NBA Power Rankings: LeBron and the Los Angeles Lakers Rise Up

Grant Hughes@@gt_hughesNational NBA Featured ColumnistNovember 4, 2019

NBA Power Rankings: LeBron and the Los Angeles Lakers Rise Up

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    This week's NBA Power Rankings suggest LeBron James' decline will have to wait.

    He and the Los Angeles Lakers are on a roll, and that's a problem for anyone else interested in securing the No. 1 spot here.

    Meanwhile, the Golden State Warriors, a team that used to give LeBron fits (except for that one time in 2016), are in a position they haven't occupied in the half-decade history of this exercise. Brace yourself for their ranking; it's going to feel...strange.

    As always, these rankings weigh team record, advanced stats, health and some gut instincts to arrive at an order that reflects the league's current hierarchy. Our samples are still small, so last year's performance remains a factor in the equation. The deeper we get into the 2019-20 season, the more we'll view seeming surprises as the new norm.

    There have been plenty of those during the season's first two weeks.

30-26

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    30. Golden State Warriors (Last Week's Ranking: 19)

    The Warriors managed to break into the win column with last Monday's 134-123 victory over a then-winless New Orleans Pelicans team, and they'd better treasure that result. With Stephen Curry sidelined at least three months following surgery on his broken left hand, successes like that will be even harder to come by.

    It's difficult to overstate the impact of Curry's injury. Golden State's glaring lack of depth and reliance on youth made it especially dependent on the two-time MVP's defense-warping gravity. Now, one of the league's worst defensive teams is also short its most important offensive weapon. Oh, and Draymond Green is out at least a few games with a torn ligament in his left index finger.

    When it rains, it pours.

    The only silver lining in all this for the Warriors is that it clarifies this season's purpose. The Dubs will never admit to tanking, but they've done it before (see: 2012), and they've got every incentive to win the race to the bottom now. A high lottery pick is one of the only ways for this cap-strapped organization to add premium talent.

    If the losses mount and a handful of young players develop (Eric Paschall is off to a fine start), the Warriors will take it.

    Bottom line, though: The team Golden State will put on the floor for the foreseeable future will be the least talented in the league.

            

    29. New York Knicks (30)

    The Knicks got on the board with their first victory of the season last Monday, a 105-98 win against the Chicago Bulls that was best labeled as the Bobby Portis Revenge Game. Portis, who spent his first three-and-a-half years with the Bulls, hung 28 points and 11 rebounds on his former team, even hitting the go-ahead trey with 1:47 left in the fourth quarter.

    Rookie RJ Barrett continues to get to the rim with great frequency despite playing in lineups that clog the lane. If he can iron out his shaky free-throw stroke, he could be one of the more efficient high-usage rookies we've seen in a while.

    New York is just 1-6 following Sunday's loss to the visiting Sacramento Kings.

            

    28. Washington Wizards (27)

    Washington is off to a predictably rough start, but its 159-158 loss to the Houston Rockets on Wednesday at least offered some entertainment. The third-highest combined regulation score in league history during a game decided by just a single point? Now that's how you give fans their money's worth.

    Also: Is Isaiah Thomas...good again?

    After two full seasons of injuries, the two-time All-Star has some zip again. Thomas scored 16 points against the San Antonio Spurs last week and added 17 more in that track meet against the Rockets. Toss in the 16 he scored in Saturday's 131-109 rollover loss to the Wolves, and you've got Thomas' highest-scoring three-game stretch since March 2018.

    Washington needs to find more minutes for Davis Bertans, who's 18-of-36 from deep to start the year. 

              

    27. Memphis Grizzlies (29)

    Ja Morant led all Grizzlies scorers in both their games this week, though Memphis fell to the Los Angeles Lakers and Phoenix Suns to drop to 1-4.

    Memphis is playing with a top-five pace, which raises the possibility of fatigue torpedoing its second-half play. At minus-32.8 points per 100 possessions, the Grizzlies are, by far, the worst second-half team in the NBA.

    Of course, there's also the possibility that Memphis is young, inexperienced, not all that savvy about its post-break adjustments and, perhaps, falling victim to opponents that don't take it seriously at the outset. Either way, the Grizzlies are going to have a hard time surviving if they keep getting obliterated in third and fourth quarters.

             

    26. New Orleans Pelicans (21)

    The Pelicans are unusually reliant on youth, and they've had three key starters—Jrue Holiday, Zion Williamson and Derrick Favors— miss time, so it doesn't make sense to get too worked up over a 1-5 start.

    The lone win came on Halloween against the Denver Nuggets, a 122-107 result driven by Holiday's return to action following two nights off with a sore left knee.

    If there's any cause for concern, it should stem from the Pelicans allowing perhaps the worst shot profile of the early season. Pels opponents have gotten to the rim at will and been forced into the lowest mid-range-attempt rate in the league. That has to change if New Orleans wants to sniff the playoff race.

    In more positive news, Brandon Ingram continues his breakout, blowing away his previous career best in three-point-attempt rate and making much quicker decisions with the ball. For his career, Ingram has produced five games with at least 25 points, five assists and two made threes. Three of them have come in the last two weeks.

    Fortunately for New Orleans, the head injury that knocked Ingram out of action during Saturday's loss to the Oklahoma City Thunder didn't result in a concussion.

25-21

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    25. Cleveland Cavaliers (28)

    The Cavaliers won four games against Central Division foes last year, and they're already halfway to that total in 2019-20.

    Playing with a level of energy not seen for years, Tristan Thompson piled up 23 points, 10 rebounds and five blocks in Cleveland's 117-111 win over the Chicago Bulls on Wednesday. Kevin Love, who's rebounding everything in sight, chipped in with 17 points, 20 boards and six assists in that one.

    Stat lines and better-than-expected win totals are great, but nothing from this week of Cavs basketball will linger in the minds of fans more than Collin Sexton's wicked lefty slam on Wendell Carter Jr., which sealed the win over Chicago. Love gets credit for diming him up on a well-timed cut.

    Cleveland, 2-4, is frisky.

          

    24. Charlotte Hornets (26)

    Devonte' Graham had the look of an exciting prospect during his rookie year in 2018-19, but the ball just didn't go in enough for him to make a positive impact. Though last year's 42.1 effective field-goal percentage means we should remain skeptical a while longer, it's nonetheless exciting that Graham's shots (at least from three-point range) are falling this season.

    Graham was a ridiculous 12-of-16 from deep in his first two games of the year, which is propping up his efficiency. But he's handing out assists in bunches (12 in last Monday's loss to the Los Angeles Clippers and nine more in Wednesday's win at Sacramento) and is seeing increasing late-game playing time alongside fellow point guard Terry Rozier.

    Charlotte's habit of winning close and losing big is how it sits at 3-3 with a minus-7.1 net rating. Trust that second number a little more than the first, especially considering two of the Hornets' victories came against a reeling Kings team and whatever you want to call the collection of G Leaguers and rookies the Warriors trotted out Saturday.

          

    23. Chicago Bulls (20)

    Otto Porter Jr. finally broke out of a season-opening slump with 22 points on 8-of-12 shooting in Friday's 112-106 win over the visiting Detroit Pistons, but his rise coincided with Lauri Markkanen's fall. Markkanen, for the second straight game, watched crunch time from the bench.

    "I'm a team-first guy, so whatever lineup is working, I'm cool," Markkanen told reporters. "I will do whatever the team needs. Of course you want to be out there, but it's not my decision."

    That's a fine attitude, but the Bulls, 2-5, aren't at a developmental point where it's a good thing when a veteran—even one as savvy and valuable as Thaddeus Young—is taking minutes away from someone who might feature prominently in their long-term plans.

    There's value in demonstrating to Markkanen that minutes must be earned, and it's true the third-year big man could stand to be more aggressive attacking the basket. But in an ideal world, the Bulls would be leaning on Markkanen in the moments that matter—not benching him.

                

    22. Oklahoma City Thunder (24)

    Points have often been hard to come by for the 2-4 Thunder, so it was intriguing to see head coach Billy Donovan experiment with some creative lineups during Saturday's 115-104 win over the New Orleans Pelicans.

    With Steven Adams out, the Thunder gave Danilo Gallinari a few minutes at center in some extremely undersized looks. Though the Pelicans are among the league's worst on defense, it was nonetheless encouraging to see Oklahoma City space out, speed up and score.

    Shai Gilgeous-Alexander has posted OKC's high point total in four of its six games so far. Whatever lineup tweaks Donovan employs, he'd better keep SGA out there as much as possible.

             

    21. Sacramento Kings (25)

    Harrison Barnes' tip-in with 2.9 seconds left gave the Kings their first win of the season on Friday, one that avenged a 113-81 loss to the Utah Jazz with a narrow 102-101 escape.

    Sacramento, listless and in danger of further incensing an already frustrated fan base, badly needed the W, especially following Wednesday's 118-111 loss at home to the Charlotte Hornets, who were playing their third game in four nights during a West swing.

    Earlier in the week, Richaun Holmes earned his insertion into the starting five with 24 points and 13 boards in Monday's loss to the Denver Nuggets. Dewayne Dedmon's errant outside shooting and Holmes' high activity level made the change a sensible one.

    De'Aaron Fox is making an effort to lead vocally, and maybe it's working. The Kings backed up their win over Utah with another in New York on Sunday. Nobody deserves a medal for beating the Knicks, but Sunday's blowout was a good way to kick off a three-game road trip through the East.

20-16

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    20. Detroit Pistons (23)

    Bruce Brown got the start at point guard and logged 40 minutes during Saturday's 113-109 win over the Brooklyn Nets. The sophomore guard, deployed almost exclusively as a wing in his rookie year (despite a busted jumper; he was 0-of-4 from deep against Brooklyn), is about to be tested by necessity.

    If Brown proves he can handle the 1 for a Pistons team that will be without Reggie Jackson for at least four weeks, it could put a rosier spin on a difficult and injury-ridden early season. The outlook would be even brighter if Luke Kennard continues to perform well at shooting guard. Though the sample is small, that backcourt duo has produced a plus-9.5 net rating in minutes without Jackson, Rose or Tim Frazier.

    We've said too much about Detroit without getting to Andre Drummond, who had three straight 20-20 games in a 2-2 week. He's doing everything he can for his depleted team.

           

    19. Orlando Magic (15)

    Markelle Fultz's redemption ride accelerated Saturday when the former No. 1 overall pick supplanted D.J. Augustin in the Magic's starting five. With his team struggling mightily on offense, head coach Steve Clifford turned to Fultz for a lift.

    Though his ability to collapse the defense via drives gives Orlando more chances to convert kick-out threes, Fultz couldn't shake his team out of its early-season slump. The Magic managed just 87 points and hit on only six of their 29 three-point attempts in the four-point loss to the Denver Nuggets.

    The lineup change makes some sense, but it won't matter until Orlando's shots fall. The Magic are hitting just 30.2 percent of their catch-and-shoot triples, a huge reason they haven't yet scored 100 points in a game and sit 30th in offensive efficiency.

         

    18. Atlanta Hawks (18)

    The absence of a reliable backup point guard was an issue before Trae Young sprained his ankle against the Miami Heat on Tuesday, and it's a bigger one now. Rookie Cam Reddish got the start at the point Thursday, and he shared ball-handling duties with Kevin Huerter and De'Andre Hunter in a creative (but also pretty gimmicky) three-wing first unit.

    Atlanta went 0-3 this week, but there were still bright spots. DeAndre' Bembry was everywhere during Thursday's loss to Miami, and John Collins continues to flash improved help instincts on defense, as well as an increasingly polished off-the-dribble game.

    Finally, rookie Bruno Fernando is worth keeping an eye on. The 6'10" rookie from Maryland is error-prone and gets into trouble when his motor revs a little too high, but he also sneaks in one or two plays per game that suggest he's got some guard skills hiding in that large frame.

         

    17. Brooklyn Nets (17)

    Brooklyn sandwiched losses to the Indiana Pacers and Pistons around Friday's 123-116 victory over a Houston Rockets team that might have been a little spent after racking up 159 points two nights earlier. The Nets somehow prevailed despite a sloppy start that included 10 first-quarter turnovers.

    The loss to Detroit on Saturday was rough, as the Pistons came back from a 14-point deficit without Blake Griffin, Derrick Rose and Reggie Jackson. Kyrie Irving registered his third career triple-double in the 113-109 defeat, but it wasn't enough to buoy a Nets team that came out flat after halftime. The Pistons mangled Brooklyn 32-18 in a decisive third quarter, possibly a symptom of the Nets playing the second night of a back-to-back.

    Brooklyn is 2-4 through six games. Turnover woes and the No. 19 defense stand out as the key reasons for a sluggish start.

          

    16. Indiana Pacers (22)

    Indiana got its first win of the year in Brooklyn on Wednesday, but Myles Turner's right ankle sprain sapped some of the relief that should have come with breaking that season-opening three-game losing streak. Turner is listed as week-to-week, which means the issue of integrating him and Domantas Sabonis in a two-big frontcourt is moot for the time being.

    Sabonis roughed up the Nets for 29 points on 11-of-18 shooting in the 118-108 win, proving he's perfectly comfortable carrying the load inside without Turner. He followed that effort with 18 points and 17 boards in a 102-95 win over the Cleveland Cavaliers on Friday.

    Meanwhile, Malcolm Brogdon continues to hoard assists in his first real crack at primary ball-handling duties. He finally snapped his streak of four straight double-digit assist games when he handed out just six against Cleveland, but he also led Indy with 25 points. 

    The Pacers shrugged off an ugly 0-3 start with three straight victories to close out their second week of the season.

15-11

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    15. Houston Rockets (8)

    The Rockets' early resume is riddled with signs of trouble.

    James Harden is getting his numbers, but he's been frigid from deep. In the last 20 years, there have been six games in which a player took at least 14 threes and made fewer than two of them. Harden has two such games already this year.

    He's making up for some of that inefficiency at the line, where he's leading the league in both attempts and makes per game. He's been to the stripe at least a dozen times in every outing this year.

    Houston is also barely squeaking by against some suspect opponents. Its wins over the New Orleans Pelicans, Oklahoma City Thunder and Washington Wizards came by a combined eight points. Friday's 123-116 slip against the struggling Brooklyn Nets was another cause for concern, and the Heat torched them by a final of 129-100 on Sunday.

    Until Harden gets right and Houston's defense shows up for more than a handful of possessions at a time, this team won't warrant a spot in the top 10.

            

    14. Portland Trail Blazers (13)

    Furkan Korkmaz cost Anfernee Simons a breakthrough moment on Saturday when his corner three with 0.4 seconds left erased Simons' own go-ahead trey with 2.2 ticks remaining. The resulting 129-128 loss dropped the Blazers to 3-3 on the season, and the growing number of injuries on the roster might make .500-level play a good goal in the near term.

    Hassan Whiteside missed the Sixers loss with a bruised knee, Rodney Hood suffered his own ugly knee-to-knee knock in the fourth quarter, and Zach Collins elected to have surgery on his dislocated left shoulder. Saturday's unusual starting five, which featured a frontcourt of Anthony Tolliver, Mario Hezonja and Hood, might be just the beginning of head coach Terry Stotts' search for a combination of usable healthy bodies.

    Damian Lillard, who's led the Blazers in scoring and assists in all but one game this year, has some extra heavy lifting to do until this team gets over the injury bug.

            

    13. San Antonio Spurs (12)

    Dejounte Murray's impressive return from a torn ACL, Derrick White's sterling two-way play, Bryn Forbes' deadeye shooting and the reliable production of veterans LaMarcus Aldridge and DeMar DeRozan are all factors in the San Antonio Spurs' annual "we're not done yet" proclamation.

    The Spurs are undefeated against the non-Los Angeles portion of the NBA so far, with their only two defeats coming Thursday to the Clippers and Sunday against the Lakers.

    As was the case last year, the Spurs are generating plenty of points with a shot profile that has fallen out of favor across the league. They rank seventh in scoring efficiency despite owning the second-lowest three-point-attempt rate in the NBA.

    Ironically, the Spurs stay relevant by ignoring trends.

               

    12. Dallas Mavericks (11)

    If any doubt remained about Luka Doncic's leap into true stardom, Friday's 119-110 overtime loss to the Los Angeles Lakers erased the last of it.

    Doncic was up to (and clearly enlivened by) the prospect of a head-to-head matchup with LeBron James. Though his aggression may have actually been responsible for James taking his own game to near playoff-level intensity, the Mavs' young star more than held his own in defeat, finishing with 31 points, 15 assists and 13 rebounds in 38 minutes.

    With a flurry of deft setups to diving roll men and a bottomless bag of step-back tricks, Doncic owned the third and lugged Dallas into the fourth quarter with a nine-point advantage. James and Anthony Davis took over from there, but there's no shame in falling to the league's top one-two punch—especially considering Doncic finished the game with a gash in his head that later required three stitches.

    A deep Dallas squad sits at 4-2, and as head coach Rick Carlisle settles on a rotation (insofar as the perpetually tinkering Carlisle ever does), the wins should keep coming. For example, Seth Curry makes a lot of sense in the first unit. That alignment allows Jalen Brunson and Delon Wright to work together against second units, a tough tandem for most opposing backups to handle.

    Deep, versatile and driven by Doncic's must-watch flair, Dallas has a lot going for it right now.

            

    11. Minnesota Timberwolves (14)

    Maybe he doesn't need the help, but somebody's got to go to bat for Karl-Anthony Towns. He didn't tap, people. Yes, Ben Simmons had him in a pretty formidable rear-naked choke, but KAT's slap of the floor felt more like a frustrated "get off me" than a true submission.

    At any rate, Towns and Joel Embiid got matching two-game suspensions for their scrap on Wednesday, a game Philly won by a final of 117-95. Minnesota will have work to do without its offensive fulcrum and interior defensive anchor. Fortunately, the Washington Wizards didn't put up much of a fight on Saturday. The Milwaukee Bucks, who Minnesota faces Monday, will be a different story.

    The Wolves are 4-1 behind a top-10 defense that forces a ton of turnovers and keeps opponents off the foul line. They're not the same team without Towns, but they'll only have to survive one more game before his suspension ends. More importantly, Towns, pre-suspension, wasn't the same guy.

    "Last year, I wouldn't say he wouldn't do that or he would've took it, but he's here to make a statement," teammate Jeff Teague said of KAT's fight with Embiid, per Jon Krawczyinski of The Athletic. "I think tonight it just showed a lot of heart. I'm riding with him."

10. Phoenix Suns

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    Last Week: 16

    At the risk of looking back on this observation with deep regret, it's time to consider the possibility that the Phoenix Suns are a good basketball team.

    Despite Deandre Ayton's suspension, Phoenix is 4-2 with the NBA's third-best net rating. Even its losses have been impressive, a pair of one-point slips against top-end opponents in the Denver Nuggets and Utah Jazz. Aron Baynes has been terrific replacing Ayton, as evidenced by his 24 points, 12 rebounds and seven assists in Wednesday's 121-110 win in Golden State.

    But Phoenix's hot start is about more than a theoretical reserve playing like a starter.

    The Suns are assisting on 68.8 percent of their baskets, a figure that leads the league and represents a significant improvement over last year's 59.5 percent assist rate. That stat doesn't necessarily mean a team's offense runs perfectly, but it points to a collective approach. Worth noting: The Suns whipped the ball around during a shocking 30-1 run in the first quarter against the Warriors.

    Phoenix is also doing it together on D, where it ranks seventh in points allowed per 100 possessions.

    The longer this goes on, the harder it gets to write off the Suns' stellar start as a fluke.

9. Boston Celtics

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    Last Week: 9

    Ideally, a playoff-bound team like the Boston Celtics wouldn't need heroics to beat the New York Knicks at home. But Jayson Tatum's contested long two over RJ Barrett from the right baseline got Boston the result it wanted, putting it up by two with 1.3 seconds left Friday night. The 104-102 score held as New York failed to get up a shot on its final possession.

    Though the game-winner was the kind of shot Tatum came into the league hitting, the third-year pro has struggled to convert inside the arc this year. Through five games, he's making just 34.9 percent of his two-pointers. In a welcome contrast for the Celtics, he's drilled 48.6 percent of his treys.

    The Celtics have won four straight, a run that includes victories over the Toronto Raptors and Milwaukee Bucks. That's not a bad start considering Boston's offense still sits uninspiringly in the middle of the leaguewide pack. A key to success so far: The Celtics are among the league's elite at avoiding turnovers on offense and forcing them on defense.

    If you're only halfway decent in terms of points per possession, it's generally helpful to generate as many offensive possessions as possible.

8. Denver Nuggets

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    Last Week: 4

    We should have known something was up when the Nuggets allowed a disintegrating Sacramento Kings team to hang around for most of last Monday's narrow 101-94 win.

    Though still more productive than most bigs, Nikola Jokic continues to look out of shape and unfocused, and the rest of Denver's roster seems to be taking its cues from the All-Star center. Following Thursday's low-energy loss at New Orleans, Denver's second straight defeat, head coach Mike Malone lit into his team, per Andrew Lopez of ESPN.

    "We're a great talk team. We can talk before the season starts about all the things we want to accomplish, and we want to be a contending team. It's all bulls--t. Don't tell me about it, show me," he said. "And right now we've got a lot of guys that aren't showing me much."

    The Nuggets surrendered 37 transition points against New Orleans, a product of inattentive and unmotivated defense.

    Jokic had a long summer playing for the Serbian national team, so there's a built-in excuse for his apparent fatigue. But the Nuggets have grand plans this season. To bring them to fruition, they'll have to shake out the cobwebs soon.

7. Utah Jazz

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    Last Week: 7

    Donovan Mitchell's creativity and elusiveness around the rim is part of what makes his game so exciting, but it also prevents him from drawing as many shooting fouls as he might with a more contact-seeking approach. That's why it was a good sign last Monday when he attacked the lane and drew two foul shots with four-tenths of a second left in a tie game against the Phoenix Suns.

    Utah's third-year guard hit one of his two freebies, which was enough to secure a 96-95 victory.

    More importantly, Mike Conley snapped out of his season-opening funk with 29 points and some uncharacteristically demonstrative celebrating on Wednesday as the Jazz downed a Los Angeles Clippers team playing without Kawhi Leonard by a final of 110-96.

    Going into that contest, Conley had scored just 31 points on 9-of-45 shooting over four games.

    Though it seemed Utah sacrificed some of its defense for more offensive punch over the summer, this team continues to stifle everyone on the schedule. Largely because they excel at preventing opponents from attempting shots at the rim and from the deep corners, the Jazz rank first in defensive efficiency on the season.

    A desperate Sacramento Kings team outworked Utah (which missed five critical fourth-quarter free throws) on Friday, and a loss to the Clips on Sunday made for a rough end to the week. The Jazz are 4-3 with the Milwaukee Bucks and Philadelphia 76ers next up on the schedule.

6. Toronto Raptors

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    Last Week: 6

    Pascal Siakam is handling the ball more, expanding his areas of attack and sustaining efficiency as his usage trends north. One specific indicator of his growth shows up in an altered three-point-shooting profile.

    Last year, Siakam attempted 68.2 percent of his threes from the corners. That frequency rate is down to 24.2 percent in 2019-20, and Siakam is substituting longer and tougher above-the-break threes for those discarded short-corner looks. Despite upping the difficulty of his attempts, he's hitting them more efficiently than ever.

    All three of his made triples in Wednesday's 125-113 win over the Detroit Pistons (in which Siakam blitzed Detroit for 19 of his 30 points in the third quarter) came from above the break. It's a rare player who can not only increase his role to this degree but also significantly alter where he spends his time on the court without sacrificing efficiency.

    Siakam, rather obviously, is a rare player.

    Toronto is a solid 4-2, but it might want to reduce the demands on its starting guards. Kyle Lowry (38.8) and Fred VanVleet (37.8) are both blowing away their previous career highs in minutes per game. With an upcoming stretch in which five of the next six games come on the road, fatigue could become a factor.

5. Miami Heat

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    Last Week: 10

    Rookies Tyler Herro and Kendrick Nunn continue to make the idea of trading for Chris Paul seem ridiculous.

    The duo combined for 194 points through their first five games, the most by a pair of rookies since 1959. Herro put up 29 points off the pine in Tuesday's win over the Atlanta Hawks (drawing a remarkable four shooting fouls on three-point attempts), after which Nunn hit the Hawks for 28 during Thursday's return engagement, also a Heat win.

    Jimmy Butler is back in action after missing three games to start the year, Goran Dragic is filling it up off the bench, and Bam Adebayo ranks second among centers in assist points created per game.

    The Heat sit at 5-1 following Sunday's thrashing of the visiting Houston Rockets and have every chance of sliding into that third slot in the East behind top-flight contenders in the Milwaukee Bucks and Philadelphia 76ers. In fact, these rankings suggest they're already there.

4. Los Angeles Clippers

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    Last Week: 1

    Kawhi Leonard posted 38 points and 12 rebounds on his old pals, the San Antonio Spurs, handing his former team its first loss of the year on Thursday. The most surprising aspect of Leonard's stat line: He managed just one assist.

    In an illustration of Leonard's remarkable growth as a passer, it was the first time he'd had fewer than five helpers in a game this year. Showing deft touch on one-handed bounce passes in the pick-and-roll and looking off defenders more cleverly than ever before, he may have completed the final stage of his evolution into the league's most complete offensive weapon.

    Imagine the passing angles that'll materialize when Paul George returns.

    The Clippers fell to the Phoenix Suns last week and dropped Wednesday's road contest in Utah by a final of 110-96, but two straight wins to close out this rankings session has them at 5-2 with the Milwaukee Bucks on the schedule Nov. 6.

3. Milwaukee Bucks

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    Last Week: 2

    Other than a free-throw percentage that has dipped to 61 percent, Giannis Antetokounmpo's entire advanced statistical profile is trending up—which is saying something for the guy who just won MVP.

    Antetokounmpo's three-point and free-throw rates are both better than they were a year ago. His rebound, block and assist percentages are at career-high levels. With a box plus/minus of 13.3, he's ahead of the 10.8 figure he posted in 2018-19.

    The Bucks are 4-2 after Saturday's 115-105 win at home against the Toronto Raptors, and Antetokounmpo's 36 points, 15 rebounds and eight assists had plenty to do with that result.

    Outside the top 10 in defensive efficiency after finishing first last season, Milwaukee, like its best player, still has room to grow.

2. Philadelphia 76ers

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    Last Week: 3

    Down by as many as 21 points in the first game of Joel Embiid's suspension, the Sixers surged back to steal a 129-128 road win in Portland on Saturday. The usual suspects, Raul Neto and Furkan Korkmaz, keyed the win.

    Wait, what?

    Yes, Al Horford led the way with 25 points, Tobias Harris hit clutch treys late, and Ben Simmons calmly knocked down a pair of vital free throws in the fourth quarter.

    But Neto presided over a thrilling run that bridged the third and fourth quarters and got Philly back into the game, and Korkmaz buried the game-winning three from the right corner on a play that looked awfully similar to the confetti shot Marco Belinelli hit to send Game 3 of the Eastern Conference Semifinals to overtime in 2018.

    The Sixers defense continues to look overpowering in long stretches, and their offense is just outside the top 10—a respectable position for a group with some spacing challenges even when Embiid doesn't play.

    At 5-0, this is the league's only undefeated team.

1. Los Angeles Lakers

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    Last Week: 5

    Anthony Davis racked up 40 points and 20 rebounds during Tuesday's blowout win over the Memphis Grizzlies, needing just three quarters of work to reach those gaudy totals. He's the first player in the shot-clock era to hit the 40-20 mark in under 31 minutes of court time.

    That season-opening loss to the Los Angeles Clippers may have shaken the national faith in the city's more historically established team, but behind a stellar defense and Davis' numbers, the Lakers actually have the league's No. 2 net rating.

    Kyle Kuzma returned against the Dallas Mavericks on Friday, and LeBron James looked as great as ever while amassing 39 points, 16 assists and 12 rebounds. He even scored nine points in overtime to ice the affair. Just as encouraging, L.A.'s defense is performing as well as anyone could have imagined. If this keeps up, Davis is going to earn some legitimate Defensive Player of the Year consideration, and he'll battle James for MVP.

    At 5-1 following a five-game winning streak that culminated with a victory over the San Antonio Spurs on Sunday, the Lakers look sharper than anyone in the West.

            

    Stats courtesy of NBA.com and Basketball Reference unless otherwise indicated. Accurate through games played Sunday, Nov. 3.