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NBA Power Rankings: Warriors, undefeated Bucks top the list

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This early in the season there is still a lot of volatility in the rankings, with teams making big leaps (or big falls) as we start to figure out who they really are. We do know the Warriors are very, very good. Looks like the Bucks may be, too.

 
Warriors small icon 1. Warriors (7-1, last week No 3). Golden State’s offense has been incendiary to start the season — Stephen Curry had a 51-point game and is aggressively hunting his shot again, Kevin Durant knows he can score from anywhere at any time, and then Monday Klay Thompson unleashed 14 threes on the poor Bulls. The Warriors are scoring at a 120 points per 100 possessions pace, more than 5 points better than anyone else in the NBA this season and more than 7 better than they were last season. And it feels like they can sustain this.

Bucks small icon 2. Bucks (7-0, LW 4). The NBA’s last undefeated team, the Bucks haven’t just won games they have dominated — Milwaukee has led by at least 16 points in every game this season. While coach Mike Budenholzer gets (and deserves) credit for opening up the offense, the real key is the Bucks have the second-best defense in the league (Boston) and is one of only two teams allowing less than a point per possession this season. The Bucks are playing a simpler, easier to understand system and are thriving in it. Great test Thursday night against those Celtics (on TNT).

 
Raptors small icon 3. Raptors (7-1, LW. 1). Tuesday night Kawhi Leonard showed what he means to this team — he smothered Ben Simmons and was a key reason the Sixers’ star had 11 turnovers on the night. Oh, and Leonard had 31 points in the game, too. It’s too early to use these words in any meaningful way, but Leonard has played at an MVP level to open the season. After a home-heavy schedule to start, the Raptors have 8-of-11 on the road starting Friday in Phoenix.

 
Nuggets small icon 4. Nuggets (5-1, LW 2).. Denver’s offense still has not found it’s groove to start the season, specifically the team is taking 28.7 threes a game (25th in the league) and is shooting 29.7% on those so far (for comparison, the team took 30.9 threes a game last season and it 37.1%). Gary Harris is shooting 26.9% so far but that will improve. The Nuggets’ defense has slipped a little but is still third rated in the NBA and is covering for the offense until that train gets rolling. Good home tests Saturday and Monday with Utah and Boston.

 
Blazers small icon 5. Trail Blazers (5-2, LW 7). Damian Lillard finished fourth in the MVP voting last season and is coming out playing even better this season: 29.6 points per game, shooting 37.7 percent from three, with a 65.9 true shooting percentage and a 30.6 PER, every one of those a career best. So far 71 percent of his shots are threes or at the rim. It’s stunning. Lillard led the Blazers to a 3-1 record on a recent road trip with some quality wins (Indiana, Houston, if Houston is still a quality win) and now the Blazers are home for six in a row.

 
Celtics small icon 6. Celtics (5-2, LW 9). After a rough start to the season on offense the Celtics are starting to find their groove, including scoring 217 points in a home-and-home sweep of the Pistons. Kyrie Irving found himself in that second Pistons win, scoring 31 on 16 shots, before that the offense has leaned on Marcus Morris. Yes, Marcus Morris — and he’s been up to the task off the bench. Saturday starts a tough five game road trip for the Celtics.

 
Jazz small icon 7. Jazz (4-2, LW 14). Good to see Grayson Allen find a groove against Dallas, 11 points and a +17 when forced into a larger role. Donovan Mitchell has stopped pressing and the Utah offense is starting to fall into place during a three-game win streak on the road (the Jazz are an impressive 4-0 on the road to start the season). Utah’s offense is two points per 100 possessions better this season than last (so far) and improvement on that end is the key to taking the next step forward for this team. Fun Rudy Gobert vs. Karl-Anthony Towns showdown on Wednesday night.

 
Pelicans small icon 8. Pelicans (4-2, LW 5). Two losses in a row for the Pelicans but both without Anthony Davis (elbow) so we’re not going to read much into that. The starting lineup is still a beast when Davis is healthy, outscoring teams by 34.4 points per 100 (and the elbow thing isn’t serious). The loss in Denver was the start of a five-game road trip against potential West playoff teams, a road trip where the Pelicans could use to get Davis back and make a showing because, while it’s early, in the ridiculously deep West these are the games that will matter in the end.

 
Pacers small icon 9. Pacers (4-3, LW 8). While the Pacers are 4-3 to start the season, they are outscoring teams by 6.3 points per 100 possessions, which is sixth best in the league (that per-possessions data suggests they should be at least 5-2). The big key for the Pacers is their shooting, they have hit a league-best 43 percent of their shots from three — but they take the league’s fewest shots from three, 22.6 per game. Victor Oladipo has found a groove and is back to being his old self, and with that the Pacers are showing last season was not some one-off fluke. Now we’ll see if they can take a step forward off it.

Pistons small icon 10. Pistons (4-2, 6). Boston’s defense made Blake Griffin look human again in a home-and-home, and the search for quality shooting and shot creators around him continues. All those wins count, but the Pistons have put together this quality start while having a -1.3 net rating, something that could catch up to them (or, they could swing their rating around) with 6-of-9 coming up on the road, almost all against other teams in the East.

 
Clippers small icon 11. Clippers (4-3, LW 12). The Clippers’ primary bench units are both destroying teams and are just a lot of fun to watch: Lou Williams, Mike Scott, Montrezl Harrell, and Shai Gilgeous-Alexander are killing it with either Milos Teodosic (+23.2 per 100) or Luc Mbah a Moute (+19.2 per 100) as the fifth man. Those bench units get out and run and Milos is just a walking basketball highlight show.

 
Spurs small icon 12. Spurs (4-2, LW 10). San Antonio is off to a quick start but has a net rating of -3.5 per 100 possessions to start the season — either their record or that rating will correct itself. San Antonio is the second-best three-point shooting team in the league percentage wise, hitting 41.3 percent from deep this season, but with a team full of guys who like the midrange they are taking just 23 shots from three a game, third lowest in the league. What the Spurs are doing well is taking care of the ball, turning the ball over on a league-best 11.4 percent of their possessions.

 
Grizzlies small icon 13. Grizzlies (4-2, LW 17). Memphis is back to the formula we have seen for years: An elite defense that keeps them in games (fourth best in the NBA), which covers up for a bottom 10 offense. In the past that has worked well enough to keep them on the fringes of the playoff race and have a couple of good runs — when everyone stays healthy. Jaren Jackson Jr. update, the rookie is averaging 11.5 points a game on 46.3 percent shooting, with 5.2 rebounds a night and a PER of 16.7. He’s impressing.

 
Hornets small icon 14. Hornets (4-4, LW 16). New coach, same problem in Charlotte: The Hornets are outscoring teams by 6.1 points per 100 possessions, but have a .500 record (when they should be 5-3) because they keep losing close games. The Hornets have lost by two to the Sixers, two to the Bulls, and one to the Bucks — three losses by a total of five points. Kemba Walker continues to tear up the NBA, averaging 30.1 points and six assists per night, shooting 41.4 percent from three with a PER of 28.3.

 
Sixers small icon 15. 76ers (4-4, LW 11). The 76ers are taking a lot of threes, 35.9 a game (fifth most in the NBA), but they are hitting just 33.8% of them so far. Robert Covington (42.9%) and J.J. Redick (39%) are pulling their weight, but Dario Saric (23.4% on 5.9 attempts per game), Joel Embiid (29.4% on 4.3 attempts) and Markelle Fultz (30.8% but just 1.6 attempts) are building a brick house right now. When Fultz, Embiid, and non-threat from three Ben Simmons are on the floor together the Sixers are -14.2 per 100 possessions so far. The starting lineup with Fultz continues to struggle mightily on both ends of the court.

 
Kings small icon 16. Kings (5-3, LW 25). I may have this team ranked too low — the Kings are playing good basketball right now, having won four in a row including a couple games on the road in Florida. De’Aaron Fox has been a second-season revelation, Willie Cauley-Stein is going to get paid like he wants if he keeps playing like this, and Buddy Hield is averaging 18.9 points per game shooting 44.7 percent from three. They have the point differential of a .500 team, so maybe this catches up with them a little, but the Kings are playing hard and much better than anyone expected.

 
Heat small icon 17. Heat (3-4, LW 21). Hassan Whiteside has been critical for the Heat on both ends of the floor this season and the team has been 16.1 points per 100 possessions better when he is on the court rather than sitting. We’ll see if he can keep it up as the season moves along (consistency has been an issue) but the start has been strong. That said, if your counting, Whiteside has yet to rack up a single assist this season.

 
18. Timberwolves (3-4, LW 13). Jimmy Butler has upped his distraction ante, deciding to sit out Wednesday’s game in protest of not getting traded yet (I love that the team is calling it “general soreness”). Those trade talks are heating up again, but nothing is imminent and the entire situation continues to be a cloud over this team. It is part of the reason they are inconsistent. Until the Butler situation gets resolved, fans will not know what they will get from this team night to night (and gamblers may want to stay away for the same reason).

 
Thunder small icon 19. Thunder (2-4, LW 22).. The Thunder have won a couple games in a row (Clippers and Suns), with Russell Westbrook and Paul George having a matching 55 points each across the two games. The Oklahoma City defense is also starting to come around, it’s sixth best in the NBA as of Wednesday. The second half against the Clippers was the model of what the Thunder want to be this season, Westbrook and George were playing with pace and running an entertaining offense while the defense got enough stops. Can they build off that is the question?

 
Mavericks small icon 20. Mavericks (2-5, LW 18). Talking to a scout about the Mavericks yielded a couple of impressions: Luka Doncic runs hot and cold as a rookie but there is a lot to like. What impressed more is how well DeAndre Jordan passes out of the high post (he had 9 assists in a loss to Utah). Jordan seems to really enjoy being put in a new role, asked to do things the Clippers did not (they had Chris Paul and Blake Griffin, you’re not making DJ a playmaker when you have those two). Plus, DJ shooting better than 80% from the free throw line makes him far more dangerous.

 
Lakers small icon 21. Lakers (2-5, LW 23). It’s early, but how are things going so far with LeBron James and the young core? When LeBron and Kyle Kuzma are on the court together, the Lakers have a net rating of -0.8 (per 100 possessions), basically playing teams even. LeBron and Josh Hart have a +1.5 rating together. LeBron and Lonzo Ball are -5.3 per 100. LeBron and Brandon Ingram are -6.2 per 100 — and that’s troubling because that’s the one the Lakers really need to work out.

 
Rockets small icon 22. Rockets (1-5, LW 15). Mike D’Antoni threatened to move away from the all-switching defense the Rockets used last season. However, he didn’t when he looked at the film and saw the numbers because the switches have not been the problem. The bigger problem in Tuesday’s loss to a tired Portland team was heart: When the Blazers made a second quarter run you could see the “here we go again” reaction from the Rockets and they folded. The Rockets are already five games back of the Warriors, and now Houston heads out on the road for 6-of-7. Then they come home to the Warriors.

 
Knicks small icon 23. Knicks (2-5, LW 24). Knicks fans got to dream of Kevin Durant last week (and they should soon start watching Duke games and dreaming of drafting that talent), but the Knicks themselves are playing a little better than their record indicates. Eyes Kanter is not happy coming off the bench, but the way Kris Middleton went at him and abused him in the pick-and-roll for the Bucks is a reminder of why Kanter is nice in the regular season but is hard to play in the playoffs.

 
Nets small icon 24. Nets (2-5, LW 28). Three straight losses, and while its easy to forgive the ones to the Warriors and the Pelicans, the Knicks handling handling them this week was a reminder of where this team really is. Still, there are positives: Jarrett Allen has evolved into a flat out beast of a rim protector (except against Noah Vonleh, somehow) and Caris LeVert continues to turn heads around the league.

 
Hawks small icon 25. Hawks (2-5, LW 26). While fans are tuning in to see Trae Young — who has good numbers but is up and down, as rookies tend to be — it is Taurean Prince that should be turning heads. In his third season he is averaging 16.7 points per game, and while his efficiency could be better he has become someone who can be a solid role player on a good team (but has to do more for the Hawks).

 
Magic small icon 26. Magic (2-5, LW 19). There is only one team in the entire NBA scoring an average of less than one point per possession — and you guessed it, it’s Orlando. There are guys who can score on this team, but Nikola Vucevic has never been known as someone consistent, and Aaron Gordon is shooting a little less than he did a season ago but otherwise his numbers are just in line with before.

 
Bulls small icon 27. Bulls (2-5, LW 29).. If one player this season is making pundits and reporters eat crow, it’s Zach LaVine. Almost everyone (*raises hand*) ripped the $78 million offer sheet the Kings gave him, then were dumbfounded the Bulls matched. Yet through seven games he’s averaged 28.1 points per game, shot 38.6% from three, and has a PER of 22.7. He can’t defend, but if he can keep scoring like that it more than makes up for it — and makes that a not insane contract the Bulls agreed to.

 
Wizards small icon 28. Wizards (1-6, LW 20). Having watched this team in person, it’s hard to describe how bad things are for Washington. It’s not just the Xs and Os stuff — although they sluff their way through cuts and play half-hearted without the ball, especially John Wall — but its the chemistry issues. Bradley Beal gets knocked down going to the rim and no Wizard comes over to help him up so Tobias Harris has to. There are almost no high fives around the team pregame. Otto Porter might as well be on an island. Scott Brooks may find his seat getting hot, but the problems run well beyond what a coach can fix.

 
Suns small icon 29. Suns (1-5, LW 27). Phoenix has the worst net rating in the NBA, with the third-worst defense and the sixth worst offense. Not picking up the fourth-year option on Dragan Bender was both the right move and a purging of the sins of the past administration. On the bright side, one move by the last GM looks good — Deandre Ayton is averaging 17.5 point and 10.3 rebounds a game, shooting 64.4 percent. He’s still learning how to defend, but he looks like he could be the franchise anchor the Suns were counting on.

 
Cavaliers small icon 30. Cavaliers (1-6, LW 30). Cleveland finally got a win, knocking off the Atlanta Hawks Tuesday. However, if you don’t have a coach — they fired Tyronn Lue over the weekend and Larry Drew has refused to take on the interim title without a healthy pay raise or some security — you don’t move to get out of the bottom of the rankings.

With 17 straight points fourth quarter, Zion flashes what could be for New Orleans

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Everyone came for the dunks.

Zion Williamson showed he can be so much more than that — he even has a little Stephen Curry in him.

After sitting through his slow start, fans in New Orleans — and ones sitting in front of televisions from San Diego to Kennebunkport — got what they came to see during the fourth quarter of Williamson’s NBA debut:

Zion absolutely dominated a five-minute stretch of the fourth quarter.

Williamson — a rookie who had missed 44 games coming off knee surgery — was the best player on the court for those minutes, scoring 17 straight points and getting the Pelicans back in a game they had trailed by double-digits for much of the night. And he did it going 4-of-4 from three.

Williamson finished the night with 22 points on 8-of-11 shooting, plus seven rebounds, all in just 18:18 of court time.

It wasn’t enough to get the Pelicans a win; San Antonio got 32 points from LaMarcus Aldridge and the victory 121-117.

Williamson spent the first half looking like a rookie who had not played much ane was trying to fit in. He didn’t force anything, made smart basketball plays passing out of double teams, and took what the defense gave him. Zion’s first NBA basket came in the second quarter, a putback off a Nickeil Alexander-Walker miss.

Williamson played cautiously through three quarters, with five points on 2-of-3 shooting, four rebounds but also four turnovers.

Then in the fourth you could see his confidence grow as Aldridge (and later other Spurs defenders) dared him to hit a three. Once Zion knocked one down and his confidence started to swell, he got back to being the attacking, aggressive player everyone expected — and Pelicans fans loved every minute of it.

It’s just 18 minutes of basketball, the definition of a small sample size. But those 18 minutes only whetted our appetite. They weren’t even the appetizer, they were an amuse-bouche. 

But this could be the start of an amazing meal.

LeBron James, Anthony Davis combine for 49 points, Lakers beat Knicks

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NEW YORK — LeBron James scored 19 of his 21 points early, cutting into Kobe Bryant’s shrinking lead over him for the No. 3 scoring spot in NBA history, and the Los Angeles Lakers beat the New York Knicks 100-92 on Wednesday night.

Anthony Davis led the Lakers with 28 points in his second game back after a five-game absence, after the Western Conference leaders were handed their worst loss of the season Monday in his return.

James’ quiet second half left him with 33,599 points, 44 back of Bryant.

That keeps James in good shape to catch the former Lakers star Saturday at Philadelphia, where the five-time NBA champion was born. Los Angeles has a game in between Thursday in Brooklyn.

Davis scored eight points in the final 3:45 and finished 13 of 13 from the free throw line. He played 30 minutes after going only 23 in his return from a bruised gluteus maximus on Monday in Boston, where the Lakers were routed 139-107.

Marcus Morris scored 20 points and Damyean Dotson had 17 for the Knicks, who put up a much better effort after losing by 30 two weeks ago in Los Angeles. But they just couldn’t come up with timely shots to really threaten the Lakers in the fourth quarter.

James shot 8 of 10 in 17 minutes of the first half, but the Knicks held the rest of the Lakers relatively in check and the game was tied at 48 at halftime.

The Lakers led by six after three quarters, then opened the fourth with Dwight Howard‘s dunk, a 3-pointer by Rajon Rondo and a basket by Kyle Kuzma to extend it to 83-70.

New York hung around and was within six again late but the Lakers prevailed despite only two baskets, both by Davis, in the final four minutes.

Zion Williamson’s first NBA basket a putback

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In his first NBA action, Zion Williamson looked like what he is: A rookie trying to find his way.

At least Willaimson didn’t force the issue and tried to blend in, making smart basketball plays, which led to a first-half bucket and assist in his 8:11 minutes of action.

Zion’s first bucket in the NBA came in the second quarter of his debut game, a putback off a Nickeil Alexander-Walker miss.

In his first quarter run, Zion looked to be unselfish with the ball and made the right basketball play a  few times, passing out of soft doubles and picking up an assist to Brandon Ingram cutting down the lane (but Zion was 0-of-1 shooting).

It was a good start if a bit tentative, something to be expected of a guy who missed 44 games and is now trying to come into the rotation midseason.

As he grows more comfortable, New Orleans needs Zion to attack the rim. The Pelicans have shot creators and shooters — Jrue Holiday, Lonzo Ball, Brandon Ingram, J.J. Redick — and a rim-running, attacking threat that forces defenses to collapse a little will make things easier for the Pelicans’ perimeter players.

San Antonio was sharp in the first half and led by double-digits for much it. That came in part because New Orleans started 0-of-9 from three (despite some clean looks). San Antonio led 60-51 at the half. If the Pelicans are going to make a playoff push, this is the kind of game they need (at home against another team in the mix for one of the final playoff spots in the West).

NBA games still not on China’s state run television

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In the wake of the backlash from China after Rockets GM Daryl Morey Tweeted out support for the protestors in Hong Kong — the kind of political statement the NBA takes in stride domestically but found it stirred a hornets’ nest in this case — Chinese state television stopped showing NBA games.

That is still the case today, according to Nets’ owner Joeseph Tsai.

Tsai — one of the co-founders of the Alibaba Group, which runs the Chinese equivalent of Amazon — is a billionaire with his feet in both the United States and China. He spoke to Bloomberg News recently about where things stand now in the NBA/China relationship (hat tip Nets Daily).

Tsai is eager to see NBA games back on [state run] CCTV. Although [streaming service] Tencent has begun showing them again, the state-owned broadcaster has yet to budge. A person familiar with the matter says the league is optimistic the network will relent, beginning with the All-Star Game on Feb. 16—there’s no ready replacement, after all, for LeBron James and Giannis Antetokounmpo.

“Once you are on the air,” Tsai says, “everything will come back.”

For now.

The NBA, like any American group doing business in China, is caught up in geopolitical forces well beyond its control, from trade wars to protests in Hong Kong. Morey’s Tweet touched on what Tsai called a “third rail of Chinese politics” but he spoke of the Hong Kong protestors as separatists when they would argue they simply want what was promised them in the agreement that transferred control of the city from Brittish to Chinese rule. (And that last sentence itself is a gross oversimplification of a complicated situation.)

NBA games likely will end up back on Chinese television soon (although it will be longer for Rockets’ games), and the business of the NBA in China will continue. Both sides want to make money (and in China, keep a younger generation happy with a sport they have grown to love). However, the underlying issues that caused the last flare-up are not going away — things may be just simmering on the back burner, but the flames are not turned off.

When things do flare up again, Tsai will end up fight back in the middle of it.