NBA Power Rankings: A New Team Joins Lakers, Clippers in Top 3
The NBA is in full swing as it heads into its first full week of 2021. There are no undefeated teams and no winless teams either with the Pistons and Wizards getting their first wins Friday.
It is still early in the year so everything is bunched up. It will take a few more weeks for the dust to settle and the cream to rise to the top. There are not as many automatic wins on schedule as there have been in years past. Teams like the Knicks can surprise anyone on any given day. That is what is going to make this season so exciting to watch.
This early in the season teams can have the same win-loss record and be on different ends of the rankings. For example, both the Knicks and Bucks are 3-3 at this point, but it is not the same 3-3. The Knicks beat a Pacers team that did not have T.J. Warren and a Kevin Love-less Cavs team in an ugly game. The Bucks lead the league in point differential and are a banked three away from being 4-2.
A lot of different factors go into the rankings. How teams look this week compared to last week. Their whole body of work for the season. Did they have injuries? Did the teams they beat have guys missing? All of this goes into consideration when putting the rankings together. With all that said, here are this week’s NBA power rankings.
30. Detroit Pistons
Last Week's Ranking: 30
The Pistons broke through in the win column with a thriller against the Celtics and nearly swept their miniseries. In the first game rookie Saddiq Bey had his best performance, pouring in 17 points and shooting 5-of-8 from three to go with Jerami Grant’s 24 points. Bey is already an important part of the Pistons defense, as their defensive rating is 100 when he’s on the court and shoots up to 116 when he is off.
The offense has really struggled for Detroit. The team is shooting just 43.2 percent from the field and 34.1 from three. According to Synergy Sports Technology, the Pistons’ points per possession in the half-court is 0.89. That will not yield many wins, which is a problem for a team that spent a lot of money on new players.
Detroit’s schedule gets tougher with a miniseries against the Bucks before facing the Suns and Jazz this coming week.
29. New York Knicks
Last Week: 28
Three out of 36. That comes out to 8.3 percent. And that is what the Knicks shot from the three-point line against the Toronto Raptors to close out 2020.
That is the perfect way to sum up the end (and duration) of the calendar year for the Knicks. Their offense is 27th in the NBA with a rating of 103. But for New York, a team with low expectations this season, it has not been all bad news.
The biggest bright spot on offense has been point-forward Julius Randle, who is leading New York in assists at 7.2 a game while having the highest usage of the team. He would have more assists if he played with better shot-makers.
Defensively, the Knicks are looking like a team that is coached by Tom Thibodeau, especially in their win over the Pacers when they held them to just 20 points in the fourth quarter. The Knicks are in the top 10 of defensive rating at 105.5.
28. Memphis Grizzlies
Last Week: 25
The Grizzlies got their first win of the year against the Brooklyn Nets, who were without Kyrie Irving and Kevin Durant. But it turned out to be a pyrrhic victory with Ja Morant suffering a sprained ankle that will keep him out three to five weeks.
Memphis does not have a lot of ball-handling and playmaking to fill the Morant void. Things got even bleaker with Grayson Allen missing the Grizzlies’ game against Charlotte with an ankle sprain.
With all the absences in the backcourt, Tyus Jones picked a great time to show improvement. He dropped 12 assists in their win over the Hornets. He spread the love around as six teammates scored off his passes, with Kyle Anderson and Brandon Clarke getting the bulk of his assists. Jones will have to keep this up if the Grizzlies are going to survive their current rash of injuries without a lot of playmaking options beyond him and Anderson.
The extended absences of Morant and Jaren Jackson Jr. are devastating to this team’s playoff hopes in a shortened season.
27. Washington Wizards
Last Week: 22
Before getting their first win of the season, the Wizards were finding ways to lose games. On a play in the final seconds, Bradley Beal fumbled a chance to give them a lead over the Chicago Bulls that led to their fifth straight loss.
Since those losses, the Wizards have gone on a two-game winning streak. They beat a Karl-Anthony Towns-less Wolves team and then went down to the wire against the Nets.
It is easy to point the finger at Russell Westbrook for the team’s struggles, but that is not supported by the numbers. The Wizards have a plus-2.2 net rating with Westbrook on the court and a minus-6.3 when he is off. Washington has a plus-8.1 net rating with Westbrook and Beal on the court, proving the pairing is working.
Here is the bigger issue: Washington has to get Davis Bertans going from three. He’s shooting just 32.7 percent from distance, a major drop-off from last season.
The wins against Minnesota and Brooklyn might quiet the calls for Scott Brooks to lose his job, but his seat gets warmer with every loss.
26. Minnesota Timberwolves
Last Week: 21
After starting out 2-0, Minnesota lost Karl-Anthony Towns to a wrist injury and has not won since. There’s just no replacing the production Towns brings. In his two games, he led them in scoring, rebounding, assists and blocks. There is not anyone on the roster who can make up for that loss of production.
D’Angelo Russell has not helped the Wolves’ cause to start the year. They have a net rating of minus-28.8 when he is on the court. He has a 1.23-to-1 assist-to-turnover ratio while leading the team in usage percentage.
The Wolves need Towns to get back ASAP.
25. Cleveland Cavaliers
Last Week: 26
After starting the season 3-0, Cleveland went 1-2 this week. That said, the Cavaliers are still a frisky team. The start of the season has shown the growth of many young players.
Collin Sexton’s scoring (26.0 points) is up by more than five points from last season. Darius Garland is orchestrating the offense beautifully, improving his assist numbers from 3.9 his rookie year to 6.3 this year. With the young guards going to work, Andre Drummond has been manning the middle on both ends. He’s averaging a double-double as well as 2.0 blocks.
An area where the whole team can improve is how they start games. Their 92.7 offensive rating in the first quarter is a big drop-off from their 104.2 for the season. Better starts is something that the Cavs will need to focus on.
Opponents should not take this team too lightly. They have enough firepower to jump anyone who is not ready to play. Just ask the Hawks, who were their latest victims.
24. Oklahoma City Thunder
Last Week: 24
No one would have bet going into this season that Luguentz Dort would be shooting 44.4 percent from three-point range, but alas, here we have arrived.
Al Horford is proving he still has something left in the tank, averaging 10.8 points, shooting 38.1 percent from three and pulling down 7.5 boards a night.
A bit concerning is the start of the season Shai Gilgeous-Alexander is having. Even though he’s near the same scoring average as a year ago, he’s shooting worse from the floor and has nearly doubled his turnover average. Oklahoma City is betting on him developing into a franchise player, so more focus will have to be paid to his development.
Overall, the team is struggling offensively. It has the league’s worst offensive rating and is averaging 17 turnovers per game.
23. Chicago Bulls
Last Week: 29
The Bulls started the week winless, but a miniseries with the Wizards cured that as they left the capital with two wins. Then they got their third win against the Mavericks, who were without Luka Doncic. All and all, it was a nice week for the Bulls, but there are some glaring issues.
The biggest has been the atrocious defense. The team has given up over 120 points in five of its seven games and has a defensive rating of 113.2.
The other problem is that the Bulls do not get enough easy baskets. With guys like Zach LaVine, Coby White and Otto Porter Jr., this team feels like it should score more in transition. They average just 9.6 fast-break points a night.
And lastly, their normal starting lineup of LaVine, White, Lauri Markkanen, Wendell Carter Jr. and rookie Patrick Williams entered Sunday with a minus-21.6 net rating. It is extremely hard to win games when the starting unit puts the team in a big hole to begin each night.
They need to get more from their star players on both ends.
22. Golden State Warriors
Last Week: 23
The Warriors are not a top-tier team this year. They are not even a middle-of-the-pack team.
Over the years, Golden State lost a lot of talent without truly replacing it. If we are being honest, there is no replacing a Kevin Durant or even a Klay Thompson. This season is more of a sign of the chickens coming home to roost.
It will take Stephen Curry going nuclear like he did against the Blazers on Sunday when he dropped a career-high 62. Defenses will key in on him because there is no fear of the other Warriors beating them, and why should there be?
Kelly Oubre Jr. is in a brutal slump, shooting 6.7 percent from three. Yes, just 6.7 percent on five attempts per game. Andrew Wiggins is putting up decent numbers but has never impacted winning in his career.
Everyone else is limited or very young in their career like James Wiseman. Draymond Green’s return adds another playmaker who can run the offense and make correct reads when Curry is running off screens. But that will not be enough.
It is going to be another tough year for the Warriors. There is no one returning from injury this season who will immediately help them.
21. Charlotte Hornets
Last Week: 27
The Hornets began the week with a dominant win over the Dallas Mavericks. They have gotten good production out of Gordon Hayward and Terry Rozier to start the season. Even though Devonte’ Graham has not shot the ball well, he’s leading the team in assists with 7.0 a game while only turning the ball over 0.8 times.
As a team, the Hornets lead the NBA in assists with 29.7 a night, and that ball movement is making everyone a threat.
There have been plenty of hot takes regarding LaMelo Ball’s early results, but Miles Bridges is showing solid improvement in his third season and is worthy of discussion. The third-year forward is shooting 37.0 percent from three on 4.5 attempts a game and has also improved his rebounding rate from 5.6 to 7.0.
The Hornets have already scored nice wins against the Nets and Mavericks.
20. San Antonio Spurs
Last Week: 19
The Spurs are riding a four-game losing streak after starting the season 2-0. DeMar DeRozan is carrying them offensively, leading the team in scoring (21.3) and assists (7.3), but at the same time, he is hurting them defensively. San Antonio’s defensive rating is 118.5 when he is on the court.
They continue to play at a faster pace, but if they are not able to get stops, it will be a moot point.
The Spurs did play the Lakers tough in their miniseries and nearly stole the second game. They will continue to be a tough and always-prepared team, but leaning on so many young players will lead to a lot of growing pains defensively.
Offense and defense aside, the Spurs are the winner of the coolest thing to happen in the NBA this week. After Gregg Popovich was ejected in their first game against the Lakers, Becky Hammon took over as coach, making her the first woman to coach an NBA regular-season game.
19. Houston Rockets
Last Week: 20
The Rockets have played just one game with their core, and it led to their first win as they beat the Sacramento Kings. That game showed the potential the Rockets have if they keep James Harden. Houston flashed everything it can do on offense, from Harden’s isolations to running actions that get him off the ball.
That lasted one game, as Harden sat out the second game of the Kings miniseries with a sprained ankle.
Christian Wood is one of the few Rockets that has played every game and has been great so far, averaging 23.8 points and 10.8 rebounds while shooting 35.3 percent from three. He has been Harden’s favorite target, receiving 4.7 of Harden’s 11.0 assists per game.
In addition to Wood, the Rockets have done a good job rounding out their bench, with Jae’Sean Tate and Sterling Brown both contributing points.
This is a really interesting Rockets team as it is currently constructed.
18. Toronto Raptors
Last Week: 17
The Raptors got their first win of the season against the lowly Knicks. Even in their lone win, they could only muster 100 points. The offense is continuing the half-court struggles that plagued the Raptors last season.
Beyond the issues on the court, Pascal Siakam was benched for the game against the Knicks as a team disciplinary action for leaving the court early during the Raptors’ loss to the Sixers.
Frustration is beginning to mount in Tampa, and it might be time for Masai Ujiri to make a move.
17. Dallas Mavericks
Last Week: 12
How does a team follow up a 51-point victory? It probably should not be with a 19-point loss, but that is just what the Dallas Mavericks did.
The offense has struggled after having the highest offensive rating last season. Right now their rating is 106.3, and Luka Doncic has to take some of the blame for the struggles because he’s shooting just 16.1 percent from three. He missed their game against the Bulls and may miss more with a bruised quad.
On the other hand, the Mavs defense has done fairly well. They have a defensive rating of 106.2, and while some of that feels anomalous considering the beating they gave the Clippers, they were also able to hold the Miami Heat to just 83 points.
Their defense and offense will all get better once Kristaps Porzinigs returns from his knee injury. He has already begun participating in practice and could return in the next few weeks.
16. Portland Trail Blazers
Last Week: 16
CJ McCollum has started the season scorching hot, leading the team in scoring (28.0) and is second in assists (5.7) while connecting on 43.1 percent from three. Damian Lillard has been putting up good numbers, but it has not felt like he has fully gotten into his flow.
One surprise has been how good Enes Kanter has been for the Blazers off the bench. His 9.2 rebounds a game leads the team.
It was a very up-and-down week. It started on a good note with a nice win over the Lakers before they got routed by the Clippers. Then the Blazers started their miniseries against the Warriors with a victory. But in the second game, they allowed Curry to explode for 62 points while giving up 137 points.
15. New Orleans Pelicans
Last Week: 18
Over six contests, the Pelicans have played just two close games. Other than that, they either blew a team out or got blown out.
One thing that’s clear is New Orleans’ defense is way ahead of its offense. The team is fourth in defensive rating.
The offense’s biggest issue is poor shooting from three. As a team, the Pels are shooting just 32.2 percent from deep. JJ Redick and Lonzo Ball are shooting well below their career averages.
They have gotten consistent production from Brandon Ingram and Zion Williamson, but things will not pick up until those shots start falling for their shooters.
14. Sacramento Kings
Last Week: 14
It was a nice start to the week for the Kings with a second win over the Nuggets, but then they got swept by the Rockets in their miniseries in Houston.
The Kings are that pesky team that can beat anyone on any night and can also lose to anyone on any night and it will not be surprising.
Sacramento should probably play faster. It is ranked 17th in pace (101.4), but with a turbo-charged De’Aaron Fox, the Kings should be flying up the court. Looking to increase the pace will raise this team’s ceiling.
One thing to watch for is how long Tyrese Haliburton will be sitting out. He took a bad fall in the first game of the Rockets series that forced him to miss the second. Haliburton brings a lot of value off the bench. In their first game without him, the bench was only able to contribute 12 points.
13. Orlando Magic
Last Week: 15
Things have gone a little downhill after starting out 4-0. The Magic got blown out by the Sixers and then lost to the Thunder while scoring only 17 fourth-quarter points. They were not able to crack triple digits in either game.
Orlando is one of the worst three-point shooting teams in the NBA, averaging just nine made threes a game. Of their main rotation players, only two (Terrence Ross and Nikola Vucevic) are shooting above 35 percent from long range.
12. Atlanta Hawks
Last Week: 13
It has not been all Trae Young, as the development of De’Andre Hunter, Kevin Huerter and Cam Reddish has been crucial to the Hawks' run. Hunter and Huerter are both shooting above 45 percent from three on almost five attempts apiece. Reddish, who was coming on strong before last season was suspended, has continued his growth as a player.
The issue for the Hawks is the lack of health. They have only gotten two games from Danilo Gallinari and Rajon Rondo, and they’ve had just four with Clint Capela. On top of all that, there’s Kris Dunn, who has yet to make his debut this season.
As well as Atlanta is playing, it can reach another level once it has its full roster healthy. The young Hawks went toe-to-toe with the Nets in their miniseries this week. First, they lost a close shootout on Wednesday, 145-141, but then they came back in Game 2 on Friday, winning convincingly, 114-96.
Then on Saturday, Atlanta dropped a close one to the upstart Cavs, 96-91.
11. Denver Nuggets
Last Week: 9
The Denver Nuggets appeared to be in free fall going into Sunday’s game against Minnesota. A team some thought might push for another conference finals has not been able to get anything going. This might be high for a team that is struggling as badly as the Nuggets. But their 15-point win against the Wolves shows that the team from the bubble is still there.
Jamal Murray put up 36, while Jokic had another triple-double with 19, 12 and 12. They shot 19-of-45 from three as a team and had 34 assists on 45 buckets. This was the Nuggets everyone expected to see at the start of the season.
What is really concerning is the minus-10.2 net rating the lineup with Michael Porter Jr. and the four other starters has accumulated in three games. He might not get that starting spot back when he returns from the health and safety protocols that will force him to miss some games.
Will Barton has auditioned for that spot with starts in the last two games. If he can perform at a high level, that will give coach Michael Malone a big decision when Porter comes back.
10. Indiana Pacers
Last Week: 10
T.J. Warren is out indefinitely with a foot injury, and it’s a big loss for the Pacers. His absence was felt against the Knicks with the goose egg Aaron Holiday put up in his place. He went 0-of-6 in 26 minutes. It also did not help that Victor Oladipo struggled, going 3-of-16 as well.
Although their offense underperformed against the Knicks, they have done a great job adjusting to the new system. They are second in the NBA in fast-break points and top five in points off turnovers. This new system has three Pacers averaging 20 or more points: Oladipo (20.0), Domantas Sabonis (20.8) and Malcolm Brogodn (22.2).
As long as the Pacers can replace some of what Warren gave them, they should survive his injury, and this 106-102 Knicks loss will be forgotten.
9. Utah Jazz
Last Week: 8
This is the Mike Conley everyone was expecting last season. He is scoring 20.3 points a night on 45.8 percent shooting from three while dropping five dimes. Conley’s performance against the Clippers shows all that he can bring to the table, scoring 33 points on 11-of-20 shooting (7-of-14 from three) while sending out seven assists.
It is a good thing for the Jazz that Conley is cooking because Donovan Mitchell is off to a slow start, shooting 37.1 percent from the field and 33.9 percent from three. It seems he has not been able to get into gear since the bubble.
The Jazz’s blowout win over the Spurs was a great way to start a seven-game, 11-day road trip. This should serve as an early-season test to see how they stack up with the rest of the league.
8. Miami Heat
Last Week: 4
The Miami Heat have been a one-step-forward, one-step-back team. They were without Jimmy Butler for their Bucks miniseries. They got the doors blown off in the first game, losing by 47 points.
They rebounded in the second game with a come-from-behind victory spurred by 26 points off the bench from Goran Dragic. They began to look like themselves in that win, until their game against the Mavericks. Even with Butler back against Dallas, they could not contain Luka Doncic, who was able to consistently get into the lane and create offense.
The number to watch for the Heat is the turnovers—their 19.8 leads the league. Teams are capitalizing on these miscues to the tune of 22.0 points per game. What is more confounding about these turnovers is that the Heat were one of the few teams that had little roster turnover. Once they get back to taking care of the ball, they will get back to their winning ways.
7. Phoenix Suns
Last Week: 11
The Suns are off to a great start, especially considering the changes they made this offseason. They are 5-2, with wins over Dallas, Denver and Utah—three teams that are expected to be in the playoffs—and their other two wins weren’t gimmes either with New Orleans and Sacramento both vying for playoff spots this year as well. Their two losses were by a combined eight points.
Devin Booker and Chris Paul have found great synergy. The pressure they put on opposing defenses is paying off for their shooters, in particular Mikal Bridges and Cameron Johnson, who are getting plenty of open and wide-open threes. Bridges is shooting 46.3 percent from deep, and Johnson is at 39.5 percent. Phoenix is proving very difficult to defend.
The Suns are not just an offensive team, either. They are doing it on the defensive end as well.
The Suns are third in defensive rating and held the Pelicans to just 86 points in their blowout win. They are making it known to everyone that they are for real.
6. Milwaukee Bucks
Last Week: 7
The Bucks avenged their playoff loss to the Heat with that 47-point thumping but let go of the rope in the second game of that series, giving up a 15-point second-half lead. They went ice cold in the fourth quarter, scoring only 17 points in that frame. Their statistical profile makes them out to be a dominant team with a league-leading net rating of 13.4 and shooting 43.9 percent from three. Just looking at those numbers, one would assume they are better than a .500 ballclub.
Giannis Antetokounmpo has averaged 23.5 points, 11.7 rebounds and 5.8 assists, but it feels like he has not fully hit his stride yet. That can be said for the team as a whole, actually. Jrue Holiday is still learning the system and occasionally appears a little lost on both ends of the court.
For a team that has not faced much regular-season adversity in the last two seasons, this might be a good thing for them in the long run.
5. Brooklyn Nets
Last Week: 3
The Nets have hit their first run of adversity, with Spencer Dinwiddie out indefinitely after partially tearing his ACL. The loss of Dinwiddie in the starting lineup is a big blow to their depth and means they’re without another ball-handler.
They split their miniseries with the Hawks, surviving a 145-141 shootout in Game 1 before scoring just 96 points in the second game. In that series they gave up an average of 127.5 points. Then in their last-second loss to the Wizards on Sunday, they gave up 123 points. The Nets over the last four games have a defensive rating of 115.7.
There is no question they have the offensive firepower to win a lot of games, but once they start defending at a high level, the sky's the limit.
4. Boston Celtics
Last Week: 6
Jaylen Brown’s offensive game has exploded this season. He’s averaging 28.0 points, including a 42-point outburst against the Memphis Grizzlies. Pairing that with Jayson Tatum’s 24.3 points a night, they are proving to be a dynamic tandem. And the Celtics need every bit of it because the next top scorer is Marcus Smart with his 12.6 points.
The offense is being carried on the shoulders of Brown and Tatum until Kemba Walker returns. Brad Stevens said Tuesday that Walker “won’t be back anytime soon.” To make matters worse they lost Jeff Teague to an ankle sprain on Sunday. The already thin backcourt might get thinner if Teague will have to miss games because of it.
Besides the worry of offense, Stevens might need to make a change in his rotation. The Celtics have started Tristan Thompson and Daniel Theis in all but one game this season, and that tandem has not yielded great results.
In fact, they have been quite bad when on the court together. The Celtics have a net rating of minus-14.3 during those stretches. That may change once Walker returns, but can they afford to wait that long?
3. Philadelphia 76ers
Last Week: 5
The 76ers are playing championship defense, as their 99.7 defensive rating is the best in the NBA. Three of their opponents have not been able to score more than 93 points. As a team, they lead the league in blocks and opponent field-goal percentage. None of this is too surprising with Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons.
Now, their offense is still a work in progress. The Sixers have not shot the three-ball great, but they have shown signs of life the last few games with Seth Curry and Tobias Harris finding their stroke. Embiid has done a better job of seeing when the double-teams are coming and kicking the ball out, allowing the ball to swing around to shooters.
The Sixers took care of business this week by beating a Toronto team that has a history of giving them trouble and then destroying Orlando by 24 points and Charlotte by 15.
The schedule gets tougher in the coming week with battles against Brooklyn and Denver.
2. Los Angeles Clippers
Last Week: 2
After getting blown out by 51 on Dec. 27, the Clippers rebounded nicely with back-to-back wins and an average margin of victory of 23 points. Even in their lone loss of the week to the Utah Jazz, they battled back from a 20-point deficit.
Nicolas Batum, who is in the starting lineup for the injured Marcus Morris Sr., has been an underrated signing. He’s one of the team’s best rebounders, he spreads the floor and he helps keep the defense tight.
As good as the Clippers have been, there are areas they can improve. For starters, they are 29th in the NBA in rebounds per game and in the middle of the pack in rebound percentage. Another area of improvement needs to be defending without fouling. They average 23.4 fouls per game—27th in the NBA—and that leads to 26.0 free-throw attempts for their opponents.
It should also be noted: No one should elbow Leonard unless they want to get traded.
1. Los Angeles Lakers
Last Week: 1
With so many new players in the rotation, Frank Vogel will experiment with lineups like he did much of last season. Case in point, he went with Montrezl Harrell down the stretch in their loss to the Blazers. Vogel is still in the process of learning what mix of players works best.
Even with all the lineup experimenting, the Lakers have a top-three offense and top-10 defense. Kyle Kuzma has started the season on fire, connecting on 41.7 percent of his 5.1 three-point attempts per game. He has been a good spark off the bench, including the go-ahead tip with under a minute left against the Spurs.
There are going to be losses like the Portland defeat for the Lakers from time to time, but they have the feel of a group just easing into the season after last season’s run.
Mo Dakhil spent six years with the Los Angeles Clippers and two years with the San Antonio Spurs as a video coordinator, as well as three years with the Australian men's national team. Follow him on Twitter, @MoDakhil_NBA.