The Bucks and the Lakers have looked like the best team in each conference to start the season, and they remain on top, but surprising Boston and Dallas keep moving up the ladder.
1. Bucks (21-3, Last week No. 1). There are no statement games in December (it’s way too early, teams will evolve by the playoffs), but if there was one it would look a lot like the Bucks 28-point thrashing of the Clippers last Friday. The Bucks have won 15 games in a row and while the Greek Freak gets a lot of credit for that — he is out Wednesday night with a thigh issue — it’s the Bucks’ “protect the paint at all costs” defense that is critical to their success. The Lopez brothers drop back, the long Bucks’ perimeter players lock-and-trail on the P&R, and the result is the Bucks allow the fewest shots in the restricted area in the NBA.
2. Lakers (21-3, LW 2). With LeBron James and Anthony Davis we don’t think of the Lakers as a fast-break team — but they are this season. The Lakers score 18.7 fast break points a game, third in the league. To use the advanced stats, the Lakers start 16 percent of possessions in transition, eighth most in the league, with an insane 130.8 offensive rating on those, third best in the NBA. Los Angeles will try to keep up the pace on a five-game road trip through the East starting Wednesday night in Orlando.
3. Celtics (17-5, LW 8). Gordon Hayward is back in the Boston rotation, a full two weeks ahead of projections. Boston held up without him — they went 9-4 with a +5.9 net rating — but the team’s offense slid back to middle-of-the-pack, it missed his scoring and shot creation. Boston has won four in a row and 6-of-7 but has a challenging week ahead with Indiana, Philadelphia, and Dallas.
4. Mavericks (16-7, LW 4). While the spotlight is always on Luka Doncic (with good reason), Dallas has quietly had a very good bench this season. The Mavericks get and average of 43.4 points per game from their bench players, fifth best in the league. Dallas’ bench is doing it with balance, getting points and quality minutes from players such as Maxi Kieber, Jalen Brunson, Seth Curry, Delon Wright and more. That depth gives coach Rick Carlisle matchup options nightly.
5. Clippers (18-7, LW 3). Montrezl Harrel might be the Sixth Man of the Year (if the vote were taken today), it’s either him or Lou Williams. One key difference between those two is Lou Williams is locked up by the Clippers for this season and the next one (same as Paul George and Kawhi Leonard), but Harrell is an unrestricted free agent next summer in a down year. The man — averaging 19.1 points and 7.8 assists a year — is going to get PAID. The Clippers have his Bird rights and Steve Ballmer can afford the tax, but it’s something to watch come July. Leonard makes his return to Toronto Wednesday night, and there will be nothing but love for him. And a ring.
6. 76ers (18-7, LW 6). Philadelphia is a force at home this season, 13-0 with a lock-down defense and a +12.4 net rating. It’s the best home start for the franchise since the Wilt Chamberlain Sixers started 22-0 back in 1966. The concern is that 5-7 road record with the -1.1 net rating — the best teams, especially in the playoffs, win on the road. It was good to see the dancing, having fun Joel Embiid back on Tuesday night.
7. Rockets (15-8, LW 10). The new strategy on defending James Harden is now everywhere in the league: Teams are doubling him the second he steps over the half-court line, forcing him to pass and daring anyone else to beat them. That worked at first, the Rockets lost three games in a row when it first saw the strategy, but they have since won 4-of-6 (and the two losses were to the Spurs in 2OT and the Kings on a buzzer-beater). Russell Westbrook has averaged 22.2 points, 9.6 rebounds and 9.6 assists a game his last five games, but his lack of a three ball means teams can keep trying this strategy.
8. Heat (18-6, LW 9). Sixth man Goran Dragic has missed the last five games, but the Heat are 4-1 (with a couple of OT wins) because they have such a strong-young core carrying them Bam Adebayo is playing at an All-Star level, Kendrick Nunn is second on the team in scoring and in the middle of the Rookie of the Year race, Duncan Robinson and Tyler Herro just keep knocking down shots. Jimmy Butler brings it all together, but this team is third in the East because of the young players. Great test against the Lakers on Friday night.
9. Raptors (16-7, LW 5). Toronto lost three straight against a tough part of the schedule — Miami, Houston, Philly — and are a concerning 3-7 against teams over .500 (with the Clippers and the return of Kawhi Leonard up for Wednesday night. Pascal Siakam has come back to earth a little bit (we can cool the MVP ballot talk) but is still averaging 22.4 points and 7.8 rebounds a game over his last five, however, he’s shot just 31% from three in that stretch. Toronto has had a few guys out with injuries over the last 10 games but remains in the mix in the East.
10. Pacers (15-9, LW 11). While the addition of Malcolm Brogdon last summer gets all the hype, T.J. Warren has been a quality pick up for their rotation. He’s averaged 18.4 points a game, is spacing the floor with his 39.5% shooting from beyond the arc (on 3.2 attempts a game), and he has generally been solid for them. Indiana has a solid 3-2 road trip but came home to a couple tough games, a tough loss to Paul George and the Clippers, and Wednesday night the Celtics come to town.
11. Nuggets (14-8, LW 7). Losers of 5-of-6 and the reasons is their offense has dropped off a cliff (24th in the NBA over that stretch, and the blowout win over the Knicks makes that look better than it really is). Against the Lakers and Celtics, the Nuggets looked like a team a tier or two below. There have been more strong games from Nikola Jokic but the bench has struggled and Denver has not looked like the threat in the West we thought they would be. Thursday starts a five-game homestand against teams all below .500, it’s a chance for Denver to right the ship.
12. Nets (13-10, LW 14). The Nets get Wilson Chandler — a projected starter before the season — back this weekend from his 25-game PED suspension. Coach Kenny Atkinson said Chandler would be “thrown to the wolves,” so expect him to get some run from Day 1. It also means Iman Shumpert – or someone else, but probably Shumpert — has to be released.
13. Jazz (13-11, LW 13). The Jazz made two big summer signings that were supposed to lift them up to the next level. The Mike Conley signing has just not worked out (and Wednesday night will be his fourth game out with a hamstring injury). Conley is averaging 13.9 points a game (his lowest in nine years), is shooting 36.9% from the field, and has a below-average PER of 12.9. On the flip side, the Bojan Bogdanovic signing has been a stroke of genius, he is giving them 20.6 points a night, shooting 45.3% from three, and has provided a second playmaker next to Donovan Mitchell. Still, the Jazz offense lacks the ball movement of seasons past.
14. Pistons (10-14, LW 15). They have won 4-of-5 with a top-7 offense and defense in the league over that short stretch. Detroit has beat teams a variety of ways: Blake Griffin stepping up and hitting shots (Indiana), or Andre Drummond owning the glass (he is averaging 16.7 rebounds a game, the last guy to average more than that was Dennis Rodman in 1995, or check out the Derrick Rose game winner against the Pelicans.
15. Magic (11-12, LW 18). After missing what will be nine games (he is out Wednesday vs. Los Angeles), Nikola Vucevic is expected to return to the Orlando rotation on Friday vs. Houston. The Orlando offense is 9.1 per 100 possessions better when Vucevic is on the court. The Magic have gone 5-3 without him, including a four-game win streak against the soft part of the schedule. That has changed, the Magic lost to the Bucks Monday, have the Lakers and Rockets next, then head out to the West for four games.
16. Thunder (11-12, LW 19). Oklahoma City has climbed up to the seven seed and is in the mix for a playoff spot in the West. Just don’t think that has changed the long-term plan — this team is rebuilding and Chris Paul, Stephen Adams, Danilo Gallinari, and others are available. Another bright spot for the future in OKC: Shai Gilgeous-Alexander is getting master class in how to be an elite point guard from CP3, sources have said the two have bonded and Paul is in SGA’s ear all the time trying to pass along knowledge.
17. Suns (11-12, LW 16). Phoenix will get Deandre Ayton back next Tuesday (at the Clippers) from his 25-game PED suspension. They could use him. While Aron Baynes has stepped up brilliantly in Ayton’s absence, there has been a lack of depth along the front line. Phoenix is staying afloat because Devin Booker is still lighting teams up: 29 points per game shooting 40.5% from three, with 6 assists a night in his last five games.
18. Timberwolves (10-13, LW 12). Minnesota has dropped five in a row and the reason is their defense has been dreadful — a 124.7 defensive rating those past five games, worst in the NBA over that stretch (and 16.9 per 100 possessions worse than their defense was in November. It was evident against a good Lakers team — Minnesota could score enough to hang around, even against that long and aggressive L.A. defense, but they could not get stops. It caught up with them. Light week, with just the Jazz and Clippers at home.
19. Kings (10-13, LW 20). The Kings have been keeping their heads above water in the playoff race until they get healthy, but that starts soon. Marvin Bagley III is expected to return this week, and in a couple of weeks De’Aaron Fox will come back from his sprained ankle. Sacramento had two of the biggest wins of the week, sweeping the Mavericks and Rockets on back-to-back nights on the road, the second one of those thanks to Nemanja Bjelica (and a defensive lapse from Houston).
20. Trail Blazers (10-15, LW 17). With Rodney Hood now gone for the season due to a torn Achilles, and combined with a disappointing start to the season, no team has seen trade rumors swirl around them like Portland. There is a lot of talk about them trying to bring Kevin Love back to Oregon (where he grew up and played his high school ball), but Love is in the first year of a four-year, $120 million contract, which makes trading him difficult. Landing Danilo Gallinari out Oklahoma City makes more sense financially and going forward, but one way or another look for something to happen.
21. Spurs (9-14, LW 21). Two wins in a row, both in overtime, could be the kind of spark the Spurs need this season. More of the Dejounte Murray we saw against the Kings — the guy with 14 points off the bench and who hit the game-winner (he lost his starting job because of his play, the Spurs need him to play like he’s winning it back). Lonnie Walker broke out against Houston but was back to being ineffective against the Kings, San Antonio needs more of him as a guy who changes games. The Spurs are going to be interesting to watch at the trade deadline, will they be sellers?
22. Hornets (10-16, LW 25). Devonte' Graham has been one of the best stories in the NBA this season. A second-round pick out of Kansas, Graham played in just 46 games for the Hornets last season. This season he is their leading scorer at 19.2 a night, had 29 points on 19 shots to lead the Hornets to a win over the Wizards on Tuesday.
23. Bulls (8-17, LW 22). Chicago has lost three in a row, 6-of-8, and somehow lost twice to Golden State in span of 10 days, second one last Friday. The media reports about player frustration with coach Jim Boylen fit with what I’ve heard floating around the league for a while now, players are not fans. In fact, the only fans seem to be in the Bulls front office, who like Boylen’s old-school, hard-nosed style. But if he’s not winning changes will come.
24. Grizzlies (7-16, LW 24). Ja Morant returned to the lineup Monday night after missing four games with “back spasms,” which popped up after he fell into courtside cameraman. Memphis is second in the league in points scored in the paint, averaging 53.7 a game, and a lot of that is from Morant and the other young stars of the team pushing the ball in transition.
25. Wizards (7-16, LW 23). Rui Hachimura is making an impression. In his last five games, the Japanese national — and there is a media contingent from Japan following him around — is averaging 18.2 points a game. Against Philadelphia last Thursday he may have had his best game as a pro, scoring 27 points on 18 shots, with seven rebounds, and two steals. The concern is that he takes too many midrange shots — 24.6% of his shot attempts come from outside the paint and inside the arc. While he hits a respectable 42.3% of those shots, he needs to extend his range and turn some of those into threes.
26. Hawks (6-18, LW 28). Vince Carter played in his 1,500th regular season NBA game Tuesday night, a joining just four other players ever to do so (Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Robert Parish, John Stockton, and Dirk Nowitzki). Reports have surfaced that Trae Young is frustrated with the Hawks’ losing — which is good. I’d be more concerned if he took it in stride. John Collins’ eventual return will help this team, but it’s young and going to take some time.
27. Pelicans (6-18, LW 26). Zion Williamson is not doing on-court work, almost certainly will not meet the 6-8 week deadline, and it would be a surprise to see him on Christmas Day. Zion is reason for hope, but the No. 1 pick alone is not going to fix the mounting problems in New Orleans. Lonzo Ball’s struggles continue — 38.2% shooting from the field — and he has lost his starting job with the Pelicans.
28. Warriors (5-20 LW 30). Eric Paschall’s run of 13 double-digit scoring games came to an end against Memphis, but the rookie has still had quite a run and is the one bright spot in this Warriors season (that and the draft pick that will be coming their way). Paschall is scoring 16.6 points per game with a PER of 15.4 — right at the league average but good for a rookie. It’s easy to see where he fits in the rotation next year when the Warriors get healthy.
29. Cavaliers (5-18, LW 27). It’s been a rough season for Matthew Dellavedova, he’s down to getting 13.1 minutes a night and is shooting 27.7% when he does get on the court. Then again, it’s been rough everywhere for the Cavaliers, who have lost 7 in a row and 13-of-14 (with a tough stretch coming up, Wednesday against Houston then on the road for three more games.
30. Knicks (4-20, LW 29). Lots of Masai Ujiri as the next team president rumors flying around — how interested he is in the job depends upon who you talk to around the league — but those rumors should mean something bigger for Knicks fans: James Dolan seems finally ready to turn over total control of his basketball operations to a competent individual (Ujiri or someone else). If Dolan does that, then actually sticks with a plan for three or four years and stops looking to shortcut the process, the Knicks could turn this thing around.