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NBA Power Rankings: Celtics, Warriors, Rockets solidify as top three

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The top three teams in the Association have separated themselves — Boston, Golden State, and Houston, and they remain atop these rankings (and may well for a while). However, after that, there is more East than West at the top, not something we expected to see before the season.

 
Celtics small icon 1. Celtics (16-2, Last Week No. 1). Welcome to the season of Al Horford appreciation. He’s a four-time All-Star who once made an All-NBA team (2011), but he still might be the most underappreciated star in the league. At least until this season. He’s not flashy, but he does everything well — there are no serious holes in his game. That is showing this season as he anchors the Celtics’ league-best defense plus gives them almost 15 points and 9 boards a night. He is at the heart of the reason the Celtics have won 16 in a row and beat the Warriors.

 
Warriors small icon 2. Warriors (13-4 LW 2). This season the Warriors are taking 31.4 percent of their shots at the rim, once you exclude garbage time (as is done by Ben Falk at Cleaning The Glass). Last season that was 36 percent. Last season the team free throw rate was 20.6 (FTA per 100), this season that is down to 19.6. The Warriors still have the best offense in the NBA, but to Charles Barkely’s dismay (if he paid attention to stats) they are even more of a jump shooting team.

 
Rockets small icon 3. Rockets (13-4, Last Week No. 3). Chris Paul has only been back two games, but he’s averaged 14 points and 8 assists, while shooting 6-of-11 from three in the two wins (against the Suns and injured Grizzlies). Houston is entering a soft part of the schedule, including having 11-of-14 at home, look for CP3 (and James Harden) to put up impressive numbers for a few weeks.

 
Spurs small icon 4. Spurs (11-6, LW 5). The 23-point comeback win against the Thunder shows the grit and resilience of a team still without Kyrie Irving (and who knows when he returns). Their five-man starting lineup — LaMarcus Aldridge, Pau Gasol, Kyle Anderson, Danny Green, and Patty Mills — outscores teams by 6.7 points per 100 minutes and is key to their success.

 
Raptors small icon 5. Raptors (11-5, LW 7). The Raptors have been flying under the radar to start the season, but their net rating is better than the Wizards’ team everyone thought could be the team that challenges Cleveland/Boston at the end of the season. Toronto has adapted well to its new move-the-ball offense (most of the time), and is scoring at a more efficient clip than a season ago already.

 
Wizards small icon 6. Wizards (10-7, LW 8). The Wizards lost to the Raptors but beat the Bucks in the first two games of one of the toughest stretches of the schedule this season — 8-of-10 on the road, much of it against good teams (over .500). Remove garbage time from the stats and the Wizards are top 10 in both offensive and defensive rating (8th in both), often a sign of a potential contender (Warriors, Rockets the only other teams to do that so far).

Pistons small icon 7. Pistons (11-6, LW 4). They have lost three-of-four and were absolutely demolished at home by LeBron James and the Cavaliers this week. In the one win in the last week, they had to come from 11 down against the Timberwolves. Detroit’s starting five — Reggie Jackson, Avery Bradley, Tobias Harris, Stanley Johnson, and Andre Drummond — is getting outscored by 12.3 points per 100 possessions, Stan Van Gundy can’t stick with it much longer.

 
8. Timberwolves (10-7, LW 6). Quietly, the Timberwolves have finally started to play good defense — in their last five games they have allowed 101.6 points per 100, ninth best in the NBA for that stretch (they were 28th in the league overall a couple weeks back). Still, they have lost two in a row to beatable teams (Charlotte and Detroit) heading into a four-game homestand.

 
Cavaliers small icon 9. Cavaliers (10-7 LW 18). Winners of five in a row, and what matters most is in those five games their defense is 8.6 points per 100 better than their season average (and eighth in the league). LeBron James is putting up MVP numbers this season, 28.3 points, 8.5 assists, and 7.4 rebounds a game. All in his 15th season, about to turn 33 years old. Insane. Derrick Rose is out for more than a week still with his sprained ankle, and now Iman Shumpert is out with water on the knee, putting even more on LeBron’s plate.

 
Blazers small icon 10. Trail Blazers (10-7, LW 14). Portland fans and players feel they should have done better, but their record to start the season isn’t bad (it’s about where I pictured them), especially in a West where a lot of potential playoff teams are stumbling and/or battling injury. However, the Blazers have had a heavy home schedule so far and Monday’s win in Memphis was the first of five straight games on the road as they will be racking up the frequent flyer miles through the end of the year.

 
Nuggets small icon 11. Nuggets (10-7, LW 10). Paul Millsap is out for a few months (surgery to repair a ligament in his wrist) and he has been key to Denver’s improved defense. As a team they are 4.5 points per 100 possessions better when he plays, both Trey Lyles and Kenneth Faried need to help make that up. The Nuggets are 2-2 to start their stretch of 11-of-15 on the road, they have started to play better but the Millsap injury is a setback.

 
Knicks small icon 12. Knicks (9-7, LW 11). In his last five games, Kristaps Porzingis is shooting just 38.3 percent (although he still is hitting 44 percent of the five threes a game he puts up. It’s just a little efficiency slump. Joakim Noah is eligible to return from his PED suspension, but has yet to suit up for the Knicks as Jeff Hornacek rightfully likes his big man rotation right now (just a reminder Noah is making $17.8 million this season and has two-years, $37.8 million left on the deal after this season… thanks again Phil).

 
Sixers small icon 13. 76ers (9-7, LW 12). When Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons are on the court together the Sixers outscore opponents by 12.6 points per 100 possessions, and defensively the team allows less than a point scored per possession. Enmbiid by himself is a force, with the Sixers 19.2 points per 100 better than when he sits. Brett Brown must think Embiid is all the way back because he’s played him more than 30 minutes a game regularly recently. Also, #FreeJah

 
Pacers small icon 14. Pacers (10-8, LW 22). Indiana has won four games in a row, and 5-of-6 (the lone loss is Houston), knocking off some other potential East playoff teams in the process (Detroit, Miami, Orlando). They’ve been better on both ends during the streak, but it is the improved defense that has mattered more. That and Lance Stephenson going off for 13 in the fourth against Detroit. Pacers are in a home-heavy stretch and need to pad their record now.

 
Pelicans small icon 15. Pelicans (9-8 LW 9). DeMarcus Cousins is having a monster year averaging 26.6 points, 12.9 rebounds and 5.5 assists per game, but when he got tossed for an elbow to Russell Westbrook’s head (whether Russ sold that or not), it was Anthony Davis who took on the scoring load with 36 and got the win. The Pelicans needed that W, had lost their previous two and have a rough stretch ahead — 4-of-6 on the road with the Spurs, Warriors, Timberwolves, and Trail Blazers in the mix.

Bucks small icon 16. Bucks (8-8 LW 16). Malcolm Brogdon has struggled adjusting to his bench role, shooting 34.1% (down from 46%) with his assists dropping almost in half in his last five games. After winning four in a row with the arrival of Eric Bledsoe, thanks in large part to an improved defense, they have slipped back and dropped two straight — and as of Saturday the Bucks head out for 5-of-6 on the road.

 
Hornets small icon 17. Hornets (7-9, LW 20). They stopped an ugly six-game losing streak with wins at home over the stumbling clippers, then with Dwight Howard going off for 25 points and 20 rebounds against Karl-Anthony Towns and the Timberwolves. Maybe the Hornets can find some consistency now that their healthy, but the next four games are no help — Wizards, Cavaliers, Spurs and Raptors.

 
Heat small icon 18. Heat (7-9, LW 17). Miami is being held back by an offense that doesn’t move the ball (25th in percentage of buckets with an assist), 29th in turnover percentage, and 27th in the league in free throw rate. We’re not going to run the video of Dion Waiters going 0-of-10 from the floor against the Pacers, but it wasn’t pretty.

 
Thunder small icon 19. Thunder (7-9 LW 19).. The fourth quarter woes for this team are real — in six of their nine, losses, the Thunder have blown a double-digit lead in the game, the latest being a 19-point lead to the Pelicans (without DeMarcus Cousins). The Thunder’s fourth quarter defense is 10.6 points per 100 possessions worse than the rest of the game (when it is top five in the league). Big showdown with Kevin Durant and the Warriors Wednesday night.

 
Magic small icon 20. Magic (8-9, LW 13). The wheels have come off after a strong start in Orlando — they have dropped five games in a row, with a bottom four offense and defense in that stretch. And that is with point guards Elfrid Payton and D.J. Augustin now healthy. It doesn’t get easier now with four straight and 6-of-8 on the road against some quality teams (Celtics, 76ers, Pacers, Thunder, Warriors).

 
Grizzlies small icon 21. Grizzlies (7-9, LW 15). Memphis has lost five in a row, the last three without Mike Conley who will remain out for a couple more weeks to rest his Achilles. It doesn’t get any easier, because in a week the Grizzlies start a brutal stretch of the schedule with a home-and-home against the Spurs — Memphis has to find a way to keep its head above water in this stretch to keep the playoffs within sight.

 
Lakers small icon 22. Lakers (8-10 LW 21). If the playoffs started today (Wednesday, Nov. 22), the Lakers would be the eighth seed in the West. While the NBA world watches Lonzo Ball’s jumpers go astray (and that is an issue), the Lakers have the No. 4 defense in the NBA, which considering they were dead last a year ago is a big step. That keeps them in games, then they get enough offense in flurries to pull out wins. The defense will likely regress some, but the offense should improve as the season wears on, and the Lakers staying within striking distance (or in) the playoffs is not so far-fetched right now.

 
Jazz small icon 23. Jazz (7-11, LW 24). Utah has gone 2-4 since Rudy Gobert went down. With their offense floundering and already 24th in the league, Utah has turned over more playmaking duties to rookie Donovan Mitchell — he started the last seven games and he’s done fairly well, for a rookie. He has averaged 13.5 points, 6.5 rebounds, and 5.5 assists, and in the last six games the Jazz have a top-10 NBA offense. However, without Gobert as an anchor in the middle the Utah defense has fallen off to bottom 10 in the league, and the offense may not be able to cover that up for long.

 
Suns small icon 24. Suns (7-11, LW 26). Giving up 90 points in a half to the Rockets on national television was ugly, but there are some good things happening in the desert. The ball is moving better on offense and their assists are up, for example, and that has helped Dragan Bender and Troy Daniels to shoot better. Josh Jackson’s offense still has a long way to go, however. Starting Sunday, Phoenix heads out on a tough six-game road trip through the Midwest and East that includes the Celtics, 76ers, and Raptors.

 
Nets small icon 25. Nets (6-10, LW 25). No D’Angelo Russell for at least a month after he had his knee scoped, which is a tough break for a guy playing to impress his bosses and get a new contract. With him and Jeremy Lin out injured, point guard duties have fallen to Spencer Dinwiddie, who has done well and led scrappy performances against the Celtics and Warriors recently (both still losses, of course). Allen Crabbe is finding a groove.

 
Hawks small icon 26. Hawks (3-14, LW 29). They have been playing better than their record suggests of late, it just hasn’t translated into wins. The brightest spot for the team this season is just how well rookie John Collins has played, averaging 11.6 points on 56.9 percent shooting, with 7.4 rebounds a game. The Hawks are 1-2 at the start of a home-heavy stretch of the schedule (5-of-6).

 
Clippers small icon 27. Clippers (5-11 LW 23). The Clippers went into this season with a re-signed Blake Griffin and looking to stay in the playoff mix in the West, then build from there. However, after dropping 9 in a row — in the last 10 games Griffin is shooting just 38.2% — the question becomes at what point do they consider other options? Specifically, looking at trade options for DeAndre Jordan — in the last year of his contract — for players/picks to help a rebuild. The Clippers will deny this, however, if they continue to lose, it’s a question that will come up around the trade deadline. The other question is how hot Doc Rivers’ seat is getting.

 
Mavericks small icon 28. Mavericks (3-15 LW 30). They have lost 5-of-6, but have shown some spark by beating the Bucks and pushing the Celtics to overtime in their last two games (this deep in the rankings that’s enough to move a team up). One thing not moving up in Dallas is Nerlens Noel on the depth chart — undrafted rookie Maxi Kleber is starting a little and is ahead of Noel now.

 
Kings small icon 29. Kings (4-13, LW 27). This ranking may be too high for the Kings. Seriously. They have the worst net rating in the NBA and just got blown out by 46 points by the Hawks (another of the NBA’s worst). One thing to look forward to: Wednesday night Lonzo Ball and De’Aaron Fox will go head-to-head against each other for the first time since Kentucky’s Fox owned UCLA’s Ball in the Sweet 16 of the NCAA tournament last year.

 
Bulls small icon 30. Bulls (3-12 LW 28). With rookie Lauri Markannen leading the way, the Bulls are taking 9.4 more threes per game this season than they did last season. They are hitting 33.5 percent of them, which is about the same as last year, but it has opened up the offense. The Bulls have started 0-2 on a four-game road trip.

PBT Podcast: Breaking down rookie class’s start to NBA season

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Markelle Fultz has barely seen the court. Lonzo Ball has had a couple of triple-doubles but his shot is way off, and he’s drawing extra scrutiny thanks to his father. Right now, Danny Ainge looks like the smartest guy in the room trading down and walking away with Jayson Tatum. Some of the best players out of this draft early — Kyle Kuzma, Donovan Mitchell — were drafted well down the board.

It’s been a draft class with real highs, some ugly lows, some polarizing figures — and Kurt Helin and Dan Feldman of NBC Sports break it down.

They go through all the guys taken in the lottery and discuss what they have seen, then talk about some of the guys outside the draft who have had strong seasons so far.

As always, you can check out the podcast below, listen and subscribe via iTunes at ApplePodcasts.com/PBTonNBC, subscribe via the fantastic Stitcher app, check us out on Google play, or check out the NBC Sports Podcast homepage and archive at Art19.

Joel Embiid blocks and stares down Donovan Mitchell, who then pushes flopping 76ers center (video)

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Joel Embiid (when healthy) is running wild over the NBA.

Last night was no different, with Embiid (15 points, 11 rebounds, three assists, two blocks +16) excelling in the 76ers’ 107-86 win over the Jazz. And he let Utah rookie Donovan Mitchell know about it.

After blocking Mitchell in the fourth quarter, Embiid stared down a fallen Mitchell. Mitchell got up and pushed Embiid – listed at nine inches and 35 pounds heavier – to the floor.

Embiid, via NBC Sports Philadelphia:

I flopped, and he got a technical for it. So, that was basically how it happened. But it’s all fun. After the game, we shook hands. It’s just about having fun.

Embiid is having fun. That’s for sure.

NBA Power Rankings: Boston vaults to top, Warriors moving up

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From No. 14 to No. 1 in a week? The first few weeks of the power rankings things are volatile and this is just Week 2 of our rankings — we’re just figuring out who teams are, there’s a small sample size, and teams make big leaps up and down the board. Boston and Detroit make big moves up the ladder this week, but can they sustain it?

 
Celtics small icon 1. Celtics (5-2, Last Week No. 14). They have won five in a row, they have the best defense in the NBA so far (much better than expected), and Marcus Morris could return this week, adding front court depth. Early on the Celtics have flipped preseason prognostication on its head — they have an elite defense despite dumping their best defenders over the summer, but they are 18th in offense. They miss the glue that was Gordon Hayward on that end.

 
Grizzlies small icon 2. Grizzlies (5-2, Last Week No. 2). They are doing this with a very good defense (which we expected) and an offense that is knocking down more threes than it used to and is getting to the foul line at a higher rate than any team in the league. They are getting something out of Chandler Parsons this season, which is a boost. Starting Saturday they head out on a five-game road trip that will be a real test.

 
Warriors small icon 3. Warriors (5-3 LW 5). Did they snap out of their malaise with that blowout win over the Clippers? Maybe, we will get a better sense of that when they face the Spurs Thursday night on TNT. Either way, there is no panic in the Warriors locker room, Steve Kerr reminded everyone the 1998 Jordan Bulls started 8-7, but went on to win the NBA title, their third straight. Kerr said that team felt like this one early, just mentally fatigued.

 
Rockets small icon 4. Rockets (5-3, LW 3). The Rockets were in vintage form against the Hornets last Friday — 57 three-point attempts and just 28 midrange shots. That game was the outlier, the Rockets lead the NBA in percentage of shots from the midrange, which is not good. The Rockets offense is 15th in the league right now, and playing at the 20th fastest pace. Is that due to giving heavy minutes to defenders such as P.J. Tucker and Luc Mbah a Moute? Either way, they miss Chris Paul.

 
Clippers small icon 5. Clippers (4-2 LW 3). It’s a bit of a small sample size mirage, but with DeAndre Jordan and Patrick Beverley leading the way, the Clippers have a Top-10 defense in the NBA (it was first before the Warriors thrashed them, but first was always a bit optimistic). Blake Griffin took too many midrange jumpers in years past (he could hit them, but not at a high enough rate), but that has changed this season with him taking 32 threes and 9 midrange shots. Plus, Griffin is clutch.

 
Thunder small icon 6. Thunder (4-3 LW 12).. They have been better than their record shows so far this young season. The big three are starting to figure things out on offense (I love the way they use Carmelo Anthony with the second unit), but the big question is who is the fifth starter. Well, that’s one big question, the other is why is this team struggling so much on the defensive glass (they are 25th in the league in defensive rebounding percentage)?

 
Magic small icon 7. Magic (5-2, LW 11). The biggest change in Orlando is not how well Aaron Gordon is playing this season — although he has impressed and dropped 41 on the Nets — but it’s the pace. Orlando is playing at the third fastest pace in the NBA this young season, faster than the Warriors or Lakers and Lonzo Ball. They haven’t been incredibly efficient in transition (56.8% eFG%) and they are taking too many midrange shots (and not enough at the rim), which makes us wonder if this is sustainable.

 
Wizards small icon 8. Wizards (4-2, LW 6). After a slow start to the season in terms of taking and making threes, the Wizards have started to find a groove the past few games (17-of-34 against the Kings, for example). They have already blown two 10-point leads this season. Washington is entering a soft part of the schedule the next couple of weeks (7-of-9 at home, a lot of losing teams) so they need to fatten up the win total now.

 
Raptors small icon 9. Raptors (4-2, LW 10). They are 2-2 four games into a rough six-game road swing, which has included losses to San Antonio and Golden State where Toronto had fourth quarter leads but could not execute and hold on down the stretch. On the bright side, they held the Blazers to six points in one quarter. Also, Pascal Siakam has really taken a step forward this season.

Pistons small icon 10. Pistons (5-3, LW 21). They beat the Warriors, Clippers, and Timberwolves on a three-game win streak, which is impressive. We’re still a little skeptical that they can sustain this level — their starters have been outscored by 36 points so far this season — but the improvement from Reggie Jackson (who has looked closer to his old self) is a good sign. Regardless, they look like a playoff team in an upside-down East early.

 
Spurs small icon 11. Spurs (4-3, LW 1). After a 4-0 start they dropped three in a row on their recent road trip. The good news is they have held their own without Kawhi Leonard and are home for 8 of their next 10, giving them a chance to keep banking wins without their best player. Showdown with the Warriors coming Thursday night on TNT.

 
Bucks small icon 12. Bucks (4-3 LW 9). Giannis Antetokounmpo keeps putting up stunning point totals — 28, 33, and 28 this week — but also is playing 37.4 minutes per game right now (third highest in the league). They are getting decent bench play, Jason Kidd may want to trust it more, even with Greg Monroe out for a couple week. Tough four game road trip starts Wednesday and includes the Cavaliers and Spurs.

 
Blazers small icon 13. Trail Blazers (4-3 LW 8). That six-point quarter against Toronto was UGLY, but let’s not dwell on it. The Blazers are the second-best offensive rebounding team in the NBA to start the season, grabbing a ridiculous 28.6 percent of their missed shots. Portland has had a soft schedule to start the season, when they have faced quality teams such as the Clippers and Raptors they lost. The next week sees the Jazz, Thunder, and Grizzlies, and we’ll get a better sense of how good this team really is.

 
timberwolves small icon 14. Timberwolves (4-3, LW 13). This was supposed to be the season Minnesota got better on defense, but early in the season they are dead last in the league on that end, allowing 113.3 points per 100 possessions. That’s very concerning. This team has beaten a good Thunder team twice with Jimmy Butler but lost to the Pacers (without Myles Turner) and Pistons without him, reverting to a lot of old, bad habits.

 
Jazz small icon 15. Jazz (4-3, LW 16). As expected, their defense is fantastic (fourth in the NBA and improving) but the offense relies on spurts from guys who have hot games, like Donovan Mitchell did with 22 against the Lakers. Mitchell also broke out this nastiness against the Lakers.

 
Hornets small icon 16. Hornets (4-3, LW 18). Dwight Howard was brought in to return the Charlotte defense to form, and he has helped make this a top-10 defense again early in the season. Problem is, the offense has fallen to 21st in the league and doesn’t get enough points in the paint. Tough week ahead with the Bucks, then on the road against the Spurs, Timberwolves, and Celtics.

 
Cavaliers small icon 17. Cavaliers (3-4 LW 7). Going through a soft spot in the schedule they lost four of five, and in those five games they had the second worst defense in the NBA and were outscored by 11.2 points per 100 possessions. Their transition defense and rotations are a mess. LeBron has been the lone bright spot and Friday night against the Wizards he should hit another milestone and score the 29,000th point of his career, the youngest player (at 32) to do it.

 
Pacers small icon 18. Pacers (4-3, LW 20). Myles Turner is still sidelined with a concussion, but the Pacers offense is a surprise third in the NBA this young season thanks to Victor Oladipo — averaging 23.9 points per game with a 63.5 true shooting percentage — plus some very good play from Domantas Sabonis. That Paul George trade suddenly doesn’t look so bad.

 
Pelicans small icon 19. Pelicans (3-4 LW 22). Not to ruin a secret coming out later soon, but after DeMarcus Cousins destroyed his old team in Sacramento then dropped a triple-double on the Cavaliers, he won the PBT Extra player of the week (video coming). The Pelicans also got Anthony Davis back in the lineup, and when those two are on the court together this season the Pelicans are +44, when they are not the team is -53. Depth remains the issue.

 
Knicks small icon 20. Knicks (3-3, LW 28). About those rebuilding Knicks, as Bobby Marks of ESPN notes, they have the third oldest roster in the East, both raw totals and when waited by playing time. Those old guys can crash the glass however — the Knicks are they best offensive rebounding team in the league this young season, grabbing a second chance on 29.5 percent of their missed shots.

 
Sixers small icon 21. 76ers (3-4, LW 23). Markelle Fultz is sidelined for a while to get his shoulder right, which is what the team should have done all along. Ben Simmons continues to be fantastic early in the season, racking up a triple-double in Dallas and prompting Mavericks’ coach Rick Carlisle to say he thought Simmons would be good, but the kid is beating expectations.

 
Nuggets small icon 22. Nuggets (3-4, LW 17). What happened to the Nuggets’ offense? They are scoring 10 points per 100 possessions fewer than they did after All-Star break last season. Maybe last season’s numbers were the anomaly, or maybe the struggles of Jamal Murray’s shot and the lack of Danilo Gallinari (now with the Clippers) is hurting their spacing. The Nuggets are home for six in a row and they need to rack up some wins.

 
Lakers small icon 23. Lakers (3-4 LW 24). There’s a lot to like with Lonzo Ball, but when a rookie leads your offense it’s going to struggle — the Lakers are 28th in the league in offensive rating so far this young season, behind even the Suns. I expect that to improve some, but whether they can keep up their 9th-ranked defense to start the season is the more interesting question (don’t bet on it, but they are improved on that end).

 
Heat small icon 24. Heat (2-4, LW 15). Miami really misses Hassan Whiteside, both on the glass (where they are getting pushed around), and to get some putbacks and easy buckets that they are not getting now. This has been a very inconsistent team — not just game-to-game, but also within games — and that makes them hard to get a handle on early. They head out Friday on a six-game road trip.

 
Suns small icon 25. Suns (3-4, LW 30). The Suns have looked better their last four games, winning three, and there are a couple reasons for that. First, they sent Eric Bledsoe home and are playing Mike James and Tyler Ulis at the point — those guys aren’t nearly as talented but at least they care and are trying on defense. Second, Jay Triano has made other moves — starting Marquese Chriss — that make this team a little better. Not good, but not the train wreck they were.

 
Nets small icon 26. Nets (3-5, LW 19). They would be higher on this list if they could hold a lead — three of their losses came when blowing a 10-point lead (or more) in the game. That includes handing the cross-town Knicks their first win of the season. The Nets remain a really good shooting team, but they do a lot more damage in the first quarter than they do the rest of the game.

 
Kings small icon 27. Kings (1-6, LW 25). Last Sunday the Kings sat both George Hill and Zach Randolph against the Wizards, going young for a day, and it was a reminder of how far this team has to go. The bright spot has been De’Aaron Fox, who has shown impressive flashes — he’s shooting 42.9 percent from three, and is quick enough to to the rim where he is shooting an impressive 68.8 percent.

 
Mavericks small icon 28. Mavericks (1-7 LW 27). Dallas’ one win for the season surprisingly came against a hot Memphis team. Shooting has been a problem: Dirk Nowitzki is shooting 40.5%, Harrison Barnes 37.9%, and Devin Harris 35.7%. The other problem for Dallas is now the schedule gets tougher — four of their next six are on the road and the level of competition steps up with the Clippers, Timberwolves, Wizards, Cavaliers, and Thunder coming up.

 
Hawks small icon 29. Hawks (1-6, LW 26). They have lost six in a row, and while injuries were part of that (Dennis Schroder missed time) this is an average defensive team so far with a bottom-five offense. With Schroder and Kent Bazemore as the primary offensive options, I’m not sure efficiency is in the cards. It could be a long season.

 
Bulls small icon 30. Bulls (1-4 LW 29). They have the worst offense in the NBA this season, and there are not a lot of prospects of it getting better. If you want a silver lining, Lauri Markkanen has played fairly well, the rookie is averaging 15.6 points per game and is showing 41.7 percent from three. Kris Dunn is healthy and has returned to the lineup, he will get a chance to prove his struggles in Minnesota last season were a fluke.

Sleeper teams for each conference in 2017-18 NBA season

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Eastern Conference

Charlotte Hornets

The Hornets finished a disappointing 36-46 last season, but they were never as far off as it appeared. Despite that dismal record, they still outscored opponents, and point difference tends to better predict future success than record.

Charlotte’s big problem last year was center depth. The team went 3-17 without Cody Zeller.

The Hornets corrected – maybe overcorrected – that by trading for Dwight Howard. Howard will start over Zeller for now, and there’s certainly value in having both players provide depth. But Zeller has proven to be the effective fit in the starting lineup. If Howard’s ego allows a move to the bench, Charlotte is definitely better off with that option in its back pocket. If not, this could get tricky for Steve Clifford.

I’m not sure whether Nicolas Batum‘s injury makes the Hornets more or less of a sleeper. They’re obviously worse without him, but a couple-month absence isn’t nearly enough to write them off. The setback might help them fly further under the radar.

Batum’s injury will put more pressure on Michael Carter-Williams, Julyan Stone and Malik Monk to cobble together effective point-guard minutes offensively and defensively when Kemba Walker sits. That was another, smaller, sore spot last year.

Still, Charlotte is well-coached with a fairly cohesive rotation full of players who’ve developed chemistry together. The Hornets are a highly likely a playoff team, not the borderline outfit many have treated them as. After all, they play in the East.

Western Conference

Utah Jazz

The Jazz will feel the loss of their second-best player.

That’s right. Second.

Rudy Gobert was Utah’s best player even before Gordon Hayward left for the Celtics. Gobert is appropriately touted defensively, the best traditional rim protector in the game right now. But he’s quietly an offensive force – a screener, rebounder and finisher.

The Jazz will miss Hayward, to be sure. But much of that is long-term. The 27-year-old will remain in his prime for multiple years and would’ve pushed Utah’s ceiling much higher.

This season, the Jazz rebounded with enough veterans – Ricky Rubio, Thabo Sefolosha, Jonas Jerebko and Ekpe Udoh – to fortify a deep rotation. The newcomers and returning players like Joe Ingles and Joe Johnson just know how to contribute to winning.

Regression to the mean would make Utah healthier than last season. Rodney Hood and Derrick Favors can take steps forward, though Favors is a tough fit with Gobert. First-round Donovan Mitchell looks like a steal.

For too many, last year was the baseline, and Hayward is simply being subtracted. Make no mistake, his offensive creativity will be missed. But this team should take steps forward in other facets and remain elite defensively behind Gobert.

The middle of the Western Conference is tough, and the Jazz are by no means a playoff lock. But they have the talent and savvy to at least hold their own in that very competitive environment – even without Hayward.