NBA Power Rankings: LeBron, Lakers Tighten Grip on Top Spot

Grant Hughes@@gt_hughesNational NBA Featured ColumnistNovember 11, 2019

NBA Power Rankings: LeBron, Lakers Tighten Grip on Top Spot

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    The true greats find ways to manufacture doubters where none remain. Just ask LeBron James, the Washed King, who's leading the Los Angeles Lakers against an army of critics that may exist only in his mind.

    Sure, some suspected James would suffer a decline in his 17th season. But washed? Was anyone really going that far?

    No matter. This is working for James and the Lakers, who sit atop our rankings for the second week in a row. And yes, L.A. did drop a 113-104 loss to the Toronto Raptors on Sunday. But that was the Lakers' first loss since opening night, and we can't let one recent game overshadow what we've seen over the last few weeks.

    As always, we consider record, advanced stats, health and recent play when formulating these rankings. Full-season performance matters, too, as we try to organize all 30 teams into an order that reflects the league's current hierarchy...or monarchy.

    Looking a long way from washed, the King is in charge.


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    30. Memphis Grizzlies (Previous Ranking: 28)

    Memphis' decision to limit Ja Morant to no more than 30 minutes per night robs us of chances to watch the dynamic rookie point guard try to posterize the entire league. But it also protects Morant from himself.

    Last Monday, Morant zipped through four Rockets before trying to obliterate Danuel House Jr. with a cocked-waaaaaaay-back righty tomahawk. The result of the play was a spectacular missed dunk and Morant sprawled on the floor, contorted into a position only a 20-year-old could walk away from.

    Morant had offseason knee surgery, which has to be a factor in Memphis' careful approach. It's an added bonus that a lower minute total reduces Morant's hard spills per game. It doesn't eliminate them, though. Morant tried virtually the same dunk against Orlando's Nikola Vucevic on Friday. He missed that one, too, but didn't turn into a human pretzel afterward. That's progress.

    Oh, and we buried the lede. Memphis got a W this week, pasting 137 points on the Minnesota Timberwolves in Wednesday's 16-point win. Dillon Brooks, whose presence on the floor, statistically, elevates Memphis more than any other player on the team, racked up 31 points in that one.

    Finally, Jaren Jackson Jr., conspicuously underwhelming for most of the year, matched his season high with 23 points during Saturday's loss to the Dallas Mavericks. Memphis sits at 2-7 with the league's worst net rating.


    29. Golden State Warriors (30)

    With 34 points and 13 rebounds in last Monday's 127-118 win over the visiting Portland Trail Blazers, Warriors rookie Eric Paschall made it official: He's now the most important aspect of Golden State's lost season.

    Obviously, full returns to health for Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson are vital to the organization's future. But in terms of on-court significance, Paschall's development into a viable starting-caliber forward is huge. Cap-strapped and carrying four massive salaries for Curry, Thompson, Draymond Green and D'Angelo Russell, the Dubs need some of their low-cost youngsters to pop.

    Exceptionally strong, surprisingly quick and gifted with a variety of guard skills, the 6'6" Paschall has already shown the ability to overpower anyone at the rim. He can hang in the air, waiting out less vertically buoyant rim-protectors, hit threes in streaks and, in theory, defend several positions.

    Paschall needs to show better defensive awareness, and a player with his motor and instincts shouldn't be averaging under five rebounds per game. But those are the sorts of weaknesses you'd expect to see in a rookie—even one with the unusual amount of experience the 23-year-old Villanova product possesses.

    The Warriors, 2-8 after a 1-3 week, should be happy to see Russell getting his numbers (he scored 52 points in Friday's overtime loss to the Wolves), as strong performances only increase his trade value.


    28. New York Knicks (29)

    Frank Ntilikina's season stat line, which includes a field-goal percentage under 40 for the third straight year, still leaves plenty to be desired. But the 21-year-old guard is showing more glimpses of stellar play through the early part of the season.

    He turned in 14 points, six rebounds, four assists, four steals and three blocks in Friday's 106-102 win over former teammate Kristaps Porzingis and the Dallas Mavericks. In addition to across-the-board box-score production, Ntilikina was everywhere defensively, digging down for strip steals, racing back to deny layups at the rim and disrupting passing lanes with his length.

    New York is still just 2-8 on the year, and its rotation remains too forward-heavy for decent spacing. But there have been some encouraging signs. Ntilikina is one of them.


    27. Washington Wizards (27)

    Isaiah Thomas posted a minus-six and a minus-16 plus-minus in his first two starts of the year, but let's move past that and acknowledge that he's an NBA starter again. For a while there, it didn't seem like that was ever going to happen.

    Granted, Thomas' return to first-unit duties comes with the woeful Wizards, who went 1-2 this week to drop to 2-6 on the year. But you just don't get feel-good comeback angles like this very often.

    Washington hits the road for contests at Boston, Minnesota and Orlando this week. Expect three more losses if the Wizards don't shore up a defense that ranks 28th in the league.


    26. New Orleans Pelicans (26)

    Brandon Ingram, who scored 40 points on 17-of-24 shooting in last Monday's 135-125 loss to the Nets, is having it both ways during a breakout season. His volume and efficiency are way up, which is a tough two-step to pull off.

    On pace to best previous career highs in three-point rate, usage rate, assist percentage and true shooting percentage, Ingram is also turning the ball over less frequently than ever. The only nit to pick about his young season is a decline in attempt rate at the rim. If he cools off on two-point jumpers, those efficiency gains could suffer.

    JJ Redick scored 22 points and was a plus-15 in Saturday's 115-110 win over Charlotte, returning to the first unit in place of Lonzo Ball (adductor strain) after coming off the bench for four straight games. The Pels' problems are on defense, but it certainly doesn't hurt to boost the starting five with the superior spacing Redick creates.

    Not much has gone right for the Pels, who continue to surrender more points per possession than everyone but the Warriors. But Ingram's star turn helps ease the pain of a 2-7 start.


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    25. Charlotte Hornets (24)

    Devonte' Graham set a franchise record with 35 points off the bench during a 122-120 overtime win against the Pacers on Tuesday, continuing one of the league's most impressive second-year leaps. Graham's scoring down the stretch was key to securing the Hornets' third consecutive win, a streak the Celtics snapped with a 108-87 win in Charlotte on Thursday.

    Kemba Walker made an emotional return to Charlotte in that one, dredging up bittersweet memories of the past. Fortunately, with Graham filling it up, rookie PJ Washington blocking shots and hitting threes and Miles Bridges showing across-the-board growth, the Hornets' future looks much brighter than most expected.

    Don't worry about Charlotte closing the week with a three-game skid. Youth and hope are emerging on this roster, which few expected at the outset of the season.


    24. Chicago Bulls (23)

    If the Bulls have a lead, it's time to worry. Only the Grizzlies have a worse defensive rating in second halves, which is why so many Chicago games this season start respectably and devolve into blowouts via wasted leads.

    The Bulls will be without Otto Porter Jr. for an indefinite period, which foists extra responsibility on Chandler Hutchison's shoulders. The sophomore wing got his first start of the year in place of Porter on Saturday, scoring 13 points in a 117-94 loss to the Rockets.

    The Bulls entered the season with real playoff hopes, but a 3-7 start marked by squandered advantages and a lack of poise suggests those hopes were misplaced.


    23. Cleveland Cavaliers (25)

    Darius Garland reached double figures for just the second time in his rookie season, posting a career-high 15 points in Friday's 113-110 win over the Wizards. It was the first game in which Garland made at least half his shots from the field, and it was also Cleveland's first road win of the year.

    The Cavs are a surprising 4-5 after taking down the Knicks to make it two straight victories away from home.

    Finally, let's make sure to credit Kevin Love for rejuvenated play. His 20 rebounds on Oct. 30 were his most in a game since 2012. And those nine assists he doled out on Oct. 26 were his most since 2014


    22. Detroit Pistons (20)

    Bruce Brown and Luke Kennard continue to start in the backcourt for the Pistons, who went 1-2 this week. Despite that losing record, there's still a lot to like about that pairing, which leverages Brown's ability to guard both backcourt spots alongside Kennard's spot-up shooting and developing playmaking.

    Credit the Pistons for experimenting (partly by necessity) with the idea that two players with some combo-guard skills almost add up to one actual point guard.

    Andre Drummond, who led the league in rebounds per game in three of the past four years, is on pace to smash his best boarding season. If he keeps up his current pace, he'll become the first player to average at least 18 rebounds per game since Dennis Rodman did so for the 1992-93 Pistons.

    Blake Griffin is due back Monday after missing Detroit's first 10 games of the season. If you'd told the Pistons they'd survive Griffin's absence (and several other injuries) with a 4-6 record, they would have taken it.


    21. Orlando Magic (19)

    Jonathan Isaac engulfed Kristaps Porzingis and anyone else unlucky enough to enter the danger zone that is the 10-foot radius surrounding the Orlando Magic's superstar defender on Wednesday. His long-limbed brand of defensive destruction couldn't net the Magic a win, but it did produce a stat line—13 points, 10 rebounds, six blocks, five assists, four steals and one made three—never seen before.

    Orlando got a badly needed victory in Memphis on Friday, a 118-86 walkover behind 23 points, 16 rebounds and six assists from 2018-19 All-Star Nikola Vucevic. The rebound total was a season high for Vucevic, and the 118 total points were 12 more than the Magic had managed in any other game this year.

    The Grizzlies aren't a great metric against which to measure offensive potency, but Orlando will take a big point total however it can get one. The Magic are still comfortably last in offensive efficiency.


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    John Bazemore/Associated Press

    20. Atlanta Hawks (18)

    Trae Young wound up missing just one game following an Oct. 29 ankle sprain that looked, at the time, like it might cost him several weeks.

    He returned to action Tuesday and promptly lit the Spurs on fire in the second half, scoring 28 of his 29 points after the break. The scoring outburst overshadowed yet another brilliant passing exhibition; Young, already among the NBA's truly elite setup men, finished with 13 helpers in the 108-100 win.

    Atlanta needed that boost, as it was playing its first game without John Collins, who earned a 25-game suspension after testing positive for a banned substance.

    Jabari Parker isn't on Collins' level overall, but the 2014 No. 2 overall pick appears capable of picking up some scoring slack. He's been among the main beneficiaries of Young's vision and is enjoying his most efficient scoring season now that he's embracing life as a play-finisher rather than a shot-creator. Parker is on pace to smash the career-high 129 dunks he completed back in 2015-16.

    Atlanta dropped three games in a row following the San Antonio win, and the defeat in Portland on Sunday was only the first stop on a tough five-game road trip.


    19. Sacramento Kings (21)

    Thanks to some hot shooting from deep, the Kings grew their lead as large as 21 points before beating back a threatening second-half push from the host Hawks on Friday. The 121-109 win was Sacramento's third in its last four tries, a welcome period of success following that season-opening five-game losing streak.

    The Kings hit 18 treys in 31 tries to beat the Hawks, and Bogdan Bogdanovic drilled a pair of key ones late in the game. His performance had been a disappointment after such a sterling showing in the FIBA Basketball World Cup over the summer, but the Serbian guard has now reached double figures in four of his last five games.

    Sacramento's fate depends mostly on De'Aaron Fox and Buddy Hield, but Bogdanovic gives the team one of the best third guards in the league—when he's playing well. Lately, Bogdanovic has looked more like himself.


    18. Oklahoma City Thunder (22)

    Shai Gilgeous-Alexander is a herky-jerky, off-time, gloriously deceptive master of basketball trickery. You've surely seen the clip of him spinning right, pulling a front-to-back between-the-legs "show me" handle before initiating a left-handed gather leading to a wrong-foot scoop finish. If you haven't, enjoy!

    SGA broke that beauty out as part of a 24-point night during Tuesday's 102-94 win over the Magic. Though Oklahoma City's top-10 defensive performance is the driver of its limited success, Gilgeous-Alexander remains the reason to watch,

    OKC is 4-6 following a 2-2 week, and in addition to Gilgeous-Alexander, Hamidou Diallo has been a regular presence in highlight reels.


    17. Brooklyn Nets (17)

    Spencer Dinwiddie's season-high 34 points helped the Nets survive a big night from Damian Lillard, securing a 119-115 road win to follow Monday's 135-125 slugfest victory over New Orleans. That two-game stretch gave Brooklyn its first winning streak of the season.

    The breakout was a relief for Dinwiddie, who'd been mired in a slump to start the year.

    Brooklyn's offense has been excellent through its first nine games, fueled in large part by elite work on the offensive glass. But a defense that ranks among the league's worst in turnover generation has offset a lot of those scoring gains.


    16. Portland Trail Blazers (14)

    The phenomenal injury luck that helped produce last year's Western Conference Finals trip ran out quickly this season. Zach Collins' shoulder surgery will cost him at least 60 games, according to Jeff Stotts of Stotts also noted that Portland lost 62 games to injury or illness in 2018-19 as a team.

    The Blazers dropped road games at the Warriors and Clippers to start the week, with the latter exposing their complete lack of a perimeter stopper. Kawhi Leonard is going to have his way with most opponents, but Portland simply doesn't have an answer for high-end scoring wings.

    Damian Lillard's 60 points weren't enough to prevent a fourth consecutive defeat, this one coming against Brooklyn on Saturday. With other injuries mounting, things are looking precarious for the 3-7 Blazers.


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    15. Minnesota Timberwolves (11)

    Injuries to Jeff Teague and Shabazz Napier resulted in Jarret Culver getting the start as the Wolves' de facto point guard three times this week. A short bench also led to Karl-Anthony Towns, just back from his two-game suspension, finding himself surrounded by four-wing combinations more often than not.

    Losses to the Bucks and Grizzlies on Monday and Wednesday saw Minnesota's defense surrender 134 and 137 points, respectively. Point guards are important, but it's hard to pin the Timberwolves' shoddy defense on the lack of a conventional facilitator.

    If Minnesota is serious about capitalizing on a strong start, it can't give up such huge totals on consecutive nights—especially when one of the high-scoring opponents, Memphis, isn't exactly renowned for its potent offense.

    Andrew Wiggins hung 40 points on the Warriors in Friday's overtime win, and his aggression attacking the basket was a welcome sign in his continued effort to scrap those maddening mid-rangers.


    14. San Antonio Spurs (13)

    Dejounte Murray handed out a career-high 10 assists, and LaMarcus Aldridge poured in 39 points during Thursday's 121-112 win over the Thunder. Unfortunately for San Antonio, its defense failed to show for a 135-115 drubbing by the Celtics on Saturday.

    Aldridge got an early rest with the result out of hand in that one, finishing with only three points in 26 minutes.

    The Spurs are allowing the highest opponent field-goal percentage at the rim this year, but they offset that troubling ranking by forcing teams into the second-highest frequency of mid-range shots in the league. When opponents miss, San Antonio makes sure there are no second chances. Only the Sixers have a higher defensive rebound rate.

    At 5-4, the Spurs are just barely in positive net rating territory. Their plus-0.4 figure is 16th in the league.


    13. Indiana Pacers (16)

    Malcolm Brogdon is the mainstay in a Pacers lineup that has spent the early part of the season trying to survive a spate of injuries. Myles Turner, Domantas Sabonis, Jeremy Lamb, Goga Bitadze, Doug McDermott, T.J. Leaf and, of course, Victor Oladipo have all missed time.

    Indy's new point guard looks every bit like a primary ball-handler, which wasn't a certainty after he spent his Milwaukee tenure as more of a hybrid guard. Brogdon is one of three players averaging at least 20 points and nine assists this season; LeBron James and Luka Doncic are the other two. There's worse statistical company to keep...

    TJ Warren's defensive improvement has been another pleasant development.

    We can't get too worked up over Indiana's performance to date, which includes six wins in its last seven games, even if it's admirable how it has weathered the injury storm. The schedule has been cake, made up entirely of East opponents and including two dates against Cleveland, plus three more with a Detroit team also missing several key pieces.


    12. Houston Rockets (15)

    The Rockets defense is a tough watch.

    A scout told The Athletic's Sam Amick: "There is no accountability. They switch everything [which has been the case for years now], and so there's no [sense of] 'Ok, I'm going to fight [through screens] and try to really get back in front.' No, they just switch. They stare at the ball. They get beat backdoor so many times."

    Houston's defense is often lazy and uncommitted, too willing to gamble and not interested in the dirty work. But it doesn't help that opponents are hitting everything. Few teams have seen opposing shooters hit a higher percentage of their threes than the Rockets, and at least some of that accuracy is luck-based.

    A defense has much more control over where the other team takes its shots from, and though the Rockets allow a few too many threes (especially from the corners), their opponent shot profile isn't nearly as damning.

    The Rockets have had a rough start on D, but James Harden heated up to go 22-of-51 from deep during their three-game winning streak to close out the week. As bad as things have seemed at times, Houston is still 6-3.


    11. Dallas Mavericks (12)

    You hate to see the Mavs lose to the lowly Knicks, which they did by a final of 106-102 on Friday. But you love to see Dallas shake off a snoozy effort like that and dispatch the Grizzlies 138-122 the very next night.

    And you really love to see Luka Doncic. Period.

    The superstar sophomore set a new career high with 38 points against the Knicks and is now averaging 27.7 points, 10.8 rebounds and 9.1 assists on the year. Russell Westbrook (once) and Oscar Robertson (three times) are the only other players to post those three-category figures over a full season, and it's noteworthy that Doncic's true shooting percentage of 60.9 percent is higher the ones Russ and Oscar managed when they produced those averages.

    Also, Doncic is 20 years old. It's too easy to forget we're only seeing the early stages of his development—ridiculous as that sounds.

    Dallas, continually experimenting with lineups and rotations, is 6-3 after winning three of its last four. Aside from that ugly slip against the Knicks, the Mavs have been steady. Their other two losses came by single digits against the Trail Blazers and the Lakers.

10. Phoenix Suns

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    Barry Gossage/Getty Images

    Last Week: 10

    Devin Booker scored 40 points against the Sixers last Monday, hitting a ridiculous 15 of his 19 attempts from the field, confidently staring down the Philadelphia bench after buckets and, most importantly, locking in on defense. We've seen plenty of early-season surprises so far, but the most encouraging may be Booker's commitment to playing both ends more consistently.

    Booker's big game resulted in the Sixers' first loss of the year. He also crossed the 6,000-point threshold, becoming the eighth-youngest player to hit that milestone.

    The Suns offense sputtered in Thursday's 124-108 home loss to the Heat, but they recovered to down Brooklyn on Sunday and complete a 2-1 week.

    We're only a little over 10 percent of the way through the season, but the Suns, 6-3 with a top-10 net rating, are looking more legit by the day.

9. Miami Heat

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    Last Week: 5

    We've spent a lot of time on Miami's younger contributors in this space, and we'll surely have more to say about Tyler Herro, Kendrick Nunn and Bam Adebayo in the coming weeks. But we can't go any further without noting that Goran Dragic, coming off the bench at age 33, is in line for some serious Sixth Man of the Year consideration.

    Dragic scored 20 of his 25 points after halftime during the Heat's 124-108 win over the Suns. And though the scoring total didn't measure up to Jimmy Butler's 34 points, head coach Erik Spoelstra sprinkled postgame praise on his veteran reserve, telling reporters: "It's a great luxury for us to bring an All-Star talent, in his prime still, off the bench. I don't take for that granted. And I'm going to make sure the team doesn't take that for granted."

    Miami went just 1-2 on its three-game road trip out West, and its offense managed just 80 points in Friday's loss to the Lakers.

    Overall, the Heat have outperformed expectations during their 6-3 start. But no team has a lower opponent three-point percentage this season, and Miami can't expect foes to keep bricking away at a 27.5 percent clip forever. When that number normalizes, the Heat will need their offense, mid-pack so far, to pick up the slack.

8. Philadelphia 76ers

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    Christian Petersen/Getty Images

    Last Week: 2

    When Ben Simmons is hitting jumpers in preseason workouts next year, let's all agree not to get worked up.

    After a summer of "He can shoot it now! For real!" hype, Simmons is attempting fewer shots from the perimeter than ever. In last Monday's loss to the Suns, Phoenix routinely used center Aron Baynes to defend him, sagging the big man into the lane with no fear of Simmons making him pay from the outside.

    Joel Embiid returned from his two-game suspension to contribute 27 points and 16 boards in Wednesday's 106-104 loss to the Utah Jazz, but the return of one key player coincided with the loss of another. Simmons sprained the AC joint in his right shoulder during a first-half collision with Royce O'Neale.

    He missed Friday's game in Denver, which extended the Sixers' losing streak to three games, and Sunday's tilt against the Hornets.

    Philly looks shaky of late, and not just because of suspensions and injuries. Still, the Sixers are 3-0 when Simmons and Embiid have played full games together. And those three losses in a row came on the road against teams ranked in our top 10.

7. Utah Jazz

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    Last Week: 7

    Bojan Bogdanovic's 33 points, which culminated with the game-winning three as time expired, helped the Jazz beat the Bucks on Friday despite losing the battle on the offensive boards, committing more turnovers and attempting 11 fewer shots from the field.

    For the Jazz, who always seem to feature records worse than their net rating, the close win was a welcome change.

    Utah's victory over Milwaukee was made all the more impressive by its preceding win, a 106-104 success against Philadelphia on Wednesday. That's how you finish a week.

    At 6-3, Utah now faces a soft chunk of schedule that should keep the wins coming. It won't see a truly threatening foe until a return engagement with the Bucks on Nov. 25.

    Finally, while it's good to see Donovan Mitchell getting to the line more often, it's concerning that he's attempting more mid-rangers than ever. Meanwhile, his attempt rates from three and at the rim are at career lows. When his efficiency starts to decline, look no further than a shot profile headed in the wrong direction.

6. Denver Nuggets

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    Last Week: 8

    Home wins over two of the East's top teams, Miami and Philadelphia, helped change the vibe of a somewhat dispiriting start to the season in Denver. The Nuggets' record was fine coming into the week, but Nikola Jokic's lackluster play and the resulting team-wide malaise were troubling.

    Friday's incredible comeback win over the Sixers was particularly meaningful.

    Down by as many as 21 points, the Nuggets surged back into the game behind dogged defense and something that looked a bit like desperation. Jokic's game-winning jumper, the outcome of a scrambled play that nearly produced a turnover, put Denver up for good with 1.2 seconds left. A pair of free throws secured the 100-97 stunner.

    That fourth quarter, in which the Nuggets smashed the Sixers 35-13, felt like a turning point in the season. Sunday's win in Minnesota was Denver's fourth in a row and the second straight decided by a Jokic game-winner in the waning seconds. Though the center is still looking a little heavy and slow of foot, it's hard to criticize a 7-2 record and a dramatically improving defense.

5. Toronto Raptors

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    Last Week: 6

    It feels like a waste of digital ink to note the 44 points Pascal Siakam scored in Toronto's 122-104 win over the Pelicans on Friday were a career high. He's going to exceed that total within the next few games.

    With Kyle Lowry (thumb) and Serge Ibaka (ankle) both set to miss time with injuries, the Raptors' do-it-all star could soon add two gigs: backup point guard and backup center. Although, it's worth mentioning Toronto's reserves were critical to a stunning shorthanded win over the Lakers on Sunday.

    Chris Boucher was all over the floor late, as was Terrence Davis, who scored 13 points on 5-of-8 shooting in the 113-104 victory.

    If the Raptors keep getting huge contributions from end-of-bench options, maybe the loss of two key rotation vets won't matter.

    Back to Siakam, though. If you're still questioning whether Siakam is up to the task at this point, you probably haven't been paying attention. He's been an absolute marvel in his fourth season, on pace for a 50/40/90 shooting split and one of only eight players with a usage rate over 30 percent and a true shooting percentage over 60 percent.

    Toronto is 7-2 following Sunday's win over the alarmingly potent Lakers.

4. Boston Celtics

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    Logan Riely/Getty Images

    Last Week: 9

    Gordon Hayward was all the way back...and then he broke his left hand on Saturday against San Antonio.

    Hayward's career-high-tying 39 points came Tuesday against the Cavs and their rickety defense, but let's not dwell on the degree of difficulty. Hayward was an absurd 17-of-20 from the floor in Boston's 119-113 win, including a perfect 9-of-9 on non-restricted-area two-pointers and 16-of-16 inside the arc overall. Not since Wilt Chamberlain did so 52 years ago had a player made so many two-pointers without a miss.

    The Celtics have done well to get Hayward the ball when he's already on the move, a tactic that led to similar success during his best years with the Utah Jazz. With the benefit of a running start, he excels at getting into the teeth of the defense, where he can either pick out shooters on the perimeter or wrong-foot the defense with his arsenal of hanging floaters and slowdown jumpers.

    Boston has won seven straight, largely on the strength of a top-10 defense. Hayward's injury is a bummer, but the Celtics have the luxury of spreading his touches around to Kemba Walker, Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown. Plus, Robert Williams is now converting dunks with his head at rim level.

    They'll be fine.

3. Los Angeles Clippers

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    Sean M. Haffey/Getty Images

    Last Week: 4

    The Clippers are 6-1 when Kawhi Leonard plays and 0-2 without him, but that disparity should change when Paul George returns, which could happen as soon as Monday.

    Nothing eases the strain of playing without one superstar like replacing him with another.

    That's not to say Leonard has lacked help. Montrezl Harrell piled up 34 points, 13 rebounds and five assists during Wednesday's Leonard-less 129-124 loss to the Bucks, and L.A.'s bench leads the league with 50.6 points per game. Its reserves are shooting a remarkable 50.5 percent from the field as a unit.

    Injecting George into the starting five and staggering his minutes with Leonard to further bolster the backups almost seems unfair.

2. Milwaukee Bucks

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    Last Week: 3

    Remember in Pacific Rim how whenever one of those skyscraper-sized monsters climbed out from a portal in the ocean floor and headed straight to a heavily populated coastal city with trouble on its mind, there'd be this piercing alarm to alert the good guys that they needed to gear up in their own hulking monster-fighting machines and get to the business of protecting humanity?

    Do you think we need that same kind of warning system for games like Wednesday's, in which Giannis Antetokounmpo hit a career-high-tying four threes?

    In terms of potential havoc wrought, you could argue Giannis drilling treys is pretty much on the same scale as a six-armed, 500-foot inter-dimensional behemoth.

    Bojan Bogdanovic snapped Milwaukee's four-game winning streak with a buzzer-beater, but a recovery on Sunday against OKC has the Bucks at 7-3 with a highly favorable schedule against East teams next week.

1. Los Angeles Lakers

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    Andrew D. Bernstein/Getty Images

    Last Week: 1

    LeBron James notched his third straight triple-double in Tuesday's 118-112 win over the Bulls, but it was the Lakers bench that led a decisive comeback charge. Down 13 points to start the fourth quarter, the Lakers backups hustled and three-balled their way to a one-point lead just four minutes into the final period. Alex Caruso earned a bone-jarring chest bump from James for his role in the reserve-led surge.

    The Lakers will go as far as James and Anthony Davis take them, but it's a hugely positive sign that the rest of the roster is chipping in so conspicuously.

    Dwight Howard stands out most of all. More mobile and energetic than he's been in years, the veteran big man has scrapped post-ups and embraced role-player status. Howard's sky-high block percentage will come down; it's well above the marks he posted in his prime when he was the league's best defensive player. Still, it's heartening to see him making such an impact with a career-low usage rate.

    It took several stops during the post-stardom portion of his career, but Howard finally appears to have figured out how to make a difference without making waves.

    At 7-2 following a week with wins over Chicago and Miami before Toronto stunned them on Sunday, the Lakers and their top-ranked defense extend their reign at No. 1 for yet another week.


    Stats courtesy of, Cleaning the Glass and Basketball Reference unless otherwise indicated. Accurate through games played Sunday, Nov. 10.