40 on the Pacers in a 12-point win Sunday, and the Rockets looked like themselves in a 109-99 win at Denver on Tuesday, defending with intensity and taking all but two of their field-goal attempts from inside the lane or outside the arc. As assistant Jeff Bzdelik eases back into his former role, the defense should continue to improve. 

    We're not looking at a 60-plus-win juggernaut. That much is clear. But the Rockets have as good a chance as anybody to slot in behind the Warriors out West before the season ends. Their 107-86 win against Golden State on Thursday is testament to that.

    Houston will be fine.

7. Boston Celtics

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    Last Week: 6

    The Boston Celtics faded at the end of their five-game road trip, falling to the Blazers and Jazz before returning home to vanquish the Bulls, 111-82.

    As has been the case all year, the Celtics are struggling to get to the hole. They rank in the bottom five in shot frequency at the rim. Combined with their heavy reliance on long twos (at least Jayson Tatum has scaled back his volume from that range recently, taking just one two-point jumper outside the lane against the Bulls), the Celtics will continue to have a hard time scoring.

    The search for optimism starts on defense, where Boston remains the league leader in efficiency.

    Although it may be a symptom of their penchant for long twos, which defenses generally concede, the Celtics also get the highest frequency of wide-open looks. Eventually, more shots will fall.  

6. Los Angeles Clippers

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    Last Week: 10

    The Los Angeles Clippers are this week's "don't overthink it" team, as there are plenty of red flags to consider and means toward which regression feels imminent. Fortunately for L.A., which bested the Bucks on Saturday and the Warriors on Monday (both in overtime), we won't worry about iffy rim protection stats or the limited ceiling of a starless team.

    Knock off a pair of possible Finals participants in a row, and you get a reprieve from nitpicking.

    Montrezl Harrell has been a high-energy force all year. His 26 points and nine rebounds were key to beating the Bucks, and Los Angeles wouldn't have defeated Golden State on Monday without his 23 points, eight rebounds and four blocks.

    The success of Harrell, a mostly unheralded player who understands his role and gets by on max effort, is a nice little representation of his team. The Clips keep logging wins against quality opponents, despite the lack of a marquee name.

    L.A.'s net rating is eighth in the league.

5. Oklahoma City Thunder

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    Last Week: 8

    Behind a defense that looks more elite by the day, the Oklahoma City Thunder won two of their three games this past week—albeit against one of the softest schedules imaginable: at Dallas and then home for Phoenix and New York.

    Still, for a club that's operating without Russell Westbrook, who's sidelined with a sprained ankle, any win is a good one.

    Steven Adams has been terrific, hitting the Mavs for 20 points and 13 boards, then following that with 18 points, seven rebounds, four steals and two blocks against the Suns. On Wednesday, he put up 19 points, six rebounds and five assists on 9-of-13 shooting. It just doesn't stop with this guy.

    Adams' rebound, assist and steal percentages are all at career-best levels, and this makes it five straight seasons in which Adams has increased his scoring average and player efficiency rating.

    OKC ranks second in defensive efficiency, and this recent tightened-up stretch shouldn't come as a surprise. The Thunder have defended better without Westbrook on the floor all year. They'll need Russ back to prop up an offense that scores at a bottom-four clip without him, but there's no denying that the Thunder have established a defense-first identity.

    Even if Paul George's presence changes things a bit, it's easy to envision a blueprint that looks a lot like the one Oklahoma City followed in Westbrook's MVP season of 2016-17: suffocate the opponent for 43 minutes, and then hope Russ gets you enough clutch offense to win in the last five.

    It's not the worst strategy.

4. Portland Trail Blazers

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    Last Week: 5

    Winners in four of their last five and ranked third in the league in net rating, the Portland Trail Blazers continue to scoff at preseason predictions of mediocrity.

    Damian Lillard keeps getting incrementally better, and CJ McCollum is your reigning Western Conference Player of the Week, but Portland has so much more than a pair of high-scoring guards. The bench, rebuilt on the fly, is holding leads. The defense, which seemed like a fluke last year, is a hair outside the top five.

    Plus, reinforcements may be inbound.

    Maurice Harkless, out since Oct. 27 with soreness in his surgically repaired left knee, told The Athletic's Jason Quick he could return before the end of a road trip that concludes Nov. 23 at Golden State.

    Jake Layman has been an adequate replacement in the starting unit, but he's not someone the Blazers intend to rely on for heavy minutes against the best teams. Harkless, whom Lillard has called Portland's X-factor, per The Oregonian's Joe Freeman, would nudge Layman into reserve duty, deepening a bench that has already outperformed expectations. 

3. Golden State Warriors

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    Last Week: 2

    It's tricky to gauge just how much the Draymond Green-Kevin Durant blowup should cost the Golden State Warriors in power rankings terms. Neither player got hurt (the team suspended Green for Tuesday's win over the Hawks), so it's not as if Golden State's now meaningfully weaker than it was before the altercation. But to totally discount the impact of the situation would be a mistake. You'd have to think the specter of Durant's free agency will continue to loom over the organization now that Green has shone a spotlight on it.

    We don't tend to punish discord around here unless it leads to losses, but the Warriors feel objectively more fragile and vulnerable now than they did a few days ago.

    Also, Stephen Curry remains out with a groin strain. The Warriors said in a statement he'll travel with the team on its upcoming road trip through Texas but won't play for at least 10 days. And if you want to isolate the factor that matters most for the Dubs' chances this season, Curry's injury trumps the locker room strife. For as long as Curry has been a superstar, the Warriors haven't reached excellence without him.

    Against, Houston on Thursday, his absence was glaring. The Warriors simply don't generate consistent offense when Curry isn't stretching the floor and terrifying defenses.

    Still, in possession of the league's best offense, three healthy All-Stars and a surplus of big-game experience, the Warriors aren't falling out of the top five anytime soon. But in the wake of their most controversial week in a long time, it feels right to ding the Dubs.

2. Toronto Raptors

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    Last Week: 3

    Pascal Siakam scored 23 points on seven field-goal attempts during Saturday's win over the Knicks, which contributed to his first Eastern Conference Player of the Week honor. Already a versatile disruptor and top-end athlete, Siakam is displaying continually improving offensive skills. If he keeps gaining comfort as a playmaker and sustains this past week's hot shooting from deep, he'll put himself on track for All-Star consideration.

    Overall, the Toronto Raptors remain reliably dominant. New Orleans snapped Toronto's six-game winning streak, but it took an A-level effort from both Anthony Davis and Jrue Holiday and a ghastly 1-of-9 shooting night from Kyle Lowry. Wednesday's loss to Detroit came on a Reggie Bullock buzzer-beater.

    Even as the Raptors retain a top-three spot, it's important to note that they've got significant room for improvement. That defensive rating won't hover just outside the top 10 all year—not as the likes of Siakam, Lowry, Kawhi Leonard and OG Anunoby (to name a few) give the Raptors as much raw defensive talent as any team.

    On the flip side, if there's a concern worth fretting over, it's that Leonard's lift still seems inconsistent from game to game. He'll have to be a touch more reliable for Toronto to seriously contend. That's a long-term worry, though, and it doesn't hurt the Raptors for our purposes.

1. Milwaukee Bucks

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    Last Week: 1

    It wasn't a perfect week for the Milwaukee Bucks, who, after being elevated to the top spot, promptly dropped an overtime contest to the Clippers on Saturday. That defeat mattered less than Brook Lopez's shooting exhibition against the Nuggets the next night.

    Lopez drilled eight of his 13 three-point attempts on the way to a game-high 28 points and a terrific win in Denver. Lopez's transformation into a deep threat has been going on for the last two-plus years, but this display should have the rest of the league concerned.

    Because if you've got a 7-footer who'll fire away from 30 feet (at high volume) without hesitation, it strains a defense in ways we've never witnessed.

    Teammate John Henson told Eric Nehm of The Athletic: "I've never seen a center get face-guarded. He's changing the game single-handedly. Quote me on that. ... And he wasn't shooting from three. He was five, six feet behind the arc. ... That was a Steph Curry-like performance."

    Oh, and here's something: The Bucks are on pace to break the record for Basketball Reference's simple rating system metric, which grades a team's performance based on margin of victory and strength of schedule. It's early, and regression is imminent (the 2018-19 Blazers are sporting an SRS figure that would rank 12th all time), but any time a team is performing at historic levels like the Bucks are, it warrants mentioning.

             

    Stats courtesy of NBA.com, Cleaning the Glass and Basketball Reference unless otherwise noted. Accurate through games played Thursday, Nov. 15.