The Lakers hot start to the season continues (especially against a soft part of the schedule the rest of the month), but nobody is hotter than Harden’s Houston Rockets, who have raced up the standings to the No. 2 spot.
1. Lakers (12-2, Last week No. 2). In something we didn’t see coming, Los Angeles has the top-ranked defense in the NBA. Coach Frank Vogel gave JaVale McGee and Dwight Howard a big chunk of credit for that: “One of the pleasant surprises has been the mobility of our bigs. I knew we knew we were going to have great length at the basket and rim protection, but we’ve really been able to have those guys play up in pick-and-rolls and on pin downs and [dribble hand offs] and challenge three-point shots.” The Lakers have won five in a row against a soft stretch of the schedule, which continues through the end of the month. December will be a much, much stiffer test.
2. Rockets (11-3, LW 9). Winners of eight in a row and that doesn’t happen because of just one man, no matter how great The Beard is playing. For example, Russell Westbrook had a triple-double Monday night, and Houston’s defense has been respectable. That said, James Harden is putting up ridonkulous numbers. He’s averaging 39.2 points, 7.6 assists, and 5.6 rebounds a game, with an insane 61.8 true shooting percentage. The faster pace of play from the Rockets this season is giving him more opportunities, and it has led to Harden taking 71 more three point attempts than anyone else in the NBA. And he’s making history.
3. Celtics (11-2, LW 1). It was the question around Boston coming into the season: How are the Celtics going to replace Al Horford and Aron Baynes on defense? Turns out, with a rotation of different bigs — Daniel Theis and Robert Williams in particular — and steps forward from Jaylen Brown and Jayson Tatum. The Celtics have the sixth-best defense in the NBA this season, to go with the fourth-best offense. Many didn’t see the Celtics as contenders entering the season, but having a top 10 offense and defense is the definition of a contender.
4. Bucks (10-3, LW 3).
Giannis Antetokounmpo is cranking it up in the second half of games, averaging 18.2 points a night on 61.9% shooting, and getting to the lines seven times on average in that half. For comparison, he averages 12 points on 53.6% in the first half (not bad but not otherworldly like after halftime). Antetokounmpo has eight 30 point games this season and two where he scored 29. The Bucks are 5-1 in a run of recent road games (with one more on Wednesday in Atlanta) before 6-of-8 at home.
5. Nuggets (9-3, LW 10). Winners of 6-of-7, and one of the keys has been fourth quarter defense, when the Nuggets have a defensive rating of 101, sixth best in the NBA (and a couple of points better than the rest of the game). That defense will get put to the test this week against three of the best offenses in the league: Houston, Boston, and Phoenix (all three games are in Denver).
6. Raptors (9-4, LW 6). Pascal Siakam’s improvement this season has him being talked about as a possible back-to-back winner of the Most Improved Player award (although it’s early), but that has overshadowed the leap made by OG Anunoby this season. He’s averaging 12.4 points a game (up from 7) and 5.5 rebounds a night (up from 2.9), and that’s not just a minutes thing, his true shooting percentage has jumped from 54.4 (around league average) to 70, which is insanely efficient (and probably unsustainable at that level). After a 3-2 road trip the Raptors have a home-heavy schedule for the rest of 2019.
7. Heat (9-3, LW 5). Winners of three in a row and 4-of-5, it leads to the questions “is this sustainable?” Look at the shot quality data on Second Spectrum (the NBA’s tracking data) and the answer is probably not — they have been fortunate teams are just missing shots against them. That likely balances out. Miami’s three-game win streak is against a soft part of the schedule, and that continues until Philly on Saturday night (in the second half of a back-to-back). Houston on the road in a week will be even a bigger test.
8. Clippers (9-5, LW 4). Paul George is back and put up a ridiculous 70 points in his first 44 minutes on the court. What was impressive was how fluid his game looked after the time off, George looked like the guy from the first half of last season, the one in the mix for the MVP trophy (he ultimately finished third after fading). George credits the offseason surgery, saying he feels like he has two new shoulders. We have yet to see George and Kawhi Leonard paired with George because Leonard has missed three games with a bruised knee. This week we should finally see the duo together.
9. Jazz (8-5, LW 7). Utah’s offense still has not found a consistent rhythm — they are 24th in the NBA over the past two weeks, via Cleaning the Glass — but the problem is the defense has slipped a little in recent weeks, too. Part of that is how much they miss backup center Ed Davis. The Jazz don’t want to play Rudy Gobert heavy minutes this early in the season (but Gobert has been impressive on both ends when he is on the court), which has forced Tony Bradley into heavy minutes, and their offense drop to well below a point per possession when he is on the court. Davis is expected to be out a couple more weeks.
10. Mavericks (8-5, LW 13). It feels like all we do with Dallas is praise Luka Doncic… but have you seen him play this year? LeBron James is right, Luka is a bad man (not his exact words, but this is a family power rankings). Doncic joined LeBron as the only two players in NBA history with a 40+ point triple-double before age 21. Doncic is averaging 29.5 points, 10.7 rebounds and 9.3 assists per game, all with a ridiculously efficient 61.2 percent true shooting. He has pushed himself into the early-season MVP conversation — and he’s in just his second year in the league.
11. Pacers (8-6, LW 12). That Indiana looks like a lock playoff team in the East, has a top 10 defense, and is above .500 without Victor Oladipo is impressive and a good sign for the team moving forward. The Pacers have won 5-of-7 and the two losses in there were to the Rockets and Bucks on a back-to-back. Oladipo has been getting in some work with the Pacers’ G-League team, a sign that he could be back a little before the Christmas date that quietly always seemed to be the target.
12. 76ers (8-5, LW 8). It was expected that Philadelphia’s offense would take some time to find a groove this season, with Jimmy Butler and J.J. Redick gone and more now on Ben Simmons plate, but the defense was going to carry the Sixers to start the season. Except it hasn’t, it’s been just okay. On the season, the Sixers are not even a top 10 defense, and in the last eight games (when Philly is 3-5), the defense is a middle-of-the-NBA pack team giving up 106.2 points per 100. All that length is not keeping teams from shooting well against them, and that is even true in the half court when the defense should be set. It’s early, but the Sixers need to clean this up.
13. Timberwolves (8-6, LW 14). Andrew Wiggins playing well — not “I have earned that max contract well, but well — has been one of the biggest surprises of the season. A few things are helping that, such as the five-out offense Minnesota can play (Karl-Anthony Towns has to be respected at the arc), which has opened up driving lanes. His assists are up, his shooting percentages are up, but a lot of it ties back to his handles — Wiggins has been much better with his ball control. He’s more comfortable running the pick-and-roll, he doesn’t feel rushed and surveys the court now, making better decisions, and it all ties back to being more comfortable and confident with his handles.
14. Suns (7-6, LW 11). Phoenix has lost 3-of-4, and while the offense has dipped slightly during that time, the bigger issue is the defense has struggled to get stops. Devin Booker and the Suns have not been a team in the national spotlight much in recent years, which is why them being the late TNT game on Thursday night — against a Zion-less Pelicans — feels like such an important game. New Orleans is a feisty team that plays hard, and if the Suns defend like they did giving up 120 to Sacramento on Tuesday they will be in trouble in front of a national audience.
15. Magic (6-7, LW 23). I keep hearing the same whisper from different sources around the league (something Shams Charania reported already as well): Teams are interested in trading for Aaron Gordon. Officially the Orlando front office wants no part of this and shoots the idea down, but around the league a lot of teams think the Magic brass will change their minds on this. Just something to watch. In the short term, the Magic have won 4-of-5 and the reason is they have the third best offense in the NBA over the past two weeks.
16. Kings (6-7, LW 24). Sacramento has gone 3-1 without De’Aaron Fox so far, and what has fueled that is the team playing top-10 defense during that stretch. In fact, so far November has been good to Sacramento despite all the injuries, they are 6-2. However, now they head out on an East Coast road swing and have 8-of-10 away from home.
17. Nets (5-8, LW 16). Kyrie Irving has missed time with a shoulder impingement (and could miss more), Caris LeVert is out a few more weeks with a broken thumb, Wilson Chandler remains suspended (PEDs) and all the puts more on the shoulders of Joe Harris and Spencer Dinwiddie — and when those two share the court this season the Nets are -5.1 per 100 possessions. Brooklyn hits a soft stretch of the schedule this week, a chance to right the ship (before a home-and-home with Boston).
18. Thunder (5-9, LW 18). Watch the Thunder play in person and the word that comes to mind is scrappy. They are not the most talented team in the league, but they are tough to play against. One change this season is they are no longer an elite offensive rebounding team — at 21.8% they are worst in the league. Coach Billy Donovan says there are a couple of reasons for that. One, strong rebounders for their positions in Russell Westbrook and Paul George are playing elsewhere. Second, they are pulling Steven Adams out farther from the basket this season to use his versatility, but that takes him off the glass more.
19. Trail Blazers (5-10, LW 17). Portland turned to Carmelo Anthony to help fill their frontcourt void — and it’s a smart, low-risk gamble. Watching his first game (small sample size alert), he’s not going to hurt the Trail Blazers because they are so desperately in need of help at the four. Does he make them better? Not sure he does. The 4-of-14 shooting first game with 5 turnovers certainly was in part due to rust. However, the bigger issue is the other side of the ball, Anthony looked lost at points, and things are only going to get tougher because teams will target him. We need more games to really judge this, but so far the reaction to his play is “meh.” Portland is 1-2 to start their six-game road swing.
20. Spurs (5-9, LW 15). Losers of six in a row and the problem is on the defensive end where they are second worst in the NBA in that stretch. The problem starts right when the game tips off — San Antonio’s starting unit has a minus-33.3 net rating in 71 minutes of first quarter action, something Tom Osborne of the Express-News pointed out. Dallas recently put up a 36 spot on the Spurs in the first quarter, and that was pretty much ballgame.
21. Hornets (6-8, LW 22). They remain one of the NBA’s luckiest teams, they have the net rating of a 4-10 team, but Charlotte’s ability to fall behind by double digits and come back has them flirting with the idea of a playoff spot early. Devonte Graham in the starting lineup now helps with those comebacks, as does Malik Monk hitting game winners.
22. Pistons (4-9, LW 25). Detroit has the best offense in the NBA the past couple of weeks, thanks in part to the return of Blake Griffin, but the team still can’t get stops and that’s why they have lost four in a row. The Pistons’ defense has been bottom five in the league the past four games and for the entire season, there is no way a return trip to the playoffs is happening if the Pistons don’t clean up that end of the court.
23. Pelicans (5-9, LW 27). Despite a training room starting to resemble a television drama ER, the Pelicans have won 4-of-6 behind some strong play from Jrue Holiday (22.4 points and 8.2 assists per game in his last five) and J.J. Redick (21.8 points per game in his last five). Things get tough coming up with 4-of-5 on the road, and the one home game is the red-hot Lakers.
24. Bulls (4-10, LW 19). Lauri Markenneen has looked lost and is not taking the step forward everyone expected of him in his third season. He is shooting 36.2% overall and 26.8% from three, both career lows. It’s not just the three ball, Markenneen is taking more shots than ever before at the rim but his hitting just 51.2 percent on those. The Bulls have lost 4-of-5 and look nothing like the playoff team they hoped to be this season.
25. Cavaliers (4-9, LW 20). When you have a young team — particularly a young backcourt such as Collin Sexton and Darius Garland — consistency is not in the cards. The Cavaliers can destroy the Knicks and look good in a one-point loss to Philly, then turn around a week later and get blown out by those same two teams (with an ugly loss to the Heat in between). It can be rough to watch sometimes, but it’s about getting them reps so in a couple of years we see a polished product that is consistent (and wins more).
26. Knicks (4-10, LW 30). New York has the third-worst offense in the league this season in part because they have had the worst half court offense in the league and they play at the 27th slowest pace in the league, so they spend more time in the half court. That and they can’t seem to buy a make in the paint. Despite that, the Knicks have won 2-of-3 and their one loss was a close game to the Hornets (and of their four wins this season, two are against Dallas, it must be a Kristaps Porzingis revenge thing). The bad news: Starting tonight in Philadelphia the schedule is brutal for the next few weeks.
27. Grizzlies (5-9, LW 29). When we talk Grizzlies youth movement we talk Ja Morant and Jaren Jackson Jr. — and those two have shown a lot more chemistry the past week or so — but don’t sleep on Brandon Clarke being part of what is built in Memphis. The first-round pick out of Gonzaga has proven to be a solid role player averaging 12.7 points and 6.1 rebounds a game, plus shooting 44% from three. The Grizzlies aren’t winning much, but they remain a team worth watching.
28. Wizards (3-8, LW 26). The Washington Wizards have the third-best offense in the NBA this season (overall and even when you filter out garbage time like Cleaning the Glass does). Bradley Beal averaging 30.1 points per game and playing like an All-Star is at the heart of that, but Thomas Bryant, Isaiah Thomas, and Rui Hachimura are all pitching in points and balancing the offense as well. If Scott Brooks could just coax a few stops out of this team, well, at least they’d move up these rankings.
29. Hawks (4-9, LW 21). This really shouldn’t be a surprise, but we’ll detail it anyway: When Trae Young is on the court, the Hawks offense scores 108.4 points per 100 possessions, which would have them a little above average in the NBA this season. However, when he sit the Hawks cannot get buckets, averaging a dreadful 89.6 per 100. This team desperately misses John Collins (out with a PED suspension).
30. Warriors (3-12, LW 29). What a world we live in, where a year ago we weren’t sure the Warriors would ever give up the top spot in these rankings, and now their fall to the bottom is complete. The one bright note remains rookie Eric Paschall, who is proving to be surprisingly efficient in isolation sets for the Warriors.