NBA Power Rankings: Giannis and the Bucks Lapping the Field

Grant Hughes@@gt_hughesNational NBA Featured ColumnistNovember 23, 2018

NBA Power Rankings: Giannis and the Bucks Lapping the Field

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    Not yet a quarter of the way into the season, our NBA power rankings remain subject to some surprising swings.

    Two new teams crack the top 10 this week, and the defending champions, mired in the most prolonged downturn of their dynastic run, fall out of the top five for the first time. Suffice to say, the Golden State Warriors could really use a healthy Stephen Curry.

    Rankings are based on recent play, full-season stats like net rating, strength of schedule, injuries and gut feeling whenever a tiebreak is necessary. We don't get too hung up on head-to-head matchups, but a big win over a quality team or a resume-killing loss to a bottom-feeder can significantly affect a team's position. The goal isn't to identify the title favorite or even predict what the order might look like in April. Instead, this is about organizing all 30 teams into an order that reflects who's playing the best (and worst) right now.

    The warm-up portion of the 2018-19 season is over. From here, it's a sprint to Christmas.

30-26

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    Last week's ranking in parentheses.

    30. Phoenix Suns (30)

    The Suns are giving Devin Booker more opportunities to work as the lone guard in wing-heavy lineups, and the results (in a small sample) suggest that's the way forward. In 177 possessions with Booker playing the point, Phoenix has a plus-21.5 net rating. Contrast that with their overall figure of minus-10.1, worst in the league, and there's not really a case against ramping up his minutes at lead guard.

    In the last week alone, Booker has a 37-point scoring night and a 12-assist game. He's ready for this role.

               

    29. Cleveland Cavaliers (29)

    JR Smith's days in Cleveland are done, according to The Athletic's Joe Vardon, who reports the veteran guard will work out away from the team until a trade sends him elsewhere. Consider that the latest signal that this 2018-19 season won't be about winning for the Cavs.

    Cleveland has lost eight of its last nine and ranks last in defensive efficiency.

           

    28. Chicago Bulls (28)

    Chicago is the only team without a win by at least 15 points this season, a piece of information that might persuade some to rank the Bulls 30th and be done with it. Fortunately for Chicago, its last two wins came against Phoenix and Cleveland, which, even if we don't always put stock in head-to-head results, offers some clarity.

    Along with the Bulls' No. 28 net rating, that they've most recently knocked off teams No. 29 and 30 makes this spot, third from the bottom, feel right.

    Quick tidbit: Jabari Parker is dead last in ESPN.com's initial release of this year's Real Plus-Minus stats. Having watched him chew up possessions inefficiently while mostly standing still on defense, that's not a shocker.

            

    27. Atlanta Hawks (27)

    The Hawks are getting healthier, as John Collins made his season debut Saturday with 12 points in 12 minutes against Indiana. Dewayne Dedmon also got back on the floor after three games off. The full rotation is finally taking shape, but better health hasn't prevented Atlanta from stringing together a nine-game losing streak, the longest active slide in the league.

    Opponents are killing the Hawks from deep, shooting an NBA-best 40.4 percent on threes. That number will slip, which should help Atlanta's defensive numbers. If the offense doesn't climb out of the cellar, it won't matter much.

           

    26. New York Knicks (26)

    The Knicks and Cavs are the only teams with more than one five-game slide this season, but at least New York ended its streak with a 117-109 win in Boston on Wednesday. Trey Burke hit a dagger three to prevent the Celtics from coming all the way back from 26 points down, a strong follow-up to his 31 points against Orlando on Sunday.

    Foul-prone defense means Mitchell Robinson won't be a starter anymore, but the occasionally electric rookie will surely provide at least one highlight dunk and/or implausibly blocked three-point attempt off the bench.

25-21

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    25. Washington Wizards (25)

    John Wall scored 30 points and handed out eight assists in Tuesday's 125-118 win against the Clippers, and his defensive effort and activity have improved (which isn't saying much). But every other sign coming out of Washington still portends implosion.

    Wall cursed at Scott Brooks in a recent practice, according to ESPN's Adrian Wojnarowski, later apologizing but doing little to dispel the notion that Washington is unraveling. Woj also reported everyone, Wall and Bradley Beal included, is available in a trade. Yes, by the way, you're correct: Beal would fit perfectly on your favorite team!

    That's mostly because he'd fit anywhere, which is part of the reason he should be the last guy Washington moves—if any of this is salvageable.

    At this point, the wins and losses hardly matter in comparison to the internal drama. For the record, Washington is 6-11 with the league's No. 25 net rating.

           

    24. Miami Heat (22)

    If you need someone to fill in the gaps as a shooter, pick-and-roll ball-handler in a pinch or defensive stopper, Josh Richardson is your guy. He flashed his do-it-all skills against the Lakers on Sunday, when he spanked Kyle Kuzma's layup attempt off the backboard. In Kuzma's defense, he probably didn't think a human pogo stick with bad intentions was tracking him the whole time.

    Kuzma's shot wasn't the only thing Richardson tossed. He also flung his shoe into the stands against the Lakers, which resulted in Richardson, himself, also being ejected.

    Miami has lost three straight, and its clutch offense is producing just 96.1 points per 100 possessions, which ranks 25th in the league. Richardson is the only Heat regular consistently providing buckets in close-and-late situations. He's 8-of-17 from the field and 3-of-7 from deep (plus 5-of-6 at the foul line) in clutch time, but none of his teammates have more than four clutch baskets on the year.

    Somebody get Richardson some help.

           

    23. Brooklyn Nets (20)

    On the topic of closing games: Maybe the Nets are figuring it out.

    D'Angelo Russell put up at least 20 points and six assists for the third consecutive night as Brooklyn flipped a deficit into an advantage during a hot stretch bridging the third and fourth quarters of Tuesday's 104-92 victory against Miami.

    "Big time. We're growing," DeMarre Carroll told Brian Lewis of the New York Post following the win, in which 10 of his 11 points came in that pivotal, game-sealing run. "Last year we would've easy gave it up. We learned the significance of closing games."

    Brooklyn, 8-11, fell to Dallas the very next night, but Allen Crabbe broke out of his season-long slump with 27 points in defeat.

            

    22. Utah Jazz (19)

    There was always a concern that the Jazz would struggle to score, but this team's performance on defense is as unexpected as it is crippling. Utah, a loser in four of its last five games, currently ranks 17th in defensive efficiency. This, after ranking first by a mile from Jan. 1 on last year.

    There's bad luck at work here; Jazz opponents are shooting a league-high 44.5 percent on mid-rangers, which are exactly the shots Utah wants to concede. Regression is coming, but it won't fix everything. To meet expectations, Utah will need its fortune to normalize on the other end as well. So far, the Jazz are third in frequency of corner three attempts but 28th in conversion rate.

    Coming into the year, Utah felt like one of the safer picks to finish in the West's top four. This crummy start underscores how large a role chance can play in a team's fate.

                  

    21. Detroit Pistons (23)

    The Pistons are 4-2 over their last six games, and Blake Griffin hung 37 points and 11 rebounds on the Rockets during a two-point loss in Houston on Wednesday. Unscrutinized, Detroit looks worthy of a much higher ranking.

    A closer look reveals the Pistons have been exceptionally lucky to sit at 8-7 with a minus-0.1 net rating. Opponents shoot worse from deep against Detroit than any other team, a trend that will normalize as the sample of games grows. What's more, the Pistons allow the highest opponent free-throw rate in the league. All this against what Basketball Reference highlights as the NBA's second-easiest schedule so far.

    You're going to want to sell your Pistons stock. Virtually every indicator points to a pullback.

20-16

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    20. Orlando Magic (24)

    Danny Green's game-winning jumper Tuesday prevented the Magic from extending their winning streak to four games. Even with that defeat on the ledger, Orlando sits at .500 on the year after a 2-6 start.

    Nikola Vucevic, your Eastern Conference Player of the Week, had loads to do with Orlando's climb back to 9-9. Terrence Ross has been lights-out from deep, and Jonathan Isaac is producing off the bench as he works back into the rotation following an ankle injury.

    The Magic's starting five, which now features Wesley Iwundu and is the team's most used lineup, is scoring 120.3 points per 100 possessions. That's almost five points better than Milwaukee's league-leading offensive rating on the year.

    The schedule toughens soon, and the Magic can't hope to keep scoring like this with the lowest free-throw rate in the league. But Orlando has done enough to get some props...and a move up the rankings.

            

    19. San Antonio Spurs (17)

    Since Nov. 11, San Antonio has beaten the battered Warriors. And, actually, that's it.

    The Spurs, uncharacteristically ranked 20th on D, are also searching for consistency from key weapon LaMarcus Aldridge. In losses to New Orleans and Memphis this past week, Aldridge was a combined 8-of-31 from the floor. Of the 67 players to attempt 200 shots this season, Aldridge's 40.6 effective field-goal percentage ranks last.

    Pau Gasol's return date from a foot injury remains uncertain, and the second unit will struggle to score as long as he's out.

           

    18. Minnesota Timberwolves (21)

    Jimmy Butler's last game with the Wolves was a 121-110 loss to the Kings on Nov. 9. Since his departure, Minnesota is 3-2 with the third-best defensive rating in the NBA. Suddenly, now that everyone is pulling in a similar direction, the Timberwolves are getting stops.

    Note their assist percentage has also spiked from 55.8 percent before the Butler move to 66.5 percent since.

    Karl-Anthony Towns is more assertive, and new additions Dario Saric and Robert Covington have provided the defense and shooting Minnesota lacked from its role-fillers. Somehow, out of a disastrous Butler situation, a win-win trade sprouted up and helped both the Wolves and Sixers.

            

    17. Sacramento Kings (16)

    Bogdan Bogdanovic is the best offensive player you almost never watch, De'Aaron Fox is a star, Buddy Hield has much more than a sweet outside stroke and Willie Cauley-Stein is in the midst of a breakout year.

    Everything's great for the 10-8 Kings!

    So here comes the internal strife Sacramento is obligated to provide, right on cue. According to Chris Haynes of Yahoo Sports, head coach Dave Joerger and the front office are at odds over the minutes (or lack thereof) afforded the team's young players.

    Marvin Bagley III is seeing more time lately, which would seem to indicate the front office is prevailing over Joerger to some degree. The second overall pick is as bouncy as they come and has shown flashes of defensive awareness (see: nasty help-side blocks like this one), but Bagley remains a massive net negative when on the floor because playing good defense as a rookie is, well, hard.

    If knowledge of Bagley's growing pains and the Kings' looming internal rift gets you down, just throw on some Fox highlights. Full-speed, open-floor crossovers and sprints past five defenders for dunks will ease the anxiety.

           

    16. Dallas Mavericks (18)

    Dallas is 6-3 with the league's fourth-best net rating since Nov. 1. Yes, much of that owes to the Mavs' 50-point win over Utah last week, but there's no denying a three-week sample of solid play. So if Sacramento's superior record makes Dallas' superior ranking seem unfair, keep in mind the recency factor and the reality that the Mavs top the Kings in both offensive and defensive efficiency.

    Someday, we're going to reach a point when J.J. Barea isn't the quiet key to Dallas' best lineup. That day is not today. He's the constant in the Mavs' top three five-man units (among those with at least 20 minutes of shared court time).

    With Harrison Barnes rounding into form, as evidenced by his season-high 28 points against Brooklyn on Wednesday, the Mavs are starting to look like a team that could hang around. 500 for a while.

15-11

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    15. Charlotte Hornets (14)

    Right up front, every single team in this group has a case to be in the top 10. It's ridiculously close this rankings session, and there's just no way to avoid slighting virtually all of these clubs. Having dispensed with the apologies, let's talk Kemba Walker, the best point guard in the East to this point.

    Walker blitzed the Sixers for 60 points last Saturday.

    For an encore, the league's third-leading scorer treated the Celtics to a 43-point barrage Monday, including this dagger three to ice the proceedings. Per Justin Kubatko of Statmuse, the only guys to ever follow a 60-pointer with a 40 spot are Wilt Chamberlain, Pete Maravich, Michael Jordan, Tracy McGrady and Kobe Bryant. Not the worst company.

    Charlotte is 9-8 on the year after winning two of its last three. It ranks fourth in offensive efficiency and a respectable 13th on the other end.

                   

    14. Denver Nuggets (10)

    The Nuggets remain fourth in overall net rating but have lost six of their last eight games and rank 22nd in defensive efficiency over the last two-and-a-half weeks (since losing to Memphis on Nov. 7, basically).

    It's still true that Nikola Jokic's defensive effort and attention are undeniably improved. Just look at the ground he covers and reads he makes in this stretch against the Bucks and their spaced-out attack. Jokic is doing the most his physical tools and mental acuity allow, but the team's general lack of athleticism on D is leading to some unwelcome handsiness.

    During this 2-6 skid, the Nuggets have put opponents on the line at the third-highest rate in the league.

    If that doesn't change, Denver will have a hard time getting itself back into the top 10.

           

    13. Los Angeles Lakers (13)

    LeBron James is hitting pull-up treys at an elite rate, and he's got no problem firing them off from especially deep. At 43.1 percent on shots 26 feet or longer, James trails only Josh Richardson and James Harden (among guys who've tried at least 40 such deep ones).

    The Lakers probably don't want James carrying an offensive load as big as the one he's toted lately, but it's hard to get upset about James averaging 35.0 points on 54.3 percent shooting (55.0 percent on 6.7 three-point attempts per contest) over the last three games.

    L.A. has won six of its last seven games behind James' takeover and a quiet defensive improvement. The Lakers are sixth in points allowed per possession in November.

             

    12. Boston Celtics (7)

    Kyrie Irving erupted for 43 points in Friday's overtime win against the Raptors, drilling 18 of the 26 shots he attempted, getting into the lane and generally giving Boston the unstoppable offensive force it has lacked all season.

    Irving's monster nights are not the foundation of a sustainable offense, though. They're last resorts, the kind of "when all else fails" tactic good teams only rely on when nothing else works...say, in a playoff series against an opponent whose schemes negate system basketball.

    The Celtics, laden with talent, rank 27th in scoring efficiency. That's one spot behind the Cavaliers, who may or may not be excluded from the rest of the NBA season via the mercy rule. That degree of offensive failure is as unacceptable as it is difficult to fathom, especially for a purported contender.

    Boston, 1-3 this past week after a brutal loss to the Knicks on Wednesday, could no longer cling to a top-10 spot on the strength of name recognition and excellent defense alone. At some point, the results have to be there.

           

    11. Philadelphia 76ers (12)

    Markelle Fultz, at his attorney's behest (this is weird already), will have his shoulder examined by a specialist, according to The Athletic's David Aldridge. He won't see practice or game action until that evaluation is complete, and may or may not want out of Philly altogether.

    Is this new plan a face-saving coincidence? Is Fultz shelving himself just as he loses his rotation minutes to T.J. McConnell? Speculate at will.

    Meanwhile, the rest of the Sixers are enjoying life. Philly is 9-3 in November, and Joel Embiid refuses to stop dominating (except for the rare occasions when the rim dominates him). He has 12 30-point, 10-rebound games this year. Nobody else has more than five.

    Jimmy Butler is closing games as expected, and the fit between him and Ben Simmons is cleaner than many imagined, as Simmons can happily occupy the dunker role or cut off the ball when Butler operates.

    These Sixers have a run in them, and it feels like it may kick into high gear against a soft early December slate.

10. Los Angeles Clippers

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    Last Week: 6

    The Clips went 2-1 this week, losing inexplicably to the reeling Wizards on Tuesday by a final of 125-118. That defeat hurts L.A.'s resume, but the larger reason for the rankings drop has to do with a couple of deserving teams warranting a climb.

    Los Angeles (11-6) continues to excel at three-point prevention; no team is better at limiting opponents' attempts from the valuable corners. The tradeoff seems clear, as the Clippers rank among the bottom five in preventing shots at the rim. When you're staying home on corner shooters and/or running them off the line at all times, you're going to surrender some layups.

    Shai Gilgeous-Alexander has been a capable starter in place of Avery Bradley, and the Clippers offense remains stellar. So if you're searching for signs of trouble, don't look there. Instead, note L.A. ranks last in the league in forcing turnovers and fouls entirely too much.

    We've seen too many good signs to predict a collapse, but a modest correction on the defensive end is coming.

9. New Orleans Pelicans

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    Last Week: 15

    Elfrid Payton will miss six weeks following surgery on his fractured finger, which means the Pelicans will have to get by with one of the shallowest point guard talent pools in the league (Orlando would like a word on that) for the foreseeable future.

    Jrue Holiday is awesome, of course, but when he's not running the offense, the Pels must find someone else to create good looks. Julius Randle looked ready to help on Monday as he heaped 21 points, 14 rebounds and 10 assists on the Spurs in a 140-126 victory.

    E'Twaun Moore has been hot, exemplified by his 24 points on 11-of-16 shooting against San Antonio. Anthony Davis, seemingly recovered from the elbow sprain that limited him earlier this year, is on an absolute tear of his own. He put up 43 points, 17 rebounds and five assists against the Knicks on Friday and then followed with 40 points, eight boards and eight assists to beat the Nuggets a day later.

    All AD did in Wednesday's one-point loss to Philadelphia (in which he missed a game-tying foul shot late in the proceedings) was turn in the season's only five-by-five effort, amassing 12 points, 16 rebounds, six assists, five steals and five blocks.

    Say it with me for the millionth time: If the Pelicans have a healthy AD, they can overwhelm absolutely anyone with their pace, scoring punch and raw talent. If Davis isn't right, New Orleans probably isn't even a playoff afterthought.

    New Orleans is 6-2 after that six-game slide with a compromised Davis.

8. Golden State Warriors

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    Last Week: 3

    Even before falling to the Thunder on Wednesday, the Warriors were in the midst of the worst stretch since Steve Kerr took control of the team in 2014. The OKC defeat gave Golden State six losses in its last eight games and its first four-game losing streak in 450 games.

    Funny how the absence of a historically potent offensive weapon makes it hard to compete...

    Stephen Curry, still out with a groin injury, is watching his MVP case get stronger. The Warriors have come unglued on and off the floor in his absence. Even if the smart money should still be on the Dubs figuring everything out, getting healthy and winning another ring, there's no case to be made that they're the league's best team right now.

    If Curry's not playing, Golden State is little more than a fringe contender.

    Virtually every on-off split underscores Curry's value, but one of the most telling shows up in the tempo department. Without Curry on the floor, the Warriors play at a pace that would rank fourth from the league's bottom. With him, they're in the top three. Their identity, so defined by frenetic movement and quick-trigger scoring, disappears without the two-time MVP.

    In this sense, Curry is the Warriors. They lose and are lost without him.

7. Indiana Pacers

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    Last Week: 9

    The Pacers made things tricky this week, as Victor Oladipo's knee soreness (and what amounted to two full games missed) didn't prevent a 3-1 record.

    Bojan Bogdanovic picked up the scoring slack after Oladipo left Saturday's win over Atlanta five minutes in, producing a team-high 22 points. His 21 points in Monday's 121-94 win over Utah were even more impressive in light of the higher degree of difficulty created by the Jazz's stouter defense.

    It would have been easy to ding Indy a half-dozen spots and chalk the fall up to Oladipo's irreplaceability. Even if we only consider games up until Indy's win over the Hawks (the last action Oladipo saw), the Pacers had performed fine without their best player. With Oladipo on the floor, Indiana's net rating is plus-4.3. Without him: plus-3.1. That's a stark difference from last year, when the Pacers were 14.2 points per 100 possessions worse without Oladipo.

    Two factors explain this. First, Oladipo hasn't been as dominant as he was a year ago. Second, Indiana's bench is much better. Domantas Sabonis and Tyreke Evans combined for 38 points during Friday's win over Miami, and Cory Joseph is in the midst of his most accurate shooting season yet.

    Oladipo's knee is a concern, but the Pacers have enough other weapons to hang tough without him. Oh, and a top-five defense doesn't hurt, either.

6. Portland Trail Blazers

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    Last Week: 4

    Portland's six-game road trip concludes against Golden State on Friday, but it seems safe to say this symphony of ball movement against Washington, reminiscent of what we used to see from the "Beautiful Game" Spurs a half-decade ago, will stand out as the highlight of the Blazers' travels.

    That's behavior symptomatic of a high-functioning, tied-together offense—one playing with confidence and trust. The Blazers are scoring at the league's seventh-highest clip, and Damian Lillard continues to attack vulnerabilities wherever he finds them. This year, he's getting to the hole more than ever, posting career highs in attempt frequency inside three feet and, not coincidentally, free-throw rate.

    Run Lillard off the three-point line all you want; he'll just beat you with close-range shots instead. Pay too much attention to him, and CJ McCollum will burn you. Just like he did in scoring a team-high 31 points to beat the Knicks on Tuesday.

    Though their lengthy trip featured some stumbles and a blowout loss to the Bucks, the Blazers generally comported themselves like a team that deserves a spot this high. And as Portland returns home—where it's 7-2 on the yearfor a three-game stand next week, we should expect this positioning to last.

5. Memphis Grizzlies

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    Last Week: 11

    Jaren Jackson Jr.'s game would work anywhere. Who doesn't want a rangy, switchable big man with three-point range, great feet, high basketball IQ and a defense-first approach?

    In Memphis, though, the land of smart play and grimy defense? There, Jackson fits especially well.

    He ripped Luka Doncic at half court in Monday's 98-88 win over Dallas, navigating the length of the court himself before finishing with a deft spin through traffic. He hung 27 points on the Kings last Friday and has teamed with Marc Gasol to form the stingiest frontcourt combo in the league among those who've logged at least 200 minutes together. When those two share the floor, nobody scores against Memphis.

    Also, want to guess who your early RPM leader is? Yep, it's Mr. Gasol, presumed to be in serious decline as the Grizz tanked last year but now, clearly, very much not washed. His clutch free throws gave Memphis a close win over the Spurs on Wednesday.

    The Grizzlies have won five straight. At the rate they're going (or, perhaps more accurately, stopping), it may not be long before they overtake OKC and Boston as the league's best defense. Grit and grind still works.

4. Houston Rockets

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    Last Week: 8

    Make it five straight double-digit wins for the resuscitated Rockets.

    Houston is 8-2 since Nov. 1, and Saturday's 132-112 blowout win against Sacramento saw Clint Capela turn in perhaps his most dominant effort of the season. James Harden hit the Kings for 34 points in that contest, and he scored 43 in his next outing against Detroit on Wednesday. Capela's 23 points, 16 rebounds and four blocks set him apart against Sacramento, whose cadre of young bigs had no chance.

    Defensively, the Rockets have been fine for several weeks. Using that Nov. 1 stat cutoff again, they rank 12th in defensive efficiency. On the other end, Houston continues to embrace the math. Through 16 games this season, the Rockets rank first in three-point frequency and last in percentage of attempts from the mid-range area.

    A bit unlucky on their conversion rate from deep so far, the Rockets can expect an offensive uptick once their shots start falling.

    It's time to shelve the panic button that seemed to need pressing following Houston's 1-5 start.

3. Oklahoma City Thunder

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    Last Week: 5

    Russsell Westbrook's return from six games off nursing an ankle sprain couldn't help the Thunder avoid a 117-113 loss to the Kings on Monday, but that knock-the-rust-off game didn't hurt OKC too badly because of how well Westbrook's teammates held things down without him.

    In those half-dozen Russ-less games, Oklahoma City went 5-1. The slate was easy, but the Thunder used a series of pushover opponents to dial in their defense. Allowing a stingy 105.4 points per 100 possessions when Westbrook got hurt, the Thunder posted a defensive rating of 99.0. On the year, they've pulled ahead of Boston for the league's top defensive ranking.

    Don't look now, but five-position defender Jerami Grant is also upping his volume from deep. He's at 35.4 percent on 2.8 attempts per game.

    For Grant to be immensely valuable, he doesn't even have to hit threes at a league-average rate; his defensive worth is that high. But now that Grant offers just a bit more stretch, he becomes playable against absolutely anyone. He's fighting his own ankle issues now, but as a long-term piece, Grant looks on pace to more than justify his three-year, $27 million deal.

    Built on a smothering, physical, active defense, the Thunder are a nightmare opponent—and that's without even considering the downhill offensive attack Westbrook can generate. That 0-4 start feels like it happened years ago. 

2. Toronto Raptors

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    Last Week: 2

    Kyle Lowry's shooting fell off a cliff early this week, possibly the result of the right ankle soreness he continues to downplay. He was just 9-of-32 from the field against Boston, Chicago and Orlando, his worst three-game shooting stretch of the year.

    His 21-point, 17-assist, 12-rebound triple-double during Wednesday's blowout win over Atlanta should ease concerns.

    The Raptors' depth mitigates the downside of a limited Lowry anyway, and Fred VanVleet's awakening after a snoozy start especially helps. The backup point guard scored 18 points on 7-of-11 shooting against Chicago on Saturday, giving him his highest accuracy rate and scoring total of the season. A key to dynamite bench units last year, VanVleet could push Toronto to an even higher level if he regains his consistency.

    Toronto, after dropping that 123-116 overtime decision to the Celtics this past Friday, won three straight to close out the rankings session. If Danny Green hadn't hit a game-winner against Orlando on Tuesday, the results would look worse. But there's little in the Raptors' overall profile—top 10 in offensive and defensive efficiency, leading to the league's No. 2 net rating—to criticize as we near the season's quarter pole.

1. Milwaukee Bucks

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    Last Week: 1

    Slow starts continue to plague the Bucks, who had to claw back from 17 points down to beat the Nuggets by a final of 104-98 on Monday. On the year, Milwaukee, which owns the NBA's top net rating by plenty, has been outscored in the first quarter.

    Giannis Antetokounmpo spurred the comeback against Denver by basically dunking every time he touched the ball, working his way into close range and then simply rising up over his defender for a quick-twitch spike. Mason Plumlee turned away one such attempt but only after getting absolutely annihilated a few moments earlier.

    That Giannis is capable of backing down an opposing center, turning and dunking on his head remains difficult to process. It's a no-frills approach that feels an awful lot like what Shaquille O'Neal used to do...only Antetokounmpo uses strength and shiftiness to embarrass defenders. His physical prowess makes games like Wednesday's—33 points, 16 rebounds and nine assists in a 43-point bludgeoning of the Blazers—the expected result.

    The Bucks are broadening the chasm between themselves and Toronto. Though it remains early, Milwaukee is also still on pace to set a new record in Basketball Reference's simple rating system metric, which factors in margin of victory and strength of schedule.

    We're way past wondering if the Bucks are serious contenders. They've been historically good so far.

           

    Stats courtesy of NBA.com, Cleaning the Glass and Basketball Reference unless otherwise noted. Accurate through games played Thursday, Nov. 22.